Exploring the Natural World with Art


Through the centuries, artists have devised many ways to depict the earth’s natural wonders, whether concrete natural formations like mountain, deserts, or lakes or intangible phenomena like lightning and wind. The animals, landscapes, climates, and weather systems they represent help them tell stories about human interactions with nature. In their artworks, nature may appear as a source of food or commerce, a character in a dramatic narrative, or a subject of awe.

Investigating artistic representations of the natural world encourages students to refine their observation and description skills, to consider the importance of nature as a subject of study in diverse academic subjects, and to reflect on the powerful effects that the natural world has on our lives.

In the sections below are resources for you to explore with your students. The materials focus on two works of art from the Ackland’s collection — one focusing on weather conditions and the other on animal habitats. Although most content may be appropriate for grades 3-5, the materials can be modified per grade level.

A painting of a wide river with trees and snow-capped mountains in the background


Watch the videos below and discover how two artists were inspired by their natural surroundings in landscapes across the United States.

View these two artworks in the Ackland’s online collection database:

Georges Schreiber, Spring Storm, published 1943

Albert Bierstadt, Wind River, Nebraska Territory, 1861

Making Connections

After watching the videos above, click the following buttons to engage in writing and drawing activities that extend your art experience. All materials are printable PDFs and can be done at school or at home. Consider using the images below or other artworks from the Ackland’s collection to complete the activities.

Explore the Natural World in Art

Roe Deer in the Snow
Gustave Courbet, 1868
Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877, Roe Deer in the Snow (detail), 1868, oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 39 1/8 in. (81 x 99.4 cm). Ackland Fund Conservation treatment for this painting, completed in 2008, was made possible by the generous support of Carol McNeel, 62.1.1. *Click on image to see uncropped.*
Deep Sea Larder
Gordon Grant, published 1943
Gordon Grant, American, 1875-1962, Deep Sea Larder, published 1943, lithograph, image: 9 3/8 × 13 in. (23.8 × 33 cm). Gift of W. P. Jacocks, 58.2.531.
River Landscape with Fishermen
Salomon van Ruysdael, River Landscape with Fishermen
van Ruysdael, Salomon, c. 1602-1670, River Landscape with Fishermen, 1643, oil on board, 41 13/16 x 29 9/16 x 2 1/2 in. (106.2 x 75.1 x 6.4 cm). The William A. Whitaker Foundation Art Fund, 2002.15.
Braving Heavy Snow
Taguchi Beisaku, 1895
Taguchi Beisaku, Japanese, 1864-1903, Braving Heavy Snow: A Japanese Army Officer Scouts Enemy Territory (detail), color woodblock print triptych, sheet (a): 14 × 9 3/8 in. (35.6 × 23.8 cm) sheet (b): 14 × 18 1/4 in. (35.6 × 46.4 cm). The Gene and Susan Roberts Collection, 2014.40.55ab. *Click on image to see uncropped*
Virgin River, Utah
Thomas Moran, 1908
Thomas Moran, American, 1837-1926, Virgin River, Utah (detail), oil on canvas, frame: 29 9/16 × 39 9/16 × 2 13/16 in. (75.1 × 100.5 × 7.1 cm). The Hugh A. McAllister, Jr., M.D. Collection, 2019.15.22. *Click on image to see uncropped*
Woman in a Windstorm
Unidentified Artist, c. 1780
Unidentified Artist, c. 1780, Woman in a Windstorm (detail), opaque watercolor and gold, 9 3/16 x 5 7/8 in. (23.3 x 14.9 cm). Gift of Clara T. and Gilbert J. Yager, 82.20.1. *Click on image to see uncropped*


Combine your scientific skills of exploration and experimentation with creativity and imagination in the art making activity “Found Objects: Turning Nature Into Art.” Click the button below to begin.



Explore two interactive web resources for children ages 7-14 focusing on habitats, ecosystems, and weather. Both resources include age-appropriate videos, outdoor activities for children and families, and classroom lesson plans.

Plum Landing, a PBS-WGBH environmental education project, engages elementary school students and their families in active science learning. These resources explore ecosystems around the world and encourage kids to investigate nature in their own neighborhoods, developing both content knowledge and science process skills.

Scholastic’s Study Jams! Weather and Climate web resources highlight thirteen videos that help students understand content such as seasons, clouds and precipitation, severe storms, oceans, tides, and the earth’s atmosphere.


Take a deep dive into web resources that concentrate on natural phenomena such as weather, climate, habitats and ecosystems. Resources include grade 3- 5 appropriate videos, lesson plans, and links to data specific tools and maps (i.e. weather maps and forecasts).

Discover additional web resources highlighting the habitats and landscapes within Wyoming’s Wind River Range including the Wind River Visitor’s Council, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, and an article about the 1859 Colonel Frederick Lander Expedition to the Wind River area.

Delve into the PBS Science Learning Media resource to find videos, lesson plans, and interactive tools highlighting Earth (weather and climate) and Life (Ecology) Sciences. Filter content through grade level and type of material (video, audio, image, and interactive lesson plan).

Explore educator resources developed by the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These comprehensive K12 resources include weather activities, science-based lesson plans, and videos for teachers and parents. Elementary school grade appropriate videos include monitoring weather on Earth and exploring marine life and science.

The National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) compiled content specific data resources for educators and students to use in the classroom. Topics include Hydrology/Glaciers, Ocean, Weather, Climate, Ecology and Resources & Energy.

The National Geographic Resource Library offers educators lesson plan ideas, videos, audio, and discipline specific curriculum connections. Search lesson plan topics by grade level, content type, and subject (i.e. Earth Sciences and Geography).

Interested in additional art and Earth science connections? View essays and videos presented on the Khan Academy website focusing on Land Art or earth art — art that is made by sculpting the land itself or creating forms in the landscape using natural materials — and the artists (i.e. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and James Turrell) associated with this art form.

Consider exploring these twentieth and twenty-first century artists who use the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms, and sculpture.

Patrick Dougherty
Olafur Eliasson
Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson
Richard Long
Maya Lin
James Turrell

In addition to visiting the Ackland Art Museum, we encourage you to explore the programs and resources from the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center also located at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

North Carolina Essential Standards: English Language Arts

W.3.1 – W5.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.

W.3.2 – W.5.1 Write informative /explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

W.3.3 – W.5.1 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

North Carolina Essential Standards: Science

4.L.1 Understand the effects of environmental changes, adaptations and behaviors that enable animals (including humans) to survive in changing habitats.

5.E.1.1 Compare daily and seasonal changes in weather conditions (including wind speed and direction, precipitation, and temperature) and patterns.

5.E.1.2 Predict upcoming weather events from weather data collected through observation and measurements.

5.L.2 Understand the interdependence of plants and animals with their ecosystem.

North Carolina Essential Standards: Visual Art

3.V.1 – 5.V.1 Use the language of visual arts to communicate effectively.

3.V.2 – 5.V.2 Apply creative and critical thinking skills to artistic expression.

3.CX.1 – 5.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts.

3.CX.2.2 – 5.CX.2.2 Understand how to use information learned in other disciplines, such as math, science, language arts, social studies, and other arts in visual arts.

Image credit: Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902, Wind River, Nebraska Territory, 1861, oil on board, 9 × 12 3/4 in. (22.9 × 32.4 cm). The Hugh A. McAllister, Jr., M.D. Collection, 2019.15.2