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Outdoor Art For All Ages: A Yosemite Mariposa Guide

Making art is about freedom. The freedom to express yourself, the freedom to creatively seek, interpret and share inspiration. While many of us think of art as an indoor activity — be it in the classroom or studio — there’s another approach.  A wide-open, fresh-aired, room-to-roam sort of approach. It’s called outdoor art.

Outdoor art holds untold possibilities in Yosemite Mariposa. Whether you’re setting up your easel in Tuolumne Meadows to capture the sunset reflecting off a meandering river or journaling atop a boulder at the base of Vernal Falls, whether it’s hitting the trail at midnight with your headlamp and tripod to photograph the elusive Yosemite moonbow or drawing wildflowers with your kids along the Hite Cove Trail, there’s a world of outdoor inspiration awaiting artists of all ages.

Outdoor Art Projects For Kids

These art project ideas will help get the kids engaged in learning about the natural world around them with fun and family-friendly ideas.

As parents (and former children!) we all recognize the good that comes from running free outdoors. Here in Yosemite Mariposa — with its vast network of meadows, rivers, lakes and forests — kids can focus that energy into trailblazing projects set in a resource-rich artscape a world apart from the confines of home. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Cloud Creatures

First, have kids sketch the outline of a cloud overhead (no two clouds are alike!), then let their imaginations run wild. Have them continue drawing to generate a unique creature from the outline, with extra credit for writing a matching story back at camp or in your hotel. Summers in the Sierra Nevada are known for billowing clouds so year-round fun awaits!

Bug Photo Collage

The kids are “bugging” you for screen time out on the trail?  We have a solution —  the Bug Photo Collage. Equal parts scavenger hunt and photoshoot, this is a great way for kids to discover the thousands of Yosemite Mariposa insects that contribute to this diverse Sierra ecosystem.  Butterflies (our namesake: Mariposa), ants, scorpions, tarantulas and spiders…we’ve got ’em all!  Once you’ve captured the images of your favorite creepy crawlies, lay them out in a collage on Instagram and share with your friends and family. Extra credit (and maybe ice cream in town!) for spotting the endangered VELB, or Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle.

Sun Print Picnic

Sun prints are made by placing items found in nature — leaves, pine cones, rocks, etc. — on paper and letting the sun work its magic. Artistic placement is key, and you can use reactive Sunprint paper (much faster, but requires rinsing in water) or dark construction paper (cheaper, but takes several hours to work) to create this shapely, shadowy image. So pack your favorite snacks/boxed lunch to go), find a spot along the trail to lay out your blanket and create your solar masterpiece. Once you get home (or to your hotel), iron the prints between two cotton napkins, and voila — you have a work of art suitable for framing. Cutting them into strips makes cool bookmarks, too. Pro tip: pack your food in a container big enough to rinse the sunprint, and do the project first letting the paper dry while you enjoy your lunch.

Sounds of Yosemite Collage

Another way to blend screen time with (sound) art, this project uses your phone to record the amazing variety of sounds around you in Yosemite Mariposa.  Spring snowmelt gushing down the Merced River? Check. Wind whipping through the age-old branches of a Giant Sequoia in Mariposa Grove? Got it. The high-pitched call of a Yellow-rumped Warbler and the boom of water at the base of 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls? Done and done. Maybe even throw in some giggles of your family chatting while you hike.  Once you’ve recorded the sounds, you can combine the individual files on your computer or by using one of many free sound editing apps widely available for Android and iOS. Pro tip: For a higher quality recording, make sure your app records .wav files.

If I Were A Tree

No outdoor artscape would be complete without a little poetry, so let the kids look (way!) up to the many species of Yosemite Mariposa trees for lyrical inspiration. Have them pick their favorite, whether it’s a canyon live oak in the foothills of Mariposa, an incense-cedar from the mid-elevation of Hetch Hetchy, or a vanilla-scented Jeffrey pine at higher elevations such as Glacier Point. Next, have your kids draw the tree and write a 5-line poem, each line beginning with “If I Were A Tree, I Would ___________ .” Pro tip: Try to help your kids identify their tree using one of the many print or online guides, then write the date and location on your piece for an evergreen memento of your amazing Yosemite Mariposa adventure!

* Note: We know it’s tempting, but remember it’s illegal to remove flora & fauna from our National Parks & Forests. For all outdoor art projects, please tread lightly and place anything you’ve picked up back where you found it.  This a useful lesson for kids that will make them better stewards of the land when they grow up.

Outdoor Art For Adults

With its iconic landscapes and energized by curious travelers from all over the world, Yosemite Mariposa is the perfect setting for inspired art. From painting to journaling to photography, there are countless paths to creative outdoor expression.

Plein-Air Painting

Simply put, plein-air means painting outdoors. This method enables artists to immerse themselves in the landscape, better suited for capturing the changes of weather and light. It’s not uncommon to see artists perched happily in front of their easels as they capture the Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley or the many moods of El Capitan. From the plein-air classes offered by the Yosemite Conservancy (scheduled dates or custom group/individual) to outings sponsored by artist collectives such as Yosemite Western Artists, there are plenty of ways to fill your canvas with the magical, year-round colors of Yosemite Mariposa. After you’ve completed your masterpiece, hang it proudly over the mantle, or even try your luck on Etsy. For tips on painting Yosemite, click here to read an article from Outdoor Painter or check out Plein Air magazine.

Photography

It doesn’t take an expensive camera and an experienced eye to get great photo in Yosemite. The beautiful park lends itself to incredible photography.

Ansel Adams, the renowned Yosemite photographer, said “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Meaning?  That every visitor brings their own energy and vision to the shots they snap. Here in Yosemite Mariposa photography is unsurpassed. From the mystical light of the high country to the glowing granite sunsets of the Valley, from the rustic barns of the foothills to the ever-present birdlife, the images almost frame themselves.

For a unique “only-in-Yosemite” experience, join the passionate crew of nighttime photographers in search of the ephemeral Yosemite Moonbow. Created by the rays of the moon instead of the sun, a moonbow occurs when light refracts in water droplets such as those rising from the thunderous mist at the base of Yosemite National Park’s unrivaled waterfalls. John Muir compared the moonbow to a religious experience, describing it as a “grand arc of color, glowing in mild, shapely beauty.”

If following in the footsteps of greatness is your thing, the Ansel Adams Gallery offers a range of outdoor photography classes, workshops and even free Camera Walks. For those who want to take it up an f-stop, private photography excursions can be arranged.

Journaling/Sketching

This artistic pursuit is affordable and available any time/place for adults and kids alike. It allows lone wolves, loving couples and entire families to explore every corner of Yosemite Mariposa, seeking inspiration from its spectacular surroundings while looking outward — and just as often — inward.  Whether you’re doing a free write atop 13,053 foot Mount Dana (tough hike, but no ropes needed!), writing a poem about the countless stars of the Sierras or sketching the reflection of Half Dome in Mirror Lake, one thing remains constant — the infinite wonder of our natural world. Buy a top-notch sketchbook, unplug and get a 360-degree view!

Museums & Galleries

While technically not “outdoors,” it’s always nice to get some deep knowledge ahead of your local art adventure, or maybe even buy a professional piece for the walls back home.

Yosemite Museum

The Yosemite Museum covers all aspects Yosemite history, including early landscape paintings by Thomas Hill, Thomas Moran, William Keith, and Albert Bierstadt; the first sketches of Yosemite by Thomas A. Ayres; and Native-American baskets by Lucy Telles and Maggie Howard. Photography is well-represented, too  — the museum holds over 100,000 historic Yosemite photographs.

The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley is home to incredible photographs and works of art.

Ansel Adams Gallery

Founded in 1902, the Ansel Adams Gallery features a unique variety of fine arts and handcrafts, not to mention an extraordinary collection of Ansel Adams’ original photographs and exclusive editions. Located in Yosemite Valley, the historic business has been run continuously by the Adams family since its inception.

Mariposa Galleries

Home to a wide selection of arts and crafts, Mariposa’s Chocolate Soup is a great shop to explore right next to Mariposa’s quiet park.

Run by the Mariposa Arts Council, the Treetop Gallery offers curated exhibitions of local artists. Open seven days a week, the Treetop is located upstairs from Chocolate Soup, a beloved vintage/crafts/home goods shop in downtown Mariposa. RummStudio is the home to the works of Faith Rumm and other local artists, including plein air pieces painted in the surrounding Sierra mountains. The Sierra Artists’ Gallery is a local cooperative featuring paintings, objects d’art and annual events such as the Gold Rush Art Show.

Mariposa Museum and History Center

The Mariposa Museum & History Center is home to not only the incredible artifacts that tell the county’s history but also some incredible “working art” that the Native Americans that call the region home have used for thousands of years.

Mariposa is home to what the Smithsonian has dubbed “the best museum of its size west of the Mississippi”. There you can learn about the region’s rich Gold Rush history, the tourism industry that grew around Yosemite, and of course, the Native American history of the region. A great way to experience the rich history of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe is through the baskets on display at the Mariposa Museum and History Center. These beautifully crafted pieces of functional art date back hundreds of years and the different shaped and sized baskets all had different uses from storage to cooking to child carrying.

 

For a full list of local galleries and resources check the Art & Culture page.

(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)

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