How Expressions of the Natural World Spark Joy
By Chelsea Vincent
When you think about Earth Day, you think about celebrating the biodiversity of the planet, from planting a tree or volunteering to perhaps just getting outside for a nice hike. You feel the sun on your cheeks, smile at others toting reusable or upcycled treasures, and muse, “ah, how nice it is to call earth home.”
"From cavemen to Parisiens, artists have used the natural world as subject material...for as long as we can trace our history as a species."
If you think about it, artists have been drawing in caves, painting en plein air (aka, outdoors), and using nature for subject matter for thousands of years. From cavemen to Parisiens, artists have used the natural world as subject material – and often, as the source of painting and drawing materials themselves – for as long as we can trace our history as a species.
In fact, many of our most beloved and famous artists felt passionately about nature. According to the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam, “Vincent van Gogh saw nature and art as inseparably linked.” There are even museums, like Britain’s Nature in Art, which are dedicated entirely to nature-inspired works of art.
As audiences and appreciators of art, we’re often drawn to nature-inspired art, an obvious design and decorating trend this year. But why? What about flowers, waves, and mountains makes the sort of subject matter that persists in our minds?
Nature Served Our Childhood Learning & Happiness
There’s a good chance that, when you were a little kid, you spent some time drawing frogs, butterflies, waves, or other creatures and plants you saw outside. The act of creating that art enabled you to learn the names and shapes animals, insects, and plants took, and it made you feel more connected to the wild.
"We perhaps associate nature-inspired art with our own inner artists, as well as feelings of being content."
When you were young, you also spent more time just being outside – and usually, playing – which helped you feel happier. Your vitamin D was much closer to optimal, and you experienced reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone), thanks to simply being out in nature.
It stands to reason, therefore, that we perhaps associate nature-inspired art with our own inner artists, as well as feelings of being content. Know that feeling you get when you see a photo of you with a best friend, or from a favorite family vacation? It’s sort of the same, when you see a piece of art that centers around where we both learned and felt happy as children.
We Observe Nature and Art in Similar Ways
There’s also a bit of crossover in how we process both nature and art. Whether we’re looking at a piece in an art gallery or observing the sky in a thunderstorm, we tend to look for dynamic patterns, colors, qualities of light, and textures. We notice the soft, fuzzy feel of a leaf, just like we notice the peaks and textures found in mixed-media artwork.
When we see nature-inspired art, we appreciate the subconscious recognition of patterns and shapes we note in the world around us. And just like when we’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon “IRL” and feel like part of something bigger, seeing a painting or a photograph of the same place reminds us during daily life that there’s more to life than tile floors and fluorescent lighting.
Maybe it’s been years since you’ve been to Hawaii, but seeing a painting of palm trees can take you back to the fact that you’re part of a broader world than your nine-to-five.
Seeing Nature in Art Can Reduce Pain
As if harkening back to our childhood days wasn’t enough of a smile-inducing idea, there’s also evidence that viewing nature in artwork can reduce pain. Yep, you read that right.
According to a 2003 study, experiencing nature via sights or sounds can reduce pain in the body. For this study in particular, researchers found that patients who were provided with nature scene murals and sounds were able to endure a medical procedure with less pain than others. And if seeing art can reduce physical pain, you can bet it does the same thing for the mind.
So this Earth Day, as we celebrate our wondrous planet, let us also take note of how we can keep that connection strong throughout the year. Whether indoors or out, the power of nature is undeniable, and art can serve as a beautiful conduit to keep us rooted in our natural world.