Art and science have more in common than you might think. Both artists and scientists need to look closely and notice features like shapes, colors and textures to better understand what they’re studying.

Find out more below about the connection between art and science. Then take a quiz see if you can use elements of art to identify features on Earth’s surface.

› Educators, explore how to turn this into a lesson for students

A striking teal Mississippi River meanders through orange blocks of land in this colorized image from the Landsat 7 satellite

1. Learn how art and science are alike

Geologists are scientists who study the materials that make up Earth and other worlds and the processes that formed them. Geologists look closely at shapes, colors and textures to do their jobs. For example, a circular shape on Earth’s surface can be a sign that a meteor once impacted that spot, forming a crater. A straight line might be an earthquake fault. A squiggly line could be a meandering river channel.

Scientists see these features not just from the ground, but also in images taken from space – a process called remote sensing. These images are taken with special instruments from high above Earth or sometimes by robots on the surface of other worlds. They reveal information we may not be able to see from the ground.


About the image: Small, blocky shapes of towns, fields and pastures surround the graceful swirls and whorls of the Mississippi River in this colorized image taken by the Landsat 7 Earth satellite in 2003. Image credit: USGS/NASA/Landsat 7

A visual guide to the elements of art and their geology matches

2. Learn how to study planets using art

The elements of art are what artists use to understand visual information. They can also help us understand the geology of Earth and other planetary bodies, including moons and asteroids!

Review this list of the elements of art and their geology matches to help you with the quiz in Step 3.

Elements of Art and Their Geology Matches

  • Circle – On images of planets, circles are often a sign of an impact feature, also known as a crater. The size, shape, ejecta blanket (stuff blasted out, or ejected, by the impact) and number of craters give important clues about the history of a planetary body. While all bodies in the solar system have been impacted many times in their history, you can see more craters on the Moon than on Earth. Can you guess why this is?
  • Blobs – Organic shapes, also called blobs, can be interpreted in two ways. Many times, blobs are a sign of volcanic processes and lava flows. Blobby shapes can also indicate existing bodies of liquid, like rivers and seas, ancient bodies of liquid that left dried imprints, or chunks of sea ice on Earth.
  • Straight lines – When you see straight lines on a planetary body, it’s usually a sign of tectonic activity (earthquakes on our planet), including faults, ridges, cracks and mountains.
  • Squiggly lines – Squiggly lines on the surface often tell us that forces of erosion are at work, from things like liquid and wind. For Earth, think of sand dunes or ripples in a lake.
  • Color – Scientists often add exaggerated or special colors to images taken by spacecraft to highlight differences that the human eye cannot see. These colors might show variations in the shape of the land, what it’s made up of, or even differences in gravity. Visible light is the only portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can see with their eyes. But there’s a lot more to see in infrared, radio waves, X-rays, ultraviolet light and more. So scientists also look at images of planetary bodies in these other wavelengths of light. Spacecraft have special instruments and cameras that can capture these images.
  • Value – Value is the contrast of light and dark. In science, this is called albedo and it’s the measure of how reflective a surface is. Think of snow vs. dirt. Which reflects more light? Texture – We can’t feel textures on images, but we can imagine what they might feel like by looking at them. This is called implied texture. Images of Earth and other worlds are filled with these textures, which provide clues about the geologic processes that took place over their lifetimes.
  • Texture – We can’t feel textures on images, but we can imagine what they might feel like by looking at them. This is called implied texture. Images of Earth and other worlds are filled with these textures, which provide clues about the geologic processes that took place over their lifetimes.
This satellite image of the intricate branches of the Lena River in Russia is an explosion of colors

3. Take the quiz

Take the quiz below to see if you can use the elements of art listed above to identify features on Earth’s surface.

After you finish the quiz, click "Submit" and then "View Accuracy" to get a record of how many questions you got right. You can also play again!


About the image:
This image from the Landsat 7 Earth satellite shows the Lena River in Russia, one of the largest rivers in the world, which is some 2,800 miles (4,400 kilometers) long. Image credit: USGS/NASA/Landsat 7
Collage of planetary artwork

4. Get creative!

Look at more images of Earth from Space. Then create your own artwork inspired by what you see! You don't have to make an exact copy. Choose a section of the image you like and make it your own. Use your own color scheme to bring out interesting details in your artwork. Try creating a collage with found objects. Use a unique material to make your art. It's all up to you! 
Oranges, reds and tans swirl in all directions in this infrared image of the Gulf Stream

5. Explore more


About the image: This image shows a small portion of the Gulf Stream as it appears in infrared light. The image was created with data from the Thermal Infrared Sensor on the Landsat 8 Earth satellite. Image credit: NASA/USGS/Landsat 8