Presentation by Patrice Fay at our January meeting.
My journey with astronomical sketching begins about 23 years ago, when I began working for the Texas Tech University Physics Department, operating the On-Campus Observatory. In order to become better at identifying night sky objects for the students and visitors, especially fainter objects, through the telescope eyepiece, a friend and physics professor suggested I try astronomical sketching. He noted that this would help me increase my “visual vocabulary” – the idea that we become familiar with shapes and concepts through the seeing of them. We can increase our understanding of something by practicing drawing what we see. Essentially, I would get better at finding things in the eye piece by sketching the object. By taking the time to really “see” and understand what I was seeing through sketching, I would become a better astronomer.
Benefits of sketching
This quote from an anonymous French book collector explains another facet of sketching astronomical objects:
“Owning a book puts it in your possession, but only reading a book makes it yours.” – Anonymous French book collector, 1851
When you look through the eyepiece at an object, or take a picture of it, it is like you are just owning the book, buying it without opening it. Once you have taken the time to sketch the object, to see it, and put to paper what your eyes have seen, and recorded with your hands what your mind has interpreted, then you have really made the object yours. You have taken the time to do more than just add the object to your collection, you have truly made it yours.
Another way to look at astronomical sketching is from this quote from Edmund Wilson, American writer and literary critic:
“No two persons read the same book.”
By it, Wilson meant that each person has slightly different perceptions. Each person will see each object slightly differently. You might see a detail that someone else may not have seen. Everyone’s eye sees color a little differently, so you might see a nebula as slightly more blue and someone else might see it as slightly more purple.
Many books and articles have been written on the subject of astronomical sketching. There is even a forum about the subject at the Cloudy Nights Forum (https://www.cloudynights.com/forum/81-sketching/) and they have a monthly contest running right now for astronomers to submit astronomy sketches. I have included a list of resources at the end of this article.
History of Astronomical Sketching
The history of astronomical sketching goes far back into human history. Before there was astrophotography, the only way to record what was in the night sky with any detail was to draw or sketch it. Some examples include the ancient Chinese recordings of Halley’s Comet from the Silk Atlas of Comets in the Hunan Provincial Museum (Figure 1) and Figure 2.
Figure 8 comparisons of Eta Carina: detailed drawing of η Carinae (then called η Argus) from telescopic observations by Francis Abbott from Tasmania in 1871; an early astronomical photograph taken by Henry Russell from Sydney Observatory in 1891; long exposure photograph of the Carina Nebula along with NGC 3324 by Harel Boren, May 13-14, 2013.
How to do Astronomical Sketching
- Large roll of tape
- Paper (black or white)
- White pastel pencils for black paper, HB pencils for white paper
- Erasers (pink, white or grey)
- Smudgers, stumps, cotton swabs
- Pencil sharpener
- Sand paper for sharpening pencils
- Clip board
- Red flashlight (headlamp works best to keep your hands free)
- Telescope or binoculars
When I initially began sketching, I began with white paper and black pencils. I used various HB style pencils as I knew these would provide the right amount of hardness without being too messy or smudging when I didn’t want them too. After drawing in this manner for about 2 years, I decided to move to black paper and white/pastel colored pencils to create a more realistic representation of the night sky. I use metallic pens to write the information about the object and to draw the outer circle of the eyepiece (see steps below).
- Begin with low magnification drawing and then move to high magnification drawing. Use the tape to draw the “eyepiece” outer edge on your piece of paper – see picture.
- For objects like clusters and nebulas, start your drawing with the brighter anchor stars in the field of view. Next, add in fainter stars. Be careful to note the arrangement and placement of these. Then add even fainter stars. Now, turn your attention to your main object. How is it shaped? Use the smudgers, stumps and cotton swabs to get that faint wispy look for galaxies, nebulae and the moon – see pictures. You can also use the erasers for the same smudging effect.
- Label your sketch with object name, date, observing location, scope type, magnification, cardinal directions, humidity, weather, seeing, etc.
- Some people like to create a little pile of “pencil savings” and load up a brush or their cotton swab and draw with this. This method works great for nebulae and large objects like the moon.
Some questions from my recent presentation on this topic:
- Am I influenced by astronomical photos of objects I have seen? Only in that I know there is color in the objects due to the astronomical photos, however our eyes are so much less sensitive to color that we see the object as more grey and “pastel” in color. Also, I am familiar with the general shape of the object from the astronomical photo, however, I always try to draw what I see, and “forget” what I may have seen in any astronomical photo.
- Which do I prefer, draw on white paper with black pencil and scan and invert it, or draw on black paper with white pencils? Black paper with white pencils, as it means one less step to the process.
- How do you do the sketch? How do you hold the paper, pencil, flashlight, etc? Wear a headlamp with a red light in it so you can use both hands to hold your clip board and sketch pad and pencil
- What about a line of people waiting at the eyepiece? You definitely want to be the last person at the eyepiece so, if you can, go last so you can take your time.
- Do you always draw the “eyepiece” with the roll of tape? No, you can do sketches that take a wider field of view, on the whole piece of paper, and use no “eyepiece” – see the picture of the Zodiacal light from March 25, 1998 and the Fornax Galaxy Cluster from March 6, 2010.
Sketching can really help you gain a deeper understanding of what you are seeing through the telescope, or with your unaided eye. It will give you a greater appreciation of astronomy and what you see in astrophotography. It has a long history and comes from a deep tradition of humans recording the sky. Ultimately, sketching is for you and your own benefit, to deepen your understanding and knowledge. Remember, have fun, enjoy your sketching of the night sky and keep looking up.