The forgotten art of astronomical sketching

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, March 2, 2007
David J. Eicher

Back in the day, I would go out to a cornfield astride the neighborhood where I grew up with my 8-inch scope, my dog Oscar, a box of cookies, a star atlas, and a pad of paper. We would explore the sky all night long, uncovering deep-sky objects that, it seemed, no one had ever heard of. In those mid and late 1970s, easy astrophotography and CCD imaging were not yet part of the vocabulary of amateur astronomers.

What was the cutting edge of "discovery" then? By taking out a pad of white paper, circles carefully pre-drawn, you could choose your favorite new objects and draw a pencil sketch of them. This exercise, which normally took from 5 minutes to half an hour per object (depending on the complexity of what you were seeing), accomplished several things. First, it created a record of what you actually can see at the eyepiece. Marvelous as they are, astrophotos show so much faint detail and fantastic color, the eye can't see that they bear little resemblance to the human experience of observing at the telescope. Second, it allows you to create a log of your observations. Looking back on what you observed 1 or 5 or 10 years ago can really be fun. Third, it makes you a better observer: It sharpens your eye because you're forced to look at and document every little critical detail.

All you need to sketch objects at the eyepiece is a good sky, a telescope or binoculars, a few supplies, and patience. Get good white paper, and draw circles representing the scope's field of view at least three inches in diameter. That gives you enough room to work on details. Use a very dim red light to illuminate the paper so you don't ruin your dark-adaption during the sketching process.

Start by staring into the eyepiece and transferring what you see, slowly, onto the paper. You're going to transfer a geometric image of what you see onto the paper. Study the star patterns in the field of view thoroughly. Start by placing the brightest stars you see into the field and, judging distances and relationships, fill in the fainter stars. Then add pencil graphite by gently rubbing it onto the paper, and then smearing it with a finger (dry or slightly wet), to represent the faint light of a nebula or galaxy. The Eberhard Faber Ebony pencil works best for this and is available at art and craft stores.

Finally, manipulate the nebula by further smearing, erasing, adding, etc., to approximate the view you see. It takes a little practice but is the best way to create your own personalized waltz with the cosmos.

If you're willing to copy your sketches (or maybe just one or two), send them to us and we'll see if we can publish a gallery of Astronomy reader contributions.

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