Saturday, 26 January 2019

Getting Started with Lunar Sketching

Lunar Sketching

I am always totally captivated by crater shadows on the Moon and they are one of my favourite subjects to sketch. If you have never done any astronomy sketching before, it can be a daunting prospect. But don’t worry! It’s really not that difficult to get started and produce some great results. I have done several lunar and solar sketching workshops and even people who have never done any art before created stunning sketches just by following some basic steps. In this blog I will talk you through how to get started with sketching the Moon by explaining how I created the sketch below. This blog accompanies my You Tube video where I explain what I’m using and includes a timelapse video of me completing the sketch. 

To view that video click here:

The Flickr version of the video is here:

It’s up to you whether you prefer to sketch on white paper with pencils or if you would rather use black paper and pastel/charcoal pencils. I enjoy both, but you can get such a striking result using black paper, so that is now my material of choice. I just buy black paper – it doesn’t need to be anything fancy. If it has too much texture it will be difficult to get fine detail into your work with pastels. Do keep in mind that pencil sketches won't dull like your pastel sketch will.

To begin, chose a photo that has lots of really well defined regions of light and shadow. The photo below was taken with the Liverpool Telescope which is a 2 metre robotic telescope in La Palma. Images taken through the National School’s Observatory access to this telescope are all available to use for educational purposes. I chose this photo because it is one of my favourite lunar regions and it has some lovely crater shadows. I downloaded the image and processed it first.

To begin, chose which part of the image you are going to sketch. You don’t have to draw the entire thing, so don’t panic if you feel a bit overwhelmed! Just pick your favourite part of the image, zoom in on it and sketch that.  I start my sketches by very lightly outlining the regions I’m drawing. If it’s a full disc image you’re working from then draw a circle first. 

In this instance, the craters are close to the terminator, so first, I very lightly marked out where the boundary was between the illuminated and non-illuminated sides, taking into account the crater morphology along the terminator. Then I lightly marked out the outlines of the craters. If you think of your image as a clock face, it will help you with placement of the features. You can also draw out a grid pattern on a clear acetate sheet and lay it over the photo. Then you can tackle one small square at a time. Once I’d finished with some basic outlining, I lightly shaded all of the illuminated side with white pastel pencil and blended it into the paper using cotton wool to create a light grey base colour.

Once I had a grey base, I began to mark out the regions which were very black, like the shadows on the crater floors. Alongside this, I also began to mark out the areas which were the brightest white. It helps to view the lunar surface with an abstract eye, and focus on just the shapes that the light and shade are making. Always keep in the back of your mind where the light source is coming from that is creating the shadows. I constantly switch between white and black pencil when I’m doing this step. Once I had the white and black areas marked out, I filled them in.

Now the rest of your sketch is about figuring out all the shades of grey in between the white and black. I work on small areas at a time, zooming in on the picture if I need to. But remember to zoom out again before moving on the next bit or else your scale will completely wrong in the rest of your sketch! I find blending with cotton buds really useful for this step. I usually have a couple for blending lighter shades and a couple for blending darker shades. 

When was happy with the fine detail around the craters, I moved onto the flatter surface regions.  Once you’ve blended a few times, there will be a lot of pastel colour on the cotton buds, so you can use them to mark out and blend out differences in colour on the surface. Then I added the finishing touches.

There have been many times when I was part way through a sketch where I’ve thought it was going badly and I wasn’t at all happy with the results I was getting. The best thing to do in this situation is to walk away for a few minutes and come back to it with fresh eyes. You will be amazed at how different your opinion can be just by viewing the sketch from a different angle. Also try taking a photo of it and look at it on the back of the camera. It’s amazing how different it will look. A few hours after I had filmed the timelapse video, I looked at my sketch again and realised that there were several small details I’d completely missed, so I took ten minutes to add them in and photograph the sketch again. So the completed sketch here is slightly different from the version in the You Tube video.

What I find interesting in my sketching workshops is how everybody can be sketching the same crater, yet every single sketch looks different. You can see this in the collage photo below which shows the results from a class of year 10 pupils at a local high school. None of them had ever done astronomy sketching before but the results were fantastic! No two people will ever sketch something in exactly the same way; your sketch will be your own unique style. So don’t compare your sketch with those produced by other people. 

If you have done your sketch with pastels, it's important that you keep it in a clear plastic folder to prevent it from getting ruined. You can fix pastel artwork with fixing spray or hairspray, but I've never yet found one that doesn't spoil my picture. As soon as I finish a sketch, I photograph it. I then put my original artwork into a folder and try not to get them out. I never take my folder of originals out of the house! I usually order printed copies of the photograph of the sketch and keep those in a separate folder which I take to talks with me. Pencil sketches will be fine to keep without any fixing.
In addition to recording your astronomical observations, astronomy sketching is actually a lovely art form in its own right. I have produced sketches of the Moon as it looked on a date that has meaning to a loved one, framed it and given it as a gift. I also paint astronomy inspired designs onto tote bags, and have even painted sunspot inspired designs onto glass cabochons and made them into necklaces. The possibilities are endless.

I hope you found this blog helpful and that you feel inspired to have a go at sketching. Working from a photo gives you the chance to really focus on fine detail, but you can use all of the same techniques when working at a telescope eyepiece. If you do have a go at some astronomy sketching, I would love to see your results, so please tag me on social media so I can see your work.

Some of my astronomy inspired designs on tote bags and necklaces


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