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Astronomical Sketching

It’s fair to say I have a bit of a reputation among friends for being a bit of a luddite. I collect vinyl records, only use cameras which take celluloid film and I think humanity’s greatest technical achievements may be the Apollo program in the 1960s. Given this it seems quite logical to me that I would find sketching more appealing than astronomical imaging, especially with one of those new fangled CCD cameras.

So why sketch at all? Well, a few reasons, the first is it’s a very simple and cheap way to capture and share what you see through a telescope. I think this is particularly valuable as it gives quite a good impression of what an observer sees visually through a telescope rather than the colourful but misleading candy we see from amateur images right through to professional images from the Hubble. I think the second reason is it makes you a better visual observer; the very act of building up a sketch forces you to take a second, third, fourth and many more looks at the object of interest. There is something too about the way the brain works which means once you have seen a detail once and noted it down, somehow it’s easier to see it again, even if just using averted imagination.

I started out sketching images of the moon. Partly this is due to our inner city home and partly because I think it’s probably the easiest target to start working on. The moon is so bright it’s quite easy to have an outdoor light on while you draw, in fact having a light on can help balance out the blinding bright appearance of the moon through all but the smallest of telescopes. Once I’d made a few drawings of the moon I was happy with I started working on other bodies in the solar system, mostly Jupiter. Lately I’ve begun sketching some of the deep sky objects, but this is still very much something I’m learning to do well.

Tempted ? Good. Here is how I suggest you start: get a copy of this book.

Buy some pencils – I have a box of 12 Derwent Drawing pencils but when you are just starting limiting yourself to a few pencils makes life easier. 4B, B and 2H is about right. It doesn’t matter though if it’s 3B or 2B and 4H etc. A B pencil is my standard go-to pencil. I never grab more than 4 pencils for any one sketch in the field. You also need to get a blending stump or three (you can get away without cleaning them all the time if you use the same one for really soft black pencils, and keep one pretty clean for light smudging). Also buy some different erasers, including a soft ball-style one and an eraser shield – the eraser shield might be the most important thing you buy. Finally you need a decent pad of A5 drawing paper. If you go to an art store all of this should cost you less than $40.

Beyond the tools the most important thing to practice is figuring out your reference points, and drawing those first. For the moon, big craters and the key shadows. For star clusters, focus on the brightest stars first. For nebula, the bright stars and basic shape. Once you get those down, you just keep refining, and refining sections of the sketch. Breaking it down makes it much less overwhelming.

Finally, for a bit of inspiration check out Astronomy Sketch of the Day.

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