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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Sketching Stars

In this time of webcams and affordable CCD cameras, we tend to forget that sketching is a simple, portable way of recording astronomical objects, especially planets. Sketchbooks don’t require cables, batteries or power cords. They don’t care which operating system you use, or whether you have RS232 or firewire ports. They can still be read decades later, long after the current electronic storage systems are obsolete. You also don’t need a big telescope system.

My first astronomical sketches were of the Moon, done through my Dad’s binoculars resting on my window sill. I’ve been sketching stars, planets and comets for years using a 115 mm reflector with no tracking. Almost anyone with an entry level telescope can sketch the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, the later crescent phases of Venus and Mars at opposition. I even have sketched the sky as seen by my unaided eye to record movements of comets and planets.

On the other hand, making sketches does require some minimal form of manual dexterity. Still, sketching planets and stars is an entirely different proposition to drawing the Mona Lisa, so if you can set up a telescope without tangling yourself in cables, you should be able to produce a satisfying and workable sketch.

As with anything astronomical, a little preparation repays dividends at the telescope. Most people keep observing logs; it is very simple to combine an observing log with a sketch book. I use semi cartridge 110 gsm acid free drawing paper, A5 size in a spiral bound notebook. For me this is the right size for portability and ease of holding at the telescope. This sort of drawing paper can be found at all good newsagents or stationary stores.

At the head of each page I write in headings for the date, time, observing condition (cloudiness, sky quality, wind conditions), and then I draw in observing blanks. These are simple circles where I will draw the image. This is a highly technical production; I use a 2B pencil and the eyepiece dust cap of my telescope to draw a number of circles. I find this just about the right size for reproducing what I see in the scope. More technically minded people can use a popular word processing program to make the blanks, but you really need a laser printer for printing the blanks. Inkjet print will smear when you handle it while sketching, and any trace of dew will wreak havoc. Also, if you are printing out pages, you will need a clipboard or solid surface to support your sheet while sketching.

Having set up your sketching blanks, its worthwhile making sure you have two sharpened 2B pencils with you (or coloured pencils). If a pencil point breaks during sketching you don’t have to hunt around for a sharpener then.

Now you are at the telescope, how are you going to actually sketch? After all, it is dark! I usually do my planetary observing in suburban locations where there is enough stray light to see the page (but not enough to degrade the planetary image), but if you are observing in dark sky sites, I find a hands-free LED headtorch, with red cellophane wrapped around it so your (and other peoples) night vision will not be affected, is ideal. It also helps with all the telescope set up that you do as well. LED head torches can be found relatively cheaply at bushwalking or sports stores, and red cellophane can be found at any newsagent. David Reidy and Ken Wallace recommend one of those booklights that you can clip to a book or clipboard. Experiment a little to find the best and most comfortable method for yourself.

Now, you are at the eyepiece, pencil in hand poised above your planet blank, how do you actually start? I take a good look at the planet, memorize what I have seen, then glance down at the blank and quickly sketch in the major detail. As I wear half glasses for reading, I can wear the glasses at the telescope, look through the lens sans glasses, then look through the glasses at the sketch pad. I then look back through the scope, then back to the pad and sketch in more detail. I repeat this until I have built up a detailed sketch of the planet. You may find that the first time you look through the eyepiece, there is little detail, but don’t worry, just sketch out the main features and you will find that as your eye becomes adapted, you will be able to see more detail. Unguided scopes can be a bit of a pain, as you have to bring objects back into the eyepiece fairly often, but I spent most of my sketching career with unguided scopes, and you can still get good sketches. Made a mistake? Don’t panic, just start again, or use an eraser, to clear out the mistake.

It’s worthwhile practicing a bit before trying your hand at planets. The Moon of course is ideal for practise, bright, full of detail, and you can start sketching in the early evening (planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are best when highest in the sky, which is often inconveniently late). Once you have had a go at the Moon, planets should be a doddle. Try experimenting with coloured pencils,. Jupiter, and Mars at opposition, is particularly good for colour. Getting the shade right may be a problem (especially under redlight conditions). Again, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Again, you are not limited to the telescope. I have sketched through binoculars (good for asteroids and moderately bright comets, see the sketch of comet V1 NEAT sketch through binoculars to the left. I made multiple sketches over several days showing the motion of this comet), and with the unaided eye (bright comets, planetary motion etc.), you are limited only by your imagination, a comfy chair and a good supply of sharp pencils. So pick up those pencils and get sketching!

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Thanks, good post and good tips. I still haven't gotten into the CCD astroimaging thing, though eventually I hope to. Sketching is more about observing than astroimaging, because you really have to pay attention to what you're observing.
I have enjoyed getting the kids to draw objects from the garden with pencil and paper from their various expeditions and archaelogical trenches .. why not take the next step to challenge them and sketch what they are seeing in the skies.

A splendid suggestion! :-)
Thank you so much for the suggestions!! I'm doing a project for my Earth Science class in college and wasn't sure exactly how to go about it. Great Job!!!
I just found you through a web search of "which planets am I looking at in the morning on July 11"
It took me to Southern Sky Watch. Any chance of more sketching competitions? That was really fun to see.
G'Day Kelly

Yes, there is. I am trying to set something up for the near future, so keep an eye out for an announcement.
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