Cook deserves our respect. How many artists do you know
who get up in the morning and create a world? Cook specializes
in painting astronomical illustrations, particularly things
unseen: extrasolar planets light years distant whose existence
is often confirmed by the merest wobble of a star's orbit
in an astronomer's telescope. Despite its high-tech subject,
hers is an anachronistic art in the tradition of illustrators
who once filled newspapers and magazines with images before
photography was available. Even in this digitalized age,
we rely on the old-fashioned medium of paint to evoke
the wonders at the edge of our galaxy. Cook comes well-equipped
for the job, with a double degree in art and science,
and a day job at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.
Most recently, in a painting seen 'round the world, she
provided our first glimpse of extrasolar planet HD 209458.
Among Cook's many previous creations was the infamous-in-certain-circles
Periodic Table of Chocolate. She reports that the best
part of that job was that she could eat most of what she
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO LITERALLY CREATE WORLDS, PAINTING
SOMETHING WE'VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE?
A: On one hand it's nicer for me because in scientific
illustration, if you're illustrating something that you
have lots of data for, it's so easy for someone to tell
you you've got it wrong. I may paint a distant world we've
never seen before, but it has to be based on fact if it's
based on a real discovery. Of course, I can also use my
imagination because there's so much that we don't know
about it. And that really is the fun part.
WHY DO YOU DO SPACE ART?
A: Because there was demand for it, and that's where my
career led me. I was a good student in both science and
art, but I felt I did art better. I don't retain factual
information as well as more subjective kinds of information.
I don't have a photographic memory, and I realized that
I just am a little better with artistic, creative kinds
of things. But I love the science, I'm fascinated by it,
and it just seemed logical to try to find a way to do
IS THERE ANY OVERLAP BETWEEN SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION AND
SCIENCE FICTION ILLUSTRATION?
A: Definitely. And at times I'm a part of that. Certainly
I think SF art is fascinating. There's a lot of great
art work out there. I think it makes people dream and
wonder. I'm all for it.
ARE YOU MORE SCIENTIST OR FANTASIST?
A: Well, both, although most of the images that I do,
that straddle the line, are few and far between. When
I do a piece of work it's usually with the intention that
it has to be accurate because it's based on actual research,
or that it can be more conceptual or fanciful because
I'm trying to get across a scientific idea rather than
depict an actual world as it might exist. I don't really
think that's clear to the viewer. Especially if they're
more science-fiction-oriented, they'll probably respond
to it on an emotional level because of the imagery or
the colors. I don't think they're that concerned with
the facts, necessarily, unless they're an astronomer.
HOW DO YOUR PAINTINGS EVOLVE? HOW DO YOU SELECT YOUR MEDIA?
A: Obviously I can't do any direct observation. Most of
what I'm depicting can't even be seen through a normal
visible means. The extrasolar planets, for example, except
for the last discovery, were only detected through finding
a wobble in the star. So we can't photograph those and,
clearly, looking through a telescope isn't going to help
me. So I obtain my information by talking to the astronomers
themselves about what they think they would look like.
I try to keep up on these discoveries. I do sometimes
visit observatories but I'm not exactly painting on scene.
Sometimes I'll have an image in my mind's eye of what
I want to do with it, and then it's just a matter of
sitting down and doing a sketch and, if it's an extrasolar
planet, running it past one of my astronomer colleagues
for approval. Sometimes I go through my picture file for
images, something that triggers my imagination. Sometimes
the astronomers themselves will give me an idea, something
that they think would be really nice in a painting based
on some information they know about the planet, like its
distance from a star or its size. And I'm also playing
around a little bit with the Bryce computer program. That
makes alien landscapes. As for media, I know what combination
of media to use. I don't want to experiment. I'm inventing
worlds. I don't want to have to invent media, too.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE COLORS FOR SUBJECTS THAT YOU'VE NEVER
A: Most of the extrasolar planets are several Jupiter
masses and we think they would probably be similar to
Jupiter in appearance. Obviously, we know what Jupiter
looks like. To a large degree it's a matter of doing a
planet that's like Jupiter but not Jupiter. So the colors
can be similar. Now it could have rings. We don't know
for sure. All of the gas giants in our solar system have
rings, some more visible than others. And moons, so I
could put that in. And, depending on its distance from
the star, it could have liquid water on some of the moons,
or frozen water. That of course will tie into what colors
I may or may not use. Most of these stars are similar
to our sun, so I know what colors to use. There are a
handful that are red dwarfs, and those would affect the
TELL US ABOUT THE PAINTING YOU DID THAT WAS SEEN 'ROUND
A: Actually, there were two this year, first Upsilon Andromedae
System and then Transit of HD 209458. Both of them made
their way around the world via electronic media, not exactly
with my permission. The Transit of HD 209458 generated
so much traffic that it temporarily crashed my website.
Obviously I was pleased by the publicity and public enthusiasm,
but I haven't been compensated for the unauthorized uses
and there have been numerous requests for gratis use as
well. When you're a free-lancer, that matters.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR WORK?
A: Doing extrasolar planets is very rewarding because
this is artwork that almost nobody else has done. This
is something that can't be photographed and can't be seen
close up. I feel like I'm contributing with my artwork
in a unique fashion.
WHAT FUTURE GOALS DO YOU HAVE?
A: There are a lot of planets I haven't painted yet, so
I'm still trying to catch up. My goal is to paint them
all. But they keep finding new planets. Those astronomers
keep me on my toes. To see more of Lynette Cook's extraterrestrial
artwork, check out her homepage at: extrasolar.spaceart.org
Karen Haber is an art journalist and columnist. She is
also the author of eight science fiction novels including
Woman without a Shadow and Star Trek Voyager: Bless the
Beasts. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy
and Science Fiction, and many anthologies. Her most recent
short story, "The Fine Art of Betrayal," is part of the
"Treachery and Treason" anthology edited by Laura Anne
Gilman and Jennifer Heddle, to be published by ROC this