Illustrating Astronomy (A Chapter Excerpt)
Copyright © 1998 Lynette R. Cook, All Rights Reserved
This chapter, with illustrations by members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists
, is included in the second edition of The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration
. A publication of The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, the Handbook
is a comprehensive reference for the field of scientific illustration. The chapters cover the diverse subject areas in the profession, as well as specific media and techniques, equipment and materials, copyright issues, and business practices. This book can be ordered directly from John Wiley & Sons
and from your local bookstores.
The field of astronomical art is young in comparison to other areas of scientific illustration, such as botanical illustration which has historical roots several centuries old. Unlike the majority of fields of scientific illustration which require the artist to work from actual specimens and render the subjects accurately in every detail, astronomical illustrators seldom have a real object to look at closely. Instead, space artists use a process called "extrapolation", which is to take what is known about a subject in order to show or describe what is unknown, yet likely to exist. This is similar to what paleontological illustrators do when reconstructing extinct life forms from fossils.
Astronomical scientific illustration is similar to science fiction and fantasy art and many illustrators are also involved in these related fields. The difference between them is that astronomical illustration is based on scientific fact, while science fiction and fantasy may be based purely on the imagination.
THE ROLE OF THE SPACE ARTIST
Early space artists played a subtle yet important role in promoting space exploration by making it appear real and possible. By the time NASA put men on the moon in reality, we had already been there through the eyes of the space artist. Many of the early representations of our solar system have proven to be remarkably accurate and are a testament to the science known at the time these works were created as well as to the artists' efforts to research the topic and deduce what a far-off landscape would look like if we were there in person. Space artists today continue with the early traditions by showing scientific subjects that would be too costly, time-consuming, or dangerous to study through human exploration or by means of space probes sent to those distant locations. They also commemorate special events related to astronomy and space travel by providing a visual history of humankind's achievements. Furthermore, space illustrators point the way toward our future by depicting new technology and human activity in space such as ion-powered spacecraft, asteroid mining, colonizing Mars, and terraforming (a theoretical and complicated process which would make a planet such as Mars more Earth-like).
Contemporary astronomical illustrators follow primarily in the tradition of the American Romantic landscape painters of the Hudson River School, whose detailed and awe-inspiring depictions of the American wilderness gave impetus to Westward Expansion and to the creation of the National Park System. In similar manner, the astronomical artists of today lead the way to the exploration and understanding of science and nature beyond our home world and into the vast and mysterious cosmos.
Staff positions represent a small percentage of the existing jobs and are in great demand. The majority of work is available on a freelance basis and can be found in a wide variety of non-profit and commercial organizations. Regardless of the specific area in which the artist focuses, the market for space artists tends to fluctuate due to a variety of factors, such as the health of the economy, the amount of public and private funding available for the arts and sciences, and public awareness and support of space exploration (including current and future NASA missions). Oftentimes illustrators must be entrepreneurs, actively working to create new job markets and opportunities when it seems that few exist.
Artists entering this field of genre painting frequently begin by imitating the art of established professionals. Due to the limited number of venues for this type of art work and the visibility of those already established, it can be difficult for younger artists to get their foot in the door. If artists new to astronomical illustration are to survive, it is important that they develop their own style and also be versatile with subject matter and format. This will ensure that they are able to augment their income with other types of work during the low points of the job market cycle.
THE ROLE OF THE SPACE ARTIST
Career Training for Astronomical Illustration
Where Space Artists Find Work
- Planetaria/Science Museums
- Non-profit Organizations/Educational Institutions/
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Specialty Items
- Original Fine Art/Prints/Galleries
- Film and Television
INSTRUMENTS AND MATERIALS
APPROACHES TO ASTRONOMICAL ILLUSTRATION
- Literal Renderings
- Interaction with the Client
- Special Problems