Sunday, April 06, 2014



Uncle Rod ain’t no Michelangelo—or Donatello, Leonardo, or Raphael—but I’ve always enjoyed drawing, muchachos. Including drawing what I see with my telescopes. I started trying to sketch what was in my eyepiece not long after I got my first scope, a puny Tasco 3-inch Newtonian, way back in ‘65.

Why? I wanted mementos, something to help me remember the amazing stuff I’d seen, and I sure wasn’t going to be capturing even bright stuff like the Orion Nebula with my Argus box camera. I could get some (sorta) OK moon pictures with the Tasco, but not the crater close-ups I longed for, and not a single deep sky object.

Even after I got my first good scope, the vaunted Palomar Junior 4.25-inch Newtonian, I continued to draw. While the Pal could do somewhat better Moon pictures, the deep sky was still impossible without a clock drive. Plus, I suddenly found I enjoyed the process of putting pencil or charcoal to paper.

Like most kids, I reckon, I‘d always liked to draw, but at first that went no further than the WAR PICTURES me and my mates in 4th grade liked to do when Miss Dixon gave us a little of that rare Free Time. You know, NAZIS on one side of the paper and GOOD GUYS on the other side having at it, stick figures against stick figures.

The astronomical drawing idea mostly had its genesis one bright sixth grade morning when our teacher, the ever-attractive Miss Stinson, came into the classroom bearing a big stack of 3 by 4-foot sheets of butcher paper. We were doing a Space Unit in Science, and our assignment, she said, was to draw maps of the Solar System. Me and my buddies, Wayne Lee and Jitter, agonized over that butcher paper for days, going way beyond the Sun and planets, adding cool stuff like asteroids and an Explorer satellite or three.

All the fun we had doing that project planted a seed in me. What if I kept going? What if I drew the Solar System through my telescope? One night I began doing just that with a crude sketch of the mare on the face of the full Moon in the Tasco. When I got my Pal Junior, I zoomed in on craters and started my own lunar atlas (which I never quite finished) with Copernicus. The result wasn’t much, as you can see here, but I was thrilled and kept after it, going on to the deep sky after I did a lot of the Moon, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn (I couldn’t see Mars’ features well enough to draw much).

The Moon in 1966...
Not that I really knew what the hell I was doing. My art supplies consisted of sheets of ruled loose-leaf notebook paper, a number two pencil, and a Bic ballpoint pen. You don’t need a lot of fancy materials to draw the night sky, but you do need something better than a dadgum school pencil, and those early sketches would have been better if I’d had tools that were a smidge better. I didn't get those better tools till a couple of years after I began drawing, after John Gnagy told me what I needed.

As I’ve said before, early adolescence was trying for me. One thing that was especially trying, silly as it sounds today, was figuring out what Santa in the form of Mama and Daddy should bring me. One especially difficult Christmas came when I was 14. I’d decided it was finally time to close the books on the wonderful Marx playsets and space toys that still inhabited the Sears catalog as the 1960s died.

What then? I would for sure ask for the new Beatles album. And that boxed set of Robert Heinlein paperbacks I’d been admiring in Bookland in Possum Swamp’s new Mall. What else? That expensive Erfle eyepiece in Edmund Scientific’s catalog was still out of reach (24 impossible dollars). Idly thumbing the Sears Wishbook after my little brother had marked all the Captain Action and G.I. Joe figures he wanted—lucky kid—I drifted out of the toy department. Just past the books—I had finally outgrown Tom Swift Junior—were art supplies.

What caught my eye was the John Gnagy Learn-to-Draw Sets. I vaguely remembered seeing Mr. Gnagy on the TV, a beatnik looking dude with a goatee who had a show where he supposedly taught you to draw. I didn't remember his show well, since it was only shown occasionally by the TV station where Daddy worked (when film for something else didn't arrive), but I knew Mr. Gnagy was a REAL ARTIST, and if he said he could learn me to draw, I believed him.

Maybe, just maybe, I could improve my pitiful drawing skills to the point where my sketches of Jupiter looked like something other than a custard pie. Since I wasn’t getting a clock drive for the scope any time soon, it looked like I’d be drawing for quite a while yet. I circled one of the sets for Mama, the most expensive one, natch, which cost twelve big dollars.

Learn to draw!
Christmas morning 1967, I didn't expect to find the big one under the tree, but there it was. I hadn’t asked for too much else, and maybe Mama sprang for the fancy one out of relief that I hadn’t asked for space toys—was her strange little son finally growing up?

Anyhow, I was now fully equipped for drawing what I saw on the Earth and in the sky. Mr. Gnagy’s instruction book wasn’t perfect, but it was OK, and, supplemented by another basic book on drawing I got from Bellas Hess, our favored discount store in the late 60s, it got me started. I kept and used my Learn-to-Draw set well into the 1970s,  periodically replenishing its cardboard and vinyl case with fresh supplies I got from Bellas Hess’ surprisingly well stocked art department.

My interest in drawing, both celestial and terrestrial, turned out to be a long-lived one. I wasn’t bad at it, not
bad at all if’n I do say so meself, as even practical minded Mama had to admit. The summer after that Christmas, she even arranged for me to take lessons at the Possum Swamp Art Museum. The class was taught by a pretty young woman who was a professor in the Art Department at the University. Naturally, I immediately developed a huge crush on her, but was able to pay enough attention to what she was saying, barely, to improve my skills.

“Well, that’s cool and all, Unk, but I don’t want to draw no still lifes, just pea-picking M13.”  The techniques you’ll use for Celestial artwork are a subset of those you’d use to draw terrestrial objects. Luckily, however, the skills you need to draw the sky are relatively few and most can be picked up by experience. A good book on basic drawing—your library will have plenty—might help, though.

If you’re a-gonna draw, you have to have stuff to draw with and on. Most of all, you need pencils. Good drawing pencils from an art supply store. Pencils are rated “H,” “HB,” and “B,” depending on how hard their graphite is, ranging from “H,” hard, to “B,” soft. Like main sequence stars, they are further subdivided by numbers. “9H” is the hardest—good for making teeny-weenie stars, and is followed by “8H,” which is not quite as hard, and so on. “9B” is the softest, great for nebulosity. “HB” is between hard and soft, and is a general-purpose pencil equivalent to the good old Number 2 of your childhood.

Your tools...
You’ll also need an eraser, not just for fixing mistakes, but also for drawing. When I want to indicate dark lanes in a nebula or galaxy, for example, I do that with an eraser. Which eraser? A “kneadable” eraser. Every art store has these things, which look like gray silly putty. They can be pulled and formed into any shape you want, including a sharp point suitable for fine work. As you continue to use the eraser, the gray silly putty stuff will become black as the eraser picks up more and more graphite particles. You can refresh it by kneading it, working on it like a piece of bread dough till it’s more gray than black again. Eventually, however, it will lose its erasing oomph and need to be replaced.

Kneadable erasers are perfect for detail work, but are not good for erasing large areas. When you have to do that, you want an art gum eraser. These erasers, also easy to find, look like tan or blue blocks of rubbery stuff. Unlike rubber or vinyl erasers, an art gum will not damage paper.

Sometimes I am drawing large regions of nebulosity, like when I undertake M42 or M8. That’s hard to do with even the softest B pencil, so I turn to charcoal. Charcoal for drawing is available in three main types, charcoal pencils, compressed charcoal, and vine charcoal. The latter, which comes in long sticks that can be broken into short pieces for easy shading, is my choice, since, unlike the other types, vine charcoal is easy to erase.

One of my most used drawing tools, the stump or “tortillion,” is like an eraser in that it doesn’t draw lines. Nevertheless, it is probably my most used tool after pencils. Stumps are cylinders of rolled paper and come in various diameters with various shapes of tips. You use them to blend areas of pencil or charcoal, and they are essential for making smooth gradations in nebulosity and softening lines.

You’ll want to keep your pencils sharp. A plain old pencil sharpener will work, but you should supplement that with a sandpaper block. That will put a good sharp point on a soft pencil when you need it. Just run the tip sideways across the sandpaper, turning frequently, to sharpen. You can get sandpaper blocks with various grades of sandpaper (medium is good) at the art supply store.

Messier 81 Phase One...
A container to keep your drawing tools organized and in which to carry them to the dark site is essential. I have no doubt an art supply store will sell you a fancy box for a fancy price, but you don’t need that. If I still had the case from my John Gnagy set, I’d still be using it. Since I don’t, I use a cheap Rebel (natch) fishing tackle box I got at the cotton picking Wal-Mart. Works good.

Finally, you gotta draw on something. There are countless different types of paper suitable for pencil/charcoal drawing. The good folks at the art supply shop can direct you. The consideration here is not just a paper that takes pencil and charcoal well, but a pad that is easy to use at the scope. I like something called a “sketch diary,” a spiral bound book of medium-weight drawing paper. Comfortable to hold at the eyepiece, and (the ones I buy) nice and white and good looking in computer scans. I reckon you can find similar sketchpads anywhere that sells art supplies, but I get mine at, of all places, the fraking Walgreens drugstore.

Ok, so you’ve got stuff to draw with and on. How do you do it? How do you draw what you see in the eyepiece? I’ll tell you what works for me. Before I do that, though, we maybe ought to talk for a minute about the optimum scope for sketching. Any telescope will work, but in an ideal world, it would be nice to have a driven one that tracks the stars. Otherwise, you’ll get to feeling like a confused octopus, what with holding the sketchbook, drawing, looking through the eyepiece, and nudging the scope along all at the same time. I’ve drawn what I see in the eyepiece of my Dob, Old Betsy, for years, though, so it is hardly impossible. It just takes a little practice.

Eyepieces? Just use your favorite ones. HOWSOMMEVER…if you, like your Old Unk, are blind as a bat and cross-eyed as a cat not just any ocular will do. If you need to wear glasses to be able to see your sketchpad and draw, you’ll want eyepieces with enough eye relief to let you see most of the field when you have your glasses on. I went through the “look in eyepiece-put readers on-draw-take readers off-put readers on again” routine for years and got real tired of that. Today, I’ve gone past reading glasses to real eyeglasses with progressive lenses. Using longer eye-relief eyepieces, I can leave my spectacles on both to observe and to draw.

Hokay, let’s get started. Everybody has their own method that works for them, and you will develop one too, but this is what Unk does. At first, I don’t draw nuttin. I spend a considerable length of time just looking at the fuzzy, searching for details I will want to put in my sketch. This is probably the most important step, y’all. Having a good look not only helps with the drawing, it locks the object in my memory at least over the short term, helping me do a finished sketch the next morning.

Phase Two...
How do I see to draw? I’ve tried various red lights, including the flexible-neck clip-on book lights with red LEDs Astrogizmos used to sell at star parties. What works best, I’ve found, is a red LED headlamp I’ve dimmed down with nail polish. You want to be able to see what you are sketching, but you don’t want to ruin your night vision with too bright a red lamp. You also danged sure want the light to be hands free.

When I’m finally ready to begin, I grab my sketch diary, which I’ve prepared with field circles drawn with a compass before leaving home . Your circles should be nice and big, five to six inches, at least. I’ll also grab my fine point black marker—not a pencil—for star drawing. You could use a pencil to draw in stars, but I prefer a marker for the brighter ones. I then begin marking the bright stars, looking through the eyepiece and drawing till they are all done. Try to place them accurately. Look for little asterisms, lines, triangles, etc. to help you. The brighter the star, the bigger the dot.

If you are drawing an open or globular cluster, you will continue drawing stars after you’ve done the bright ones. I tend to switch to a hard, sharp pencil for the smallest, dimmest suns. That’s not really the question with a glob or an open cluster, though. The question is, “Do I really have to draw all them stars, Unk?” The answer is “no.” This is art, not photography. You just want to give an impression of what the cluster looked like to you, not precisely render every fraking star in M13. I will accurately draw and position the brighter stars of a globular, but I will just indicate the dim ones with an eye to capturing the look of the glob. Opens? I’ll do the same with a rich one like M37. With a looser cluster like M36, however, I will accurately depict almost all its stars.

Hows about nebulae and galaxies? After I have drawn in the field stars, I’ll go on to nebulosity. Actually, I used to draw nebulosity in the field, but I rarely do so now. Instead, I just draw “contour lines.” I’ll draw the outline of a nebula and then, farther in toward the center, indicate where it begins to brighten with another outline. And the next level of brightness with another contour, and so on. I write plenty of notes on the drawing, too:  “fainter here,” “brightens gradually here,” “core is much brighter” and so on. You can draw nebulosity at the scope if’n you like, but my method allows me to work faster and is more accurate than “real” drawing given my elderly eyes.

Phase Three...
And that is it. Take one last look at your picture and at the object—a good long look at the DSO—to make sure you haven’t missed any details. When you are convinced you are good to go, label the drawing with the object ID, date, time, scope, eyepiece, etc., and move on to the next faint fuzzy. Repeat as needed till you’ve got every object on your agenda done, or, like Unk, the call of a warm den and a bottle of Rebel Yell becomes irresistible.

Which ain’t what happened last Saturday evening at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. Given the rare (for spring down here) clear skies, I hit it hard and sketched nearly a dozen objects before haze began to kill the transparency. Why so many? I am working on a new book project (the Herschel Project book has been temporarily pushed into the background a little, but I am continuing to work on it). This new observing guide will have sketches for every one of its objects, and there will be a fair number of objects, so I have to do as many drawings as possible every single run.

Anything else to say about Saturday night? It was nice to have some company for a change, five other folks for at least part of the evening. And I sure oughta heap more praise on the pea-picking Celestron VX mount. Like its predecessor, the CG5, the VX GEM is solid and reliable. I never have to worry about it; every object I request is always in the field, even with the C8 at f/10. I’ve even made friends with the mount’s dadgum Plus hand control. I bought an extension for its too short cord from, and, while I still don’t like the buttons and menu layout, I’m getting used to using the Plus. On nights when I don’t want to run NexRemote, it is OK.

What was more than OK was the f/7 reducer I used with my Edge 800 SCT, Mrs. Emma Peel. I said quite a bit about it some time back, and what I said was favorable, but let me reiterate:  if you have an Edge 800, 1100, or 1400, you want one (there ain’t a Celestron reducer for the Edge 9.25 yet). It preserves the scope’s wonderful field edge while widening up that field. Hell, even my el cheapo 100-degree eyepiece, the 16mm Zhumell Happy Hand Grenade, does a good job at f/7 with the Celestron Edge reducer.

Anyhoo, I viewed and drew a lot of cool stuff. What was the winner? Maybe the Thor’s Helmet Nebula, NGC 2359, in Canis Major. In the Happy Hand Grenade equipped with a 2-inch thousand Oaks OIII filter, the “helmet” area of this 10’ diameter cloud was as bright as I’ve ever seen it from the PSAS site. Even better, the “horns” were easy. Which put a nice cap on what had been, for once, a productive deep sky evening.

The Edge Reducer...
Back home at the Old Manse, I headed straight for the dadgum liquor cabinet. I had the good sense not to even glance at my rough sketches,. They would have looked quite horrible by bright room light. Experience has shown my rough drawings will be more than adequate to help produce finished pictures by the light of day, but, still, it’s better to leave them alone till morning time.

Next morning—I try to finish my drawings the very next day while I still remember exactly what the objects looked like—it’s time for Phase Two, cleaning up the drawings. What do I do? I rip the sucker right out of the sketch diary and turn to a new page. I use the marker to sketch the stars recorded on my rough drawing in a new field circle, keeping them maybe a little smaller than they were on the rough sketch. I take pains to duplicate their placement as closely as possible. If the sketch is a star cluster, open or globular, I’ll proceed to draw the rest of its suns. As in the field, I’ll likely use a hard pencil to indicate the dimmer ones.

Then comes the hard part, drawing nebulosity. I use my soft pencils, charcoals, and blending stump to do that, sometimes using slightly harder pencils to indicate brighter portions or the kneadable eraser to show voids and dark lanes (remember, your drawing is a negative image; black will become white and white black when you are done). I pay close attention to the contour lines on my rough drawing to help me correctly portray brighter and darker areas of nebulosity.

And then I am done—with Phase Two, anyhow. These days, there is also a Phase 3. I scan the drawing into the computer, into Adobe Photoshop (that’s what I use, but any similar image processing/paint/drawing program, like Paint Shop Pro, will work). When the drawing is in Photoshop, the next thing I do is make a nice dark circle to overlay my pencil-drawn field circle. How you do that depends on your software. It’s easy with Photoshop using the Ellipse Marquee Tool.

The rest of my work in Photoshop is mainly clean up, erasing any wayward pencil marks, smoothing and smudging nebulosity with Photoshop tools to hide pencil strokes (airbrush works great for that). Mostly what I do, however, is fix my stars.

I cannot draw convincing stars with a pen or pencil, but Photoshop does ‘em easily. I use the Airbrush Tool, setting Opacity to 100%, Flow to 40 - 50%, and Size to a size just a smidge larger than the star dots I’ve drawn. I position the cursor over a star, and hit the left mouse button to give the airbrush a squirt. The result is a nice looking round star with a dark center and a small semi-transparent halo.

When I am satisfied with my drawing, I’ll take the last step, “Invert,” which in Photoshop gives you a negative image. Since your drawing was already a “negative,” doing that makes it a positive with white stars and nebulosity. By the way, I rarely use color in my drawings. I usually don’t see it in the eyepiece, and when I do, in some planetary and emission nebulae, it’s pale, very pale. I like the look of a black and white drawing better, anyway.

When you are done, you might want to print out a copy just to be safe, or at least copy the drawing to a CD or DVD. I guar-ron-tee you will treasure your sketches 10 or 20 or 40 or 50 years down the line. I sure wish I still had all the little drawings I did as a sprout, muchachos. Even if your results ain’t all you hoped they’d be at first—I promise you will get better with practice—you will still treasure them. Moreso than the best images you can make with thousands of dollars of CCD gear. Perhaps because a drawing is the work of your own hand and eye—and heart. As Mr. Spock was wont to say, “It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Next Time:  Telescope Troubles… 

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