Editor's note: This is based on a post on the author's blog.
Most astronomers admire our celestial neighborhood through their telescopes using one or more of these methods: eyeing, writing notes or photographing. But a handful among every thousand or so has found a more artistic way: drawing.
Jay Eads, curriculum technology specialist for the Jordan School District, is one of the rare amateurs who hone their visual acuity and artistic skills to reproduce the views seen in a telescope. This is far more difficult than peering through one and goggling at the stars, and requires more skill than hooking up a camera and letting the minutes pass during exposures. For the visually inclined, which includes most astronomers, notes are no substitute for images. Drawing is a test of patience, steadiness, ability to zero in on targets and artistic talent.
For some, astrophotography is the best way to experience the mysterious galaxies, comets, nebulas and other deep-space objects because it brings out colors and details not visible when simply looking through the instrument. The reason is that long exposures give light photons enough time to build up on the camera’s chip and bring out hidden secrets.
But to others, sketching is preferable for the same reason paintings and drawings are superior to photography for certain artists. It’s a challenging activity and it lets the artist show what he actually sees, not what the camera eventually discerns. The sketch artist won’t register much color, if any, and won’t notice as many star-forming clumps in a galaxy 90 million light-years away. Still, at the end of the night, the artist can say something the photographer cannot, "This is what I saw.”
“I had been observing for a while before finding on Cloudy Nights (an internet discussion and classified ad site for the astronomical community) a sketching forum. I decided to start trying to sketch to record my observations instead of just write," Eads said in a telephone interview.
He owns several Dobsonian telescopes, a type that is notable for light-gathering ability and ease of setting up; his range from diameters of 14.1 inches to 24 inches. His preference is one measuring 17½ inches across, which is a manageable monster. The 24-inch is an Obsession model that proved "just too hard to haul around,” he said.
Often he drives his green Subaru out to a peaceful, remote location on U.S. Forest Service land that he designates "Forest Road 006 Site 1," off the main route near the town of Vernon, Tooele County. Little light pollution intrudes there. He sets up a telescope on a protective pad and spreads detailed maps of the sky on a small table, sits in a folding chair and waits for the end of dusk.
The site is darker than most, only an hour and a half from his home, and is relatively easy to reach. Unlike most astrophiles, Eads is a four-season observer.
“During the winter I can get out there at 5 o’clock and be set up by dark or before that, and observe from 6 to 10,” he said. He checks weather conditions carefully before he leaves and has only had to use a dew heater a couple of times to evaporate unwanted moisture from his mirror.
He goes with friends, and sometimes alone; the wilderness doesn’t scare him.
“I find it very relaxing and very soothing,” he said. “Twilight to me is a magic time. It’s almost spiritual. You see the transitions of daytime to nighttime."
Owls, hawks and coyotes will lend their voices to the shadows; Eads has been known to howl along with the latter. What he worries about are "the two-legged creatures in a pickup late at night.” He has seen people driving the dirt roads at 1 or 2 a.m.
“It’s usually kids. I have never been bothered out there,” he said.
Over the years his technique has evolved. At first he used white paper and sketching pencils. Then he moved on to pastel chalk and brushes on black paper.
"I think I actually see better,” he said. "You train your eyes to see more detail.”
Night adaptation is crucial to his art. If he loses night vision because of a blast of light, details will vanish when he looks through the telescope. To prevent this he wears a patch over his dominant eye, the left, while sketching with a dim red light and using the right eye.
"When I’m done with the light, I can just flip it (the eye patch) up,” he said.
To get the view he wants may require multiple attempts.
"Some are what I call 'one and done,'" he said. Eads estimates he has made just over 2,200 sketches of astronomical objects so far.
"I feel like you're connecting with the universe. You see the universe in all its stages," he said.
He studies the huge molecular clouds where stars are forming — and also supernova remnants like the Veil Nebula, stringy wisps that are all that remain after a star blew up and imploded into a black hole. The remnant, with its heavier elements that were fused during the supernova eruption, is "helping to create new beginnings from its death."
Humans have such a short time on Earth, he muses.
"It’s humbling," he said. "That stuff’s been up there far longer than I’ve been around and it remains far longer than I’ll be around.”
Joe Bauman writes an astronomy blog at the-nightly-news.com and is the vice president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, which meets the third Wednesday of every month but December, and is online at (slas.us). His email is email@example.com.