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A Personal Perspective on Space Art

From the Moon to the Stars space art
Illustration: From the Moon to the Stars

In June of 2009 I was contacted by a public relations person who wanted to interview me about my perspectives on space art. I agreed. I was supplied a list of questions to answer. Those questions and my responses follow.

Q. Was there a single moment early in your life when you became hooked on space? And art?

A. One of the few memories I have of my father, who died when I was still a little boy, and my earliest memory of space exploration is of my father taking me out one night to watch the Echo 2 satellite pass overhead. That, the Apollo missions to the Moon, and science fiction all fueled my interest in space exploration.

I trace my interest in art back to my interest in space and the wonderful visions that artists created of what our future could look like. Those paintings of people living and working in space made the concept plausible.

In college I discovered computers and programming. In graduate school I was fortunate enough to get enrolled in the first computer graphics class offered by the art department. At that time computer art was created programmatically which meshed beautifully with my interest in programming.

You might say that the art of space exploration fueled my interest in art but it was the computer that actually got me not only creating art but studying art as well.

Q. How did you get your start in space art?

A. Working with the raw Viking PDS (Planetary Data System) image files to illustrate presentations I had developed about Mars. Working with the raw data was the only way of having all the Viking images at my fingertips and being able to create the visual impact I sought for my talks.

Working with Viking data I had always sought to create realistic interpretations of Mars but it was only after I started working with data from the Mars Global Surveyor mission that I began to think of Mars itself as art and with that in mind I created a "Mars As Art" presentation that I first presented at a science fiction convention in 2004.

Q. How do you conceptualize places that haven't been seen in-person or a future that may or may not happen? (like our return the moon or travel to other planets)?

A. In creating space art, you first have to decide what your objective is - whether it's going to be illustration or artistic interpretation.

With illustration you are attempting to create an accurate representation of your subject so the conceptualization process is bound by the known laws of science and engineering. In short your work needs to be believable.

With artistic interpretation you're free to throw science out the window and concentrate on artistic elements like line, shape, color, and texture - irregardless of whether your mix of artistic elements makes any sense in the real world.

Q. Do space artists have a professional code that they follow in terms of how realistic their work needs to be, or are there widely held beliefs about their responsibilities to the public in doing their work?

A. As a rule traditional space artists and astronomical artists strive to accurately represent their subject matter. The goal is to transport the viewer to a place that could be. To me it's a natural thing since most space and astronomical artists have a strong interest in the sciences, whether its astronomy, geology, or physics. Herein lies the true value of this art form - the ability to present the viewer a scene that no human eye has ever witnessed.

Q. So many space artists recognize Chesley Bonestell as an inspiration. What is it that separates his work from others? What other artists have inspired you?

A.What distinguishes the work of Chesley Bonestell from others is a combination of his timing, that being the dawn of non-fictional space exploration, and his talent. It was his artist's imagination for composition combined with a scientist's eye for accuracy and believability that made Bonestell's work outstanding. Wernher von Braun himself commented that Bonestell would on occasion correct him regarding sketches he provided to Bonestell.

Other space and astronomical artists who have inspired me include Alan Bean, Robert McCall, Pat Rawlings, and Lucien Rudaux. I must also add to this the artists of the Hudson River Valley school, artists like Frederick Church, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt whose realistic yet romantic portrayal of the grandness of nature make them the spiritual fathers of space art.

Q. Can you tell us the story behind a work you're particularly proud of? Perhaps your thinking behind Quantum Moon?

A.Our moon is a favorite subject of mine and I particularly enjoy experimenting with novel ways to portray it.

I had recently been reading the book How To Read A Modern Painting One of the works of art in that book is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Seurat which is actually on display at the Chicago Art Institute and which I've viewed a number of times. I was fascinated with the pointillist technique Seurat employed and wanted to experiment with a derivative of that technique. Quantum Moon was a product of that experimentation.

Q. Wild card: what question would you like to be asked and what's the answer?

A.That question would probably be "In addition to space art, you also create different styles of abstract art. How do you reconcile the two?"

My answer would be that traditionally artists have been told that they must limit themselves to just one type or style of art - that if you like two different types of art, you have to choose between them. It's pretty much the opposite of what in Hollywood would be referred to as typecasting. An actor or actress tries to avoid being typecast whereas artists are told they must be typecast. It's really all about marketing and establishing yourself as a brand. It's easier to market an artist if they only do one thing. This works well from an art gallery's point of view. But as an artist, I want the freedom to create the types of art I enjoy creating - even if that means suffering a branding penalty.


"As the centuries unfold, millions of artists will live on the moon and paint the moon and Mars as we go out into the universe."

Alan Bean: Space traveler and space artist