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Help with black background sketching.

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#1 Marwatso



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Posted 09 February 2011 - 01:25 AM


Ever since I read Andrew Thorpe's article entitled "Should You Keep An Astronomical Notebook" in the January 1988 issue of Astronomy, I have wanted to replicate the sketch of M51 pictured.

I have taken the article to art store after art store and no one has been able to tell me how to successfully sketch this way. Granted it has been about 20 years since I last asked.

Is anyone out there familiar with the article or has a copy they can look at and tell me how to do black background with the detail that is pictured? I would appreciate some direction here. I am familiar with using computer programs to invert your drawing. I don't want to employ this method.



#2 frank5817



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Posted 09 February 2011 - 02:14 PM

Hi Mark,

Since Andrew does not explain in detail (do read the last three paragraphs of the article again) what he has done here and I have made sketches like this (not in color however), I will hazard a guess.
Black paper or more likely white paper colored dark with the black marker in the photo. After allowing time to dry, white, gray, blue colored pencils used on the stars and galaxies.
Now because of the edge neatness with the black outline, this sketch was either then cut and pasted to the page or more likely pasted to the next page with the circle on the present page cut out to make a window.
That is how I would have done it to make it look as it does.
I would add the sketch does not accurately depict the eyepiece view even in a very large scope from dark skies. Color would only be visible in a photo.

Frank :)

#3 Jeremy Perez

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Posted 09 February 2011 - 08:16 PM

Hi Mark,

I haven't seen the image you are referring to, so I may be completely missing what you are asking about. There are a number of observers who sketch directly on black--particularly for lunar work--but also for deep sky. Materials you can try:

* Smooth, black cardstock such as Strathmore Artagain (or Daler-Rowney Canford in the UK)
* White charcoal, watercolor, or pastel pencil
* Blending stump (for applying shaded areas)
* Kneaded eraser and white vinyl eraser pencil (to sculpt shaded areas and make corrections)
* Craft knife and sanding block (to hone pencils and blending stump)
* Spray fixative such as Winsor and Newton’s Artist Fixative (optional to protect the sketch later)

If you've sketched in pencil before, working with white on black is a bit of a change. It can be tricky to apply fine, stable features with white media, so you'll probably want to sketch larger than you normally do. You'll also need to touch up the point on the pencil more frequently by honing it against a sanding block or using a craft knife.

One way to shade very subtle, extended objects like galaxies is to brush the point of the blending stump against the point of the white pencil to pick up white media. Then brush it against the paper to apply subtle shades and gradually build them up. The image will be fragile, so you'll want to store it where it won't brush against other drawings. If you apply a spray fixative, apply it very lightly at a distance and preferably in 2 or 3 separate applications so it's less likely to darken your subtle shades.

Attached below is a white on black sketch of the Veil Nebula from last year.

There are several regulars in the forum who sketch white on black more often than I do, and I'm sure they'll have some good pointers.

Attached Files

#4 JanisR


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Posted 10 February 2011 - 07:35 AM

I'd add a small natural sponge for applying nebulosity when using Conte pastel pencils. The white pastel is applied to the *sponge*, then the sponge is gently patted or brushed onto the paper surface, layer after layer to build up a soft glow.

#5 Marwatso



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Posted 14 February 2011 - 08:21 PM

Hey Frank, thanks for the response. I had never thought about how neat the edge is in the article. I wonder if you are correct about the cut through. It would be hard to fill in a circle so evenly and perfect to the edge. I guess Andrew remains a bit of an enigma. :)

I agree that his main sketch is more of an "interpretation" but I like that. He has a white background sketch that is more true to form shown in the picture. I like the idea of doing both.

Thanks very much Jeremy! I really appreciate you making an equipment list for me. Do you think I will be able to do black background in a sketch book with your methods? The spray sounds like it might be necessary to preserve but will that work in a book? Maybe I could cut it out and paste it into the book after the fact.

I appreciate the blending descriptions. I will be referencing them since I am such a novice at this.

I really like your sketch of the Veil, thanks for including it in your post.

Hey JanR, thanks for the response. I appreciate you sharing your technique for "glow factor."

I am thinking of buying some Derwent pencils. I am having trouble finding the perfect set that would have everything I need for sketching nebula, galaxies and planets. What do you all think of that brand? Can you suggest a good starter kit with all the necessary tools for a beginner like me?

Thanks again!


#6 stevecoe


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Posted 18 February 2011 - 02:42 AM


I am going to give you my best tip. Make a dark pencil on white paper drawing at the eyepiece. Also, provide yourself a good description of the object as a written paragraph while dark adapted. I have never been able to make a white on black drawing at the eyepiece, I needed either white light that ruined my dark adaption or too bright a red light that did the same.

The next day, so you have a good memory of what you did and some written and drawn memory aids, then make the final drawing.

Hope that helps;
Steve Coe

#7 azure1961p


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Posted 18 February 2011 - 07:14 PM

ill be brief about it as I didnt see the original article. For me the following is the best way to go about it.

1. Get some nice strathmore illustration board or heavy stock. Look for medium to plate finish.

2. Get the following pencils - H, HB, B, 2B - those are lead hardness/softness indicators. If any art store doesnt have a clue as to what they are, you arent in an art store.

3. Blending stumps, essentially paper rolled super tight. You dont use your thumbs as the finger oils and such really provide an inconsistent shading/gradient. Get the skinniest to the fattest being around a half inch thick.

4. Get some 80 grit sand paper to sand the blending stumps so the 1/2" think ones feel like felt while the smaller ones merely benefit from being sanded to a point after you wear them down a bit.

5. Get a Staedtler white eraser for the deepest graphite removal and sharpest eraser zones where needed. Next - and this is invaluable - get a kneaded eraser. Looks like grey silly putty - feels like it too. A beautiful subtle eraser when you dont want the harshness of the white eraser. I wont do any drawing with out it.

6. Lastly, a small "can" or pouch of Skum-X. Essentially pulverized eraser. Technically, old style draftsmen loved it as their straight edges and triangles "floated" on the paper/illustration board with out soiling it. For anyone sketching though - pour a decent sprinkle and go over it with a clean hand swirliong it around on your paper/boars and it lifts of the dusty grey cast that graphite can produce in the softer leads. Like the needed eraser - I wont do a serious drawing without it.

Back in the 80's I did medical and technical illustration with graphite on white paper. Mechanix Illustrated "spot" drawings too. My work was always clean, technical and sharp and the above is how I did it. Back then, slight goofs were treated with white tempera or acrylic paint.

Now its an Adobe domain and I want nothing to do with it.
Alas, graphite is a timeless way to draw and illustrate, so have at it.


#8 azure1961p


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Posted 18 February 2011 - 07:14 PM

LOL - I did say i'd be brief huh?


#9 Mentor


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Posted 19 February 2011 - 11:22 AM

^^^ What Pete said.

I like the cut of your jib Pete. :waytogo:

#10 Marwatso



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Posted 19 February 2011 - 08:06 PM

Thanks Steve. I have sketched many times on a white background. I didn't consider the difficulty in seeing on a black background. Since I have to see what I am sketching I think I will have to keep on using the white background approach as my main medium.

Hey Pete! Right on man. Thanks very much for the detailed parts list. That helps a ton. Other than a few pencils and an eraser I didn't know where to start. Telling me what exactly to get and what to use it for is really what I was needing. Could you suggest any color pencils to use for planets or maybe some nebula - to get that green/red color that sometimes exists on good nights.

You should have "Pete's Sketching Instruction Show" on Youtube. :) That would help me understand the techniques you discussed like the Skum-X stuff.

Thanks again,


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