I almost titled this thread, "Realism vs. Impressionism." But that would have given the impression--no pun intended--that the two are not compatible and I see plenty of room for both in astronomical sketching.
It's become commonplace to see impressionistic works of art that present their subjects, not from an objective or realistic vantage point, but from the very subjective and interpretive vantage point of the artist. However, there's very little of this in astronomical sketching done by amateurs.
Among the best examples of what I consider impressionistic work by an amateur astronomer are the whimsical sketches by Stephen James O'Meara. His star cluster sketches in Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects, particularly M18 and M41, speak to me of an observer having one of those all too-rare moments when the telescope, sky and vastness of space seem to dissolve into nothingness. It's at such times that I've felt a direct connection with what I'm observing. It's like I can reach out and touch the thing.
They're very personal experiences. And O'Meara's drawings seem to capture the essence of them, the subjectivity of an observer's aesthetic experience of an object.
Now, while I've never produced a sketch as obviously subjective as O'Meara's, I've made the concious choice to place realism second to capturing my aesthetic experience of an object as the primary motivation of making the sketch. This is reflected in subtle ways. For example, I view field stars as the framework for the subject. So I'll draw as many as I need to give the subject a proper context. Drawing every star in the field isn't important to me. Nor is rendering a finished sketch that would be considered accurate in some objective sense. In other words, my goal isn't to show objects others would see them.
That said, I'm not as much of a risk taker as O'Meara. I haven't produced any sketches that so obviously represent my subjective impressions. I'd even acknowledge that most folks would think my goal is to make realistic sketches. They may think I've failed miserably but that's the impression I think my work gives.
Anyway, I'm wondering if others have given these issues any thought? Do you strive for objective accuracy? To present some essential truth about the object? Or about you as an observer? If someone were to ask, "What are you trying to accomplish?" how would you answer?
Bill in Flagstaff
Grand Canyon Adventure
Lowering the Threshold
4.5" Meade 4500
10x50 Swift Audubon
Loc: Flagstaff, Arizona, USA
Bill, this is a great topic. I think I really need to take a look at O'Meara's work. I've thought a lot about it myself. I've got a wishlist of some of my observation sketches that I want to revisit at some point and create unbridled impressionistic, stylized versions and see where it takes me. For the time being I'm just working on filling up the seed bag for that little journey.
As I've been working on my observation methods and sketching, I've had moments when I worry that my sketch doesn't exactly represent the immediate view through the eyepiece, especially with nebulosity. I think my M17 sketch is a good example of what I mean. When giving the nebula an overall look in the eyepiece, all it's parts aren't as readily apparent as they are in the sketch. For example, the neck of 'The Swan' isn't as easy to see as the body, and the head is even harder. In the sketch, the neck and head are easier to see than at the eyepiece. After spending time observing an object, all the various portions, dim and bright, start to reinforce themselves in the mental image I walk away with. And that mental reflection is what I do feel my sketch captures. It represents all the parts I was able to see while observing--something like the mental mosaic I've heard discussed around here before. I still try hard to be faithful to relative brightnesses, although in the sketch those values are perhaps related more in a linear fashion rather than logarithmically...if that makes any sense.
As to how many field stars and object stars to capture, I still struggle with that every time. For the field stars, sometimes I feel that those stars add a lot to the impression of the object, so I'll put in as many of them as I can. Other times they seem less important...or perhaps I'm losing steam :O --and I'll not feel the need to plot as many of them. In either case, I do my best to mark them in the right positions. When it comes to the actual object I'm observing, particularly the open clusters, I try to plot as many stars as I can. However, in some cases, whether due to poor seeing, or just a huge abundance of dim stars, I'll run into the quandry of what to do with threshold stars. It's at that point that my first look at the cluster comes back to me. I try to think, did those areas look like distinct individual stars, or more like a soft glow. Then I'll sketch based on that. A recent observation of M50 illustrates that. My first impression was of a soft glow behind the brighter stars, and I filed that thought away. As I observed it more, that impression dwindled away as I tried to investigate all the nooks and crannies. Even though the cluster contains around 200 stars, I'm sure the background of threshold stars I perceived probably only numbered a couple dozen. But because I would have gone insane trying to sketch them, I suggested them with a soft shade.
Thanks for bringing up the topic Bill. I'm curious to hear what others go through too.
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My thoughts are that sketching what you see thru the scope is closer to realism than the photos that are commonly shown. Usually, you can't actually "see" what is shown in the photo. But the sketch is exactly what you see (for DSO's). So for visual observers, sketches show them what they will actually see and they provide a good way to prep them for seeing something for the first time. That's kinda of a reversal of roles between photography and sketching.
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Loc: Tomahawk, WI 45N//89W
Do you strive for objective accuracy? To present some essential truth about the object? Or about you as an observer? If someone were to ask, "What are you trying to accomplish?" how would you answer?
Bill in Flagstaff
To put it simply, I'm releasing a need to express how much I love the Moon. Accuracy is a big plus, but to me it's more important to show the soul of the object. If I expose a bit of my own in the process that's okay.. isn't that what art's all about?
Sometimes I fall into the eyepiece and literally can't come out till I'm finished. Call it Zen, call it zoning out, call it meditation. It's a wonderful feeling and a quick look through my sketches will show you exactly when it happened. Maybe it's triggered by the seeing, maybe it's the target, maybe it's my mood. Maybe it's a combination of all three. I don't know, but I really wish it would happen every time.
Carol Lakomiak, Tomahawk WI
Writing Sky at Night magazine's astrosketch page since June 2009
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Loc: Winnipeg, Manitoba
An interesting subject Bill, to say the least. While I certainly do my best
to accurately represent what I see, my real intent isn't scientific
accuracy but rather to try capture an essence of my eyepiece experience. In
fact, I wouldn't even say I sketch at the eyepiece, rather I just make
reference diagrams and spend a lot of time "burning" the image into my mind
and then retire indoors and work from both my reference diagram and mental
image. (I'm really rather slow and clumsy in sketching, and I don't think I
could produce anything resembling a real "sketch" while seated at the
eyepiece of my non-tracking dob in low light conditions).
I've had occassion in the past to try to produce technically accurate
drawings in other contexts. For example, recording soil profiles in an
archaeological dig -- with plumb lines and measuring horizon depths every X
centimeters, we were able to accurately record a scaled profile. However,
when finished it just didn't "look" like the real profile nearly as much as
a quickly rendered freehand sketch. Same thing recording other details -- I
could wind up with a scale diagram accurately representing the positioning
of the skeletal material in a burial, angles and lengths of each bone or
fragment along with any other objects, but it didn't "look" much like the
real thing no matter how hard I tried (others did far better technical
drawings than I could accomplish). If I sat on the edge of the pit for a
couple of hours with just my eye and the pencil and paper, I could
sometimes produce something that did resemble my view of the particular
burial, even if the accuracy was questionable.
So I'm definitely a mix of realism and impressionism. But not impressionism
in the sense of gently shading in ET in NGC 457 :-) Not that I'm against
such impressionism in any way shape or form -- I smile every time I look at
457, and I "see" O'Meara's ET.
I did start playing with Sumi-e (oriental ink painting) a year ago, and I've
recently sat down a few times and ground ink solely for the purpose of
exploring a few ideas in capturing some of the soul of my astronomical
experiences in that medium (hey, talk about leaning into the impressionistic
side). Thus far the execution of these ideas has failed to produce anything
remotely desirable, at least not on paper :-)
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Loc: Portland Oregon
I am just now seeing your post about realism and impressionism here on Sept 22 2008, as Jeremy Perez referenced it for an excellent current post that he wrote about sketching to help direct new-comers to the sketching world.
We had a similar discussion early last summer 2008 where solar sketches by Les Cowley were discussed with photographs accompanying them. That discussion also evolved into much about your definitions here of realistic vs impressionistic and what the forum would allow for sketching. I cannot find that post now but perhaps Erika Rix will reference it again, bringing it back. I think Les Cowely had made some important points in it about technical and scientific sketching art and Erika made some in return about some artists that tend render more aesthetic impressionism to their work.
I wanted new potential sketchers to see your words here describing artistic styles because I think it is important to the artistic process.
Loc: Sisu Sauna Sibelius
Do you strive for objective accuracy?
Yes, is there anything else! Of course, sketching every star in a globular cluster such as M13 can be a little bit frustrating and in the end not very rewarding
Of course from time to time when the mood strikes and I let my imagination flow... it is pretty funny to see some of the impressions of clusters I've been able to come up.
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