AstroSketching: Why You Should Draw What You See

The planet Mars. All images by David Dickinson.

Ready to go low-tech? Before there was astrophotography, visual observers would simply sit and sketch what they saw at the eyepiece. This takes time, a steady hand, and above all, patience.

Is there a place for sketching in the modern, high-tech world of amateur astronomy? I believe there is. Not only does hand-drawing what you see at the eyepiece hone your skills as a visual observer, but it also brings in a certain amount of artistic flourish to the pursuit of astronomy.

Reasons to sketch include:

  • The startup is cheap and simple versus astrophotography. You can begin tonight with a pencil, pad and telescope.
  • Sketching encourages the observer to study the target object, and maybe tease out detail that wasn’t apparent on first glance.
  • Drawing what you see gives you a permanent record of your observations.
  • Sketching is a great way to identify faint asteroids and comets… simply sketch the suspect field over the span of a few hours, and watch for the ‘star’ that moves against the background.
A sketch of sunspots in April 2019. Credit: David Dickinson

You can sketch virtually anything you see in the sky. I find that drawing lends itself best to planets and solar observing, but I’ve seen magnificent sketches of comets, nebulae, and even wide-field phenomena such as aurora displays and meteor showers. I actually find that the moon is the most challenging target to draw of all, with its intricate layers of shadows, rills, craters and valleys.

You can start with a simple No. 2 pencil and white sketchpad, though many observers tend to switch to black paper and white ink or charcoal pencils. A ready-made template with circles is also handy… I like to use a sheet I designed with two circles: a smaller one for planetary disks, and a larger one for deep-sky fields of view at the eyepiece.

You can also sketch black stars on a white background, scan the drawing, and invert the colors for a black-sky background in post-processing.

Finally, I just love the continuity drawing provides to amateur astronomy. The simple act of looking though the eyepiece and committing pencil to paper allows the observer to not only bare witness to what you see tonight, but to also follow in the footsteps of observers of yore, from Galileo to Lowell.

About David Dickinson

David is a freelance science writer, frequent contributor to Sky & Telescope and Universe Today, author of several astronomy books and long-time amateur astronomer. He lives with his wife Myscha in Norfolk, Virginia.

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