Space Art: The Vehicle, The Connection

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   Posted by: BJ Johnson in art, painting, space
What Worlds There May Be

I ran across a couple of articles today, one by Paul Gilster of the Tau Zero Foundation on Centauri Dreams entitled Space Art: Reviving the Imagination and another by Jeff Foust of The Space Review on When Space and Art Intersect. It's really good to see the resurgence in this area in so many circles and I thought I'd take a little break from The Making of the 21st Century Orrery series and get back to my original passion that started all this — Space Art. That is, Space Art in the classical sense that people know it; 2D paintings.

Celestial Winds Blown Glass and Carbon Fiber Mobile

We work increasingly in 3D of both types: digital (modeling/rendering/animation) and physical (our glass sculpture), of which the Celestial Gears Orrery and the Celestial Winds Mobile are but two. Physical 3D is the most demanding because, unlike digital 3D and 2D, you actually have to build it and make it work. A flick of the wrist and illusion don't work here.

Painting in 2D with traditional media was the beginning that has taken me a lot of places; really cool places. Places I most likely would never have been afforded access, were it not for what I do. I worked hard at my craft, becoming what I term a "Method Painter". Like actors who immerse themselves into their character in order to more fully communicate the person they are playing, I immerse myself in the location that I am painting in order to feel it around me and bring more of it into the image. Consider it painting en plein air... without the air.


I go—I travel.
Gets me out of the house.
Waaaaay out of the house.

I work on taking the painting process apart to examine its inner workings; find out what the mind expects to see and provide that. More often than not, a painter gets caught up in the destination, without allowing themselves to see the path. In 1987, I taught Alan Bean how to successfully paint Kapton, the shiny, wrinkled insulation shielding that covers sensitive areas of spacecraft. It had confounded him for months, trying to get it to look right. He was too close to the problem, was trying to direct it, and didn't see it for what it was—reflective chaos; like the surface of a lake. You can't paint chaos deliberately. You can't "think into it", it's too complex and the mind just doesn't work that way... for most of us anyway. Just like clouds, and the painting of them, they both have to evolve on their own or they lack authenticity and depth. So, I told him to stop thinking, let go and "Paint Stupid". Get into the Zen of it. Eventually, Kapton will start coming out all on its own and it'll be hard to stop.

Art takes us all many places, most times without our giving it a second thought that this is actually happening at the time. I'm an Artist-Engineer. I see the universe from a different perspective than most. Early in my career, I coined a phrase that is still on the front page of my Space Art website, Imperial Earth:

"Throughout all of human exploration, Art, in one form or another, has always been our first vehicle." - 1970

Some may take that as an absurd statement or be surprised at its sweeping nature. It is, however, closer to the essential truth than they might think.

These artworks can take many forms, many of which most would not initially consider to be "art": Engineering drawings of spacecraft to be built, scribblings on a blackboard trying to communicate to one's colleagues a difficult concept or a stick drawn across wet sand when a moment of inspiration comes while walking on the beach are three that come immediately to mind. They may or may not be beautiful to look at from a purely aesthetic point of view but they do have beauty and, if the design is sound, elegance. They certainly cause us to travel to places unknown and currently unreachable by other means. In addition, they show us how we can get there someday.
The Stardust Spacecraft - In The Thick Of It
Without these drawings, nothing so complex as a spacecraft could ever be built. BUT the drawing of them, and the artists' concept paintings that are derived from them that the public most often sees, are equally essential parts of this journey. Among the Sierra Nevada - Albert Bierstadt Like the paintings of the artists of the Hudson River School: Cole, Bierstadt, Moran, Church, to name only four—and there are many, whose works depict the early explorations of the American West, these works many times were created as promotional, yet they now are in museums. They painted these not only to appraise the investors who funded these treks but also to bring viewers along with them as they traveled the uncharted wilderness, witnessing unbelievably glorious vistas and inspiring those back in civilization to Go West.

Many contemporary Space Artists consider themselves as parallels to these great masters of the 19th Century. Where their counterparts could travel to remote locations and record what they saw on canvas, our position is to observe, absorb, digest and distill data from many sources; traveling in our minds and transforming it all into an image that viewers can relate to, be inspired by and perhaps propel them to action. That action could be continuing to build the vehicle when the going gets tough or launching a student into a career of science or engineering... or art. The gathering and blending of what many think are disparate disciplines is what makes what we do so special. We talk in many languages of technology but the message is the same:

"Look! Isn't this Cool!? Let's go do it."

Have you been inspired by a painting you saw? Has one changed your life direction and set you on a course that you never imagined? Let us know.

Deep Ocean
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2 Responses to Space Art: The Vehicle, The Connection


    Terrific post, BJ, and I especially like the conclusion re the blending of disparate disciplines. By the way, a reader commented on my site today that a special favorite of his was Richard Powers -- made me think back to all the books I read that had Powers covers, and the unforgettable places that art took me.

    September 12, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Thanks, Paul.

    Yes, I remember those. Had a few. If only my mom hadn't thrown them out... Little did she or I know at the time that I would become a space artist myself.

    September 16, 2009 at 2:38 pm
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