From a cramped garage in Long Beach, Calif., astronomical artist Don
Dixon has conjured the cosmos — geysers of liquid methane on Titan,
Martian moonrises, a supernova in deep space.
taken people to places they could barely imagine through his
illustrations, which have appeared over two decades in Scientific
American, Omni and other magazines.
Then came the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rovers and other
high-powered robotic explorers that have poured out amazing images.
Even space artists, who have spent their careers imagining the
universe, reel at the photos of boulders on Saturn's moon Titan or star
clusters 270 million light-years from Earth.
Reality, Dixon said with a sigh, has gotten too awesome. “NASA has overtaken us.”
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as the development of photographic cameras in the 19th century set fine
artists on the road to abstraction, new astronomical technologies are
shaking the world of space art, spurring space artists to seek out new
subjects and experiment with new styles.
For decades, the field
was dominated by the “rock and ball” school, named after the
traditional space-art approach of meticulously drawing every detail
science can glean about a place — the shape of craters, the angle of
light, the hue of the sky, the position of stars.
Now a new
school is rising, synthesizing the awesomeness of space with modern art
genres. Some have dubbed the school “cosmic expressionism” or simply
the “swirly” school, after the swirling sky in Vincent van Gogh's
Combined with the blackness of space and alien
landscapes are images of soaring eagles, free-floating fetuses, surreal
Dali-esque scenery, drip art and other embellishments on the awesome
majesty of the universe. It's a freewheeling mix of genres just barely
held together by the fact that they're all set somewhere on the final
While the rock-and-ballers are still secure in their
position as the pre-eminent interpreters of the cosmos, they are
beginning to worry that their trade can't go on as it always has.
Dixon remembers the moment he saw the famed Hubble photograph of the Eagle Nebula's pillars of gas and dust.
It blew his mind.
created from the Hubble data are what some of us jokingly call bad
space art,” Dixon said. “They are so fantastically weird, like the
Eagle Nebula. Before Hubble took that picture, no astronomical artist
worth his salt would have painted anything like that.”
be found most days at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where he
works as art director, overseeing new planetarium shows and the
facility's artwork. But on Fridays — a day off — he's in his garage
working on some extraterrestrial art project.
Dixon, who grew up
in Rialto, drew his first picture at age 4 after catching a glimpse of
a meteor. From then on, he was constantly sketching rockets and
He majored in physics at the University
of California, Berkeley, to become an astronomer, but his artistic
career overtook his studies.
He started selling color slides of
paintings of Saturn's rings and Martian landscapes to schools and
planetariums. Magazines started buying his art, and he landed his first
cover in 1974 with an image of Jupiter hanging over the desert-like
landscape of its moon Io.
Astronomers have made technical
drawings of the planets ever since there were telescopes, but it was an
artist named Chesley Bonestell who took the craft and lifted it into
Bonestell, born in San Francisco in 1888, started
as an architect who helped design the Chrysler Building and the Golden
Gate Bridge. At 50, he began another career, painting backgrounds for
movies, including “Citizen Kane” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
always had an interest in astronomy, and he figured if he combined his
interest in light and shadow, photorealist techniques, he could do
something nobody did before,” said Ron Miller, 58, a Virginia space
artist and historian.
Bonestell, who settled in the Los Angeles area, began to sell his space paintings to magazines.
“His pictures of the solar system were indistinguishable from travel snapshots in Life magazine in the mid-'40s,” Miller said.
aimed for scientific accuracy and sought out scientists such as rocket
expert Wernher von Braun. Bonestell illustrated a series of articles by
von Braun about manned space flight in Collier's magazine in the 1950s,
which have been credited with helping kick-start the Golden Age of
manned spaceflight, Miller said.
Others artists quickly followed.
Today, the International Association of Astronomical Artists has more
than 120 members in 20 countries.
Some paint with traditional media, but most create their works on a computer.
Miller likens space artists to the 19th-century painters who depicted the sublime vistas of the American wilderness.
“We are the last surviving members of the Hudson River School,” he said.
Dixon remembered when images from the Viking 1 mission — the first to land on Mars — began streaming back to Earth in 1976.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration released a colorized
image of rust-colored dirt and a blue sky — much as Dixon had depicted
in his paintings.
“Everybody assumed Mars had a thin atmosphere, so it would look like our stratosphere — a beautiful cerulean blue,” he said.
within a few days, NASA released another image — this time after the
cameras had been properly calibrated — showing the true colors of the
“It was the strangest salmon pink,” he said.
Voyager 1 passed Jupiter in 1979, it snapped pictures of the moons Io
and Europa, which artists had usually painted as bare rocks in space.
In the new images, Io looked red-hot, mottled with dark circles of
volcanic activity. Europa had an icy, pale peach surface, crossed by
long, dark crevasses.
“They turned out to be much more exotic than anybody imagined,” Dixon said.
1990, the first images from Hubble were released. It was as if
astronomy had entered the Psychedelic Age — stunning blues, pinks and
yellows exploded through the universe.
Dixon has since labeled about 70 percent of his paintings “dated concepts,” though he still displays them on his Web site.
Williams Belter, Astronomy magazine's art director, said that when
there is a choice today between an illustration and a photograph, the
photograph usually wins.
Over the last 15 to 20 years, the number
of space paintings in the magazine has dropped by about half, said Rich
Talcott, a senior editor.
“If space art's identity is to take us where we can't go ourselves, there are fewer areas where that is true,” he said.
artist Joy Day, 41, acknowledged that some people may not be as
interested in buying space art now that Hubble and other missions have
made “the real thing” more available. But she believes that Hubble has
also boosted — and liberated — the genre.
At an exhibit in May in
Los Angeles, where some pieces of space art fetched a couple of
thousand dollars, Day pointed to an oil painting she did with her
partner, B.E. Johnson, of a glowing red planet and bright brown and
white moons backlit by a patchy sienna galactic cloud.
know we could paint the galaxy mottled like this,” she said. “Before,
scientists said it had to be dark ... Hubble images have a billion
Unfortunately for rock-and-ballers, it's tough
making a living by reinterpreting what a camera has already seen. But
there are still many corners of the universe that can't be seen with a
“Black holes and neutron stars are so small, even with
the best telescopes we have, they won't look like much at all,” said
Astronomy magazine's Talcott. “We have to go to space art to see that.”
Dixon has been dabbling in loosening up his own style. “I'm trying to get away from that photographic, tight look,” he said.
Perhaps one day space will lose its mystery and space art will go the way of painting fruit bowls.
Until then, he said, “it's a big universe out there.”