Scientific American Cover Art

by Don Dixon



Sunrise Over Mercury – November, 1997

When Edward Bell, Scientific American's innovative art director from 1968-2011, commissioned my first cover for the magazine, I was simultaneously thrilled and anxious, as I've always regarded the magazine as one of the most challenging venues for scientific illustration. Ed's motto is "First get it right, then make it beautiful." The painting of Mercury's Caloris Basin was created using acrylics and gouache on illustration board. The perspective is from 100 miles above the chaotic terrain near the edge of the basin.


First, I coated illustration board with white gesso and sanded it to a near-glossy surface, then made a detailed pencil drawing based on Mariner 10 images. Using very thin acrylics, I laid down a base color, then detailed the landscape with gouache. The goal was to create an image that would look hot even after the approximately 10-percent darkening that normally occurs during printing, so I had to let the white gesso shine through the paint as in watercolor technique.

Shannon Lucid on Mir –  May, 1998

The magazine had scored a coup: an exclusive account by the first American woman to live in the Russian space station. Out of hundreds of digital pictures Shannon Lucid took during the mission, the editors could not find one that seemed perfect for the cover. I decided to take a literal approach and simply put her in the space station. After searching through dozens of official NASA portraits I found one that had  lighting that would work for this scene. In Photoshop, I repainted it, softening it to reflect the fill light from the earth. I rendered her hair to look like it was floating in zero gee, then added a layer to hold the reflection of earth in the window. The image of Mir came from another mission, but had to be painstakingly embellished to restore lost detail. The picture elicited  letters from readers protesting the "faked" image, but the editors pointed out that it had been clearly described as a painting in the credit line.

Black Holes that Eat Galaxies – June, 1998

This is a traditional painting, created with airbrushed acrylics and gouache on illustration board, depicting a collision between two galaxies, the larger of which harbors a huge black hole at its core. This has been one of my more popular paintings. A variation appears on the cover of Gregory Benford's novel of the far future "Beyond Infinity" (Warner Books, 2003).

Revolution in Cosmology –  January, 1999

In this rather abstract piece, the left side of the hour glass represents the mysterious "dark energy" that seems to be hastening the expansion of the universe. The squiggly energy elements were first drawn in pencil, then scanned and colorized in Photoshop. Galaxies and other conventional matter objects on the right were created the same way. The magazine also contains some interesting diagrams illustrating the consequences of this accelerating expansion. For example, supercivilizations will eventually run out of resources because the expansion will eventually carry all but local galaxies forever out of reach. Ultimately, our observable universe will consist solely of the Local Group of galaxies.

Fireball over Greenland –  November, 1998

In December, 1997, a brilliant fireball blazed across the sky over Greenland in the early morning hours. Surveillance cameras in parking lots showed eerily-shifting shadows as the fireball crossed the sky. Weather satellite photos showed what appeared to be a cloud disturbance associated with a possible impact. Analysis of the trajectory suggested that the object had come in so fast that it was on a hyperbolic trajectory, indicating that it had come from beyond the solar system. Later studies indicated that this was unlikely, however. Search parties dispatched to the probable impact zone in the spring failed to find anything other than a possible residue of meteoric dust on the ice. The object probably exploded high in the air over a desolate region of the icecap. The airblast was rendered as a small airbrush painting. The ice was created with sponge textures in acrylic and gouache, elaborated with brushwork. These texture elements were then scanned into Photoshop and cloned over a scan of a loose pencil sketch.

Magnificent Cosmos –  May, 1998, Special Issue

This revisitation of the classic Bonestell scene depicting Saturn seen from the upper clouds of its large satellite Titan was one of my first digital magazine illustrations. Saturn was modeled in Strata Studio and then reworked in Photoshop when I realized that the program had rendered the ring shadow incorrectly. The clouds were sketched in graphite, then scanned and colorized in Photoshop. I was still unfamiliar with most of the tricks required to create smooth color gradients in the CMYK color space. Certain blues tend to be nearly unprintable with the 4-color process, but look wonderful in RGB, so the sky is darker and a bit more purple than I like. A rework of the painting with a better sky can be found elsewhere on my site. This was the inaugural issue of the Scientific American newsstand specials. A double-page view of a landscape on Europa serves as a background for the Table of Contents.

Starquake on a Magnetar – February, 2003

The image attempts to capture a sense of the energy released by a "starquake" -- a millimeter's vertical displacement in the surface of a highly magnetic neutron star. Tightly constrained by the immensely strong magnetic field, a burst of very hot plasma slowly releases a stream of "soft" gamma rays. Such an event thousands of light-years away can give everyone on earth a radiation dosage equivalent to a dental xray. The chaotic field lines were created in pencil, then scanned, reversed and colorized in Photoshop. The cracks on the surface of the star were traced from a digital photograph of a badly-eroded asphalt parking lot, then mapped onto a sphere in Cinema 4D.

Europa's Ocean –  October, 1999

I sculpted some Europa-style "icebergs" in clay and captured closeup video frames while the model was lit by a low sun. The various landscape elements were isolated in Photoshop and colorized to look like ice. Additional textures and details were also added in Photoshop. Jupiter and Io (seen in transit) were modeled in Strata Studio and then embellished in Photoshop. I intentionally created a low saturation image of Jupiter in an attempt to get a more realistic effect; Jupiter is generally rendered far too orange and gaudy. The colors here closely approximate what I observe in a telescope.

When Stars Collide –  November, 2002

This was my first painting to make the cover after the radical redesign of the magazine in 2001. It depicts the final moments of a sunlike star as a white dwarf approaches it. The sun is distorted to fit into its Roche´ lobe in this temporary binary system. I had originally conceived the star as "bursting at the seams" along the equator as its outer layers were stretched by tidal forces and there was less weight to contain the pressure of its fusion fires, but this might not happen, as the system will always be in gravitational equilibrium. The stars were created as 3D models in Cinema 4D and then married into the foreground image, created in Photoshop.

Solar System –  Newsstand Special, December, 2001

This view of the sun blazing through the Cassini Division in Saturn's Rings was rendered as a 3D model and then touched up in Photoshop.

Reality-bending Black Holes – June, 2007, Special

This perilous view straight down the jet blazing from a galactic black hole was rendered as a 3D model in Cinema 4D.

The Chaotic Birth of Planets –  May, 2008

An elaborate composite that includes digital 3D models, pencil sketches that were scanned, colorized in Photoshop, and then applied to a sphere to create the lava flows on the foreground planet, and traditional acrylic and gouache painting for the colliding planetesimals in the distance.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

© Don Dixon 2017 All rights reserved.