Becoming a Better Observer – Sketching at the Eyepiece (Using The Macular Imaging System)

I gave a presentation some time ago at Warren Astronomy Society’s meeting called “The Macular Imaging System.” It inspired some of the members of WAS to ask me to write an article about my experience and methods of visual observation, recording and how enjoyable it can be, and how to obtain a permanent record of the evening’s observations.

Many of us feel we must become astro-imagers using digital cameras, computers to set exposure levels and colors, and purchase the specialized mounts, filters and all the peripherals to become great imagers. Our astronomy magazine’s corporate sponsors sell all this stuff and obviously they encourage people to help support their sponsors.

Certainly our vocal member imagers constantly show us their efforts. But to date, the visual observers have been by comparison, not so assertive in making their efforts known to fellow astronomers. Between the ads by camera companies and the astronomy magazines I should have not been shocked to learn some club members were surprised there is another path to astro-imaging.

An online associate visual astronomer recently wrote to an editor of a national astronomy magazine about submitting visually obtained drawings to the magazine and got the following response: “The answer is we won’t be accepting reader’s sketches for publication. The gallery remains reserved for photos and digital images. Far from being a barrier, I think digital imaging will encourage manymore people to get into astronomy as it gives you a superb souvenir of your night’s observing.”

I respectfully disagree! I amply demonstrated in my presentation how visual astronomy made important contributions to astronomy. In this article I will show how to make superb souvenirs of your evenings observing. And it does not depend on a computer operating system or software or imaging data that may go out of date.

I call it the “Macular Imaging System”. It consists of a pair of eyes (one at least!), binoculars or telescope, and analog storage system, i.e., pencils, acid-free paper an astronomy flashlight with a clamp or clip to attach to a clipboard. As you can see, a pencil and paper are simple, standards that have been employed pretty much unchanged for years and are likely to remain up to date for some time to come. Did I mention it’s also quite simple? I’ll explain.

Assuming the above-mentioned prerequisites, the next thing to have is an observing log template printed on you paper. I have several– one designed for deep sky, one for planetary and lunar, and one for solar work. You can design your own, or go online and look for astronomy record templates. Mine were based on the astronomy internet forum, CloudyNight’s Sketching group templates, but others are available elsewhere online. One excellent site is the “Belt of Venus”. I’ve included one for planetary sketching in the newsletter to get things rolling.

Let’s use the example of drawing the moon. It’s easy to locate and observe much detail. I suggest starting near the terminator so you can add in some shadow to give your drawing some depth, some three-dimensionality.

Begin by observing first with the ‘macular imager’– your eye! One must be patient and take some time to observe and study the view for about ten minutes. This allows the eye to become acclimated to the view the subtleties of the object, and the conditions of the atmosphere. If it is turbulent, you won’t have much time of steady air, and you ought to change magnifications to confirm all things you think you see. But if conditions are steady, you can start almost at once to record your impressions. I use as a high magnification as atmosphere and telescope aperture allow to be sure of any details so that I might record with accuracy. I don’t use a lunar filter because at higher magnifications the view naturally becomes dimmer. But you may wish to start with one when using low power to scan the lunar terrain.

So let’s start with the moon. See Figure 1:

The main thing to remember is to limit yourself to just one or only a few lunar features to concentrate on. First we lightly sketch in the outlines of the mare and the craters (See Figure 2). I also very lightly draw a line where the approximate locations of the terminator shadow. Second, using the angled side of our pencil weshade the black shadowed areas of the crater floors, and the night side. Third, with a finger, gently rub the graphite to blend in the gray tones. Finally, go over the drawn objects with softer lead as needed to bring out the sense of topographic relief. The key with lunar drawing is not to get lost in all the detail, but rather concentrate on just one or at most, a few.

Figure 2. From left to right– First one draws an outline of the primary shapes, shading the shadows and blending the graphite to achieve a reasonable facsimile of what is seen in the eyepiece.

Figure 3. The final result! Approximate time: 1-2 hours. Compare with Figure 1.

I recommend using an acid free paper, and using a clear spray fixative or clear vinyl sleeves to keep the drawing from getting smeared. I personally use a vinyl sleeve. You can also scan the drawing into your computer and bring out contrast, add or change color. Then print it out. You can punch our page holes so you can put it in a three-ring binder for a permanent record of your night’s observations! Either way, now you have a ‘superb souvenir’ as the astronomy editor put it at our article’s beginning.

Remember, we’re not talking about artistry here. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look perfect; like any skill, it takes some practice. If there were space here, I’d show you my first drawings! They weren’t much to look at, but I kept at it with reasonable results. I hope you will try it too.

Before I end, here are a couple tips: Use at least 24# paper. If you use less paper weight and it can tear easily and is not very opaque against daylight. I’m using an HP acid free paper from an office supply store. On those humid Michigan nights, I keep the paper and clipboard on a vertical surface like an open suitcase lid or under a box cover. Damp paper won’t hold pencil lead, so keep it dry! I keep a 12-Volt hairdryer handy though I’ve not used it yet.

Another paper alternative is to use “Rite in the Rain” paper, which as the name implies, can be used in moist conditions. To sum up, the Macular Imaging System of visual astronomy is compact (the tools I need fits in one case with my other astronomy stuff), easy to setup, low power requirements (One hamburger will keep you going for hours!) it will keep you from staring into a computer monitor all night and will help your social life and you’ll be more popular! Guaranteed!

Keep looking up and clear skies to you all!

CloudyNights Sketching Forum- great group and very friendly!

Belt of Venus Sketching Templates, by Jeremy Perez- his work is stunning but the templates are an easy way to get started. Also on the site he has planetary templates by another gifted observer, Sol Robbins:

Here’s an Astronomy Log Sheet I made that you could print out and use:
[Coming soon -ed.]

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