Painting What Can't Be Seen

Botanical artists hang out at the local gardens or -- if they are highly motivated -- travel to tropical islands to depict flora in their native habitat. Wildlife artists journey to the Serengeti or the Rocky Mountains to hone their skills. But what’s a space artist to do? The farthest humans have ventured is to the Moon, but astronomical art calls for artistic voyages to the frigid moons of Jupiter or even the desolate landscapes of planets circling other stars. The challenge presents some horrific travel expenses! Instead, the space artist relies on the powerful tool of comparative planetology: the artist studies the geology of the Earth and other worlds, finding terrain on terra firma that bears similarity to the geology of Mars, Venus, or a host of other targets.

Space art has its roots buried deep in history. The process of painting a scene or object which no one has seen first-hand is a process that reaches far into the past. Explorers throughout the ages have brought artists along to document discoveries and foreign vistas. The paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran helped to convince the U.S. Congress to found the first two national parks at Yellowstone and Yosemite. Frederick Catherwood documented the discoveries of Maya, Aztec, and Incan ruins by John Lloyd Stevens. Frederic Church mounted expeditions to Antarctica, South America, and other environs to create some of the most beautiful natural science paintings in history.

Today we have new kinds of explorers, venturing into even more remote frontiers. Some wear space suits, while others dress in solar cells. They all return tales from their travels, and the artist must translate these tales into something on a human -- and aesthetic -- scale.