Imagine That: NASA’s Photos Eclipse Space Art

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Times Staff Writer

From a cramped garage in Long Beach, astronomical artist Don Dixon has conjured the cosmos -- geysers of liquid methane on Titan, Martian moonrises, a supernova in deep space.

He’s 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 ever more 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.”

Just 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 “Starry Night.”

Combined with the usual 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 frontier.


While the rock-and-ballers are still secure in their position as the preeminent 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.

“Images 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.”


Dixon, an affable, slightly geeky man with intense blue eyes and a quick step, can be found most days at Griffith Observatory, where he works as art director, overseeing new planetarium shows and the facility’s artwork.

But on Fridays -- his day off -- he’s usually 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 the window of his grandfather’s Studebaker. From then on, he was constantly sketching rockets and crater-filled landscapes.


It was a no-brainer that he majored in physics at UC Berkeley with the intention of becoming an astronomer, but his artistic career eventually 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 mainstream art.

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.”

“He 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.


Bonestell 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 Assn. of Astronomical Artists has more than 120 members in 20 countries. Some still 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.

NASA released a quickly 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.


But within a few days, NASA released another image -- this time after the cameras had been properly calibrated, showing the true colors of the sky. “It was the strangest salmon pink,” he said.

Viking 1 was only the first of many revelations.

When 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-colored surface, crossed by long, dark crevasses.

“They turned out to be much more exotic than anybody imagined,” Dixon said.

In 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.

Some of the colors were the product of researchers artificially colorizing the invisible spectrum of light, but it didn’t matter to viewers. Distant galaxies and supernovae became postcards and computer wallpaper.

Dixon has since labeled about 70% of his paintings “dated concepts,” though he still displays them on his website.

LuAnn 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.


Space 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 last month 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.

“We didn’t know we could paint the galaxy mottled like this,” she said. “Before, scientists said it had to be dark.... Hubble images have a billion colors. Whoo!”

Why stop at pretty colors?

“I didn’t want to paint the Orion Nebula the way it looks,” said Bettina Forget, 40, a Montreal-based artist. “You can just order that on the Hubble website.”


Forget, who was trained at art schools in London, Singapore and Perth, Australia, counts abstract expressionists, such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, as inspirations. Take her diptych of Io and Europa, “Fire and Ice.”

For Io, she poured layers of acrylic gel onto the canvas to simulate lava flows. She wrote along the curves of the flows in Sutterlin, an old German handwriting, describing Io’s heat and sulfur-covered surface.

With Europa, she carved gashes into a blanket of acrylic gel to capture the ice cracks on the moon’s surface. She used Sutterlin again, but obscured the words with a thin layer of white to make the words appear to be frozen.

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 camera.

“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.”

Last year, a team of astronomers, including Geoffrey Marcy of UC Berkeley, made a stunning discovery -- a nearly Earth-size planet orbiting the star Gliese 876, about 15 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius.


No telescope can see such a small and distant object, so among the first people Marcy called to illustrate the find was Daly City artist Lynette R. Cook.

Cook, 45, who was trained as a biological and botanical illustrator, went through the scientific data with Marcy and came up with a red-hot desert scene reminiscent of Utah with three mottled planets hanging low in the sky over auburn mesas.

“It’s hard to compete with actual pictures, so I, for one, do not try,” she said.

Dixon said a lot of his assignments these days are for what he describes as “weird physics.”

For a piece in Scientific American on new cosmological theories, he produced a picture of squiggly “dark energy” elements feeding through a point into the known universe, pushing its expansion.

Dixon has been dabbling a little lately 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, “it’s a big universe out there,” he said.