Sharing the Night (or Sketching, A Waste of Time)

Okay, I admit, many of you can be relieved, I've decided to quit sketching.  NOT! You have to continue to endure them if you visit this site.   I love the aspect of sketching at the eyepiece.  I'm not a great sketcher, nor do I consider myself very good when I look at other people in the community who sketch.  My friend  and mentor, Alex from Australia who is a master sketcher using the Mellish method,  reminded me from a conversation from his wife that there really aren't that many artistic sketchers in the world and even fewer astronomical sketchers.  So, I've been mulling that over and one night recently, as I sat in a chair, sketching the constellation Sagittarius (I want to do a naked eye sketch of the constellations in both the summer and winter Milky Way) which is another entry, I began to really reflect.  I sat at one of my favorite dark sites, alone in the night, having slept there in the back of the Pathfinder until the moon set.  This night, I turned off my iPad and the music I was listening too, and focused on the night, sketching and thinking, reflecting.

I focused on my sketch and a pack of coyotes began to yipe and howl, with a few nips and barks.  Another pack answered which is on the western side of the site and it seemed as always, that the two packs were sharing the night.  Their howling was a comforting sound, but as quickly as it began, the packs faded off into the night. I realized that like the coyotes, it is in our nature to share, and in so many ways I think amateur astronomers strive to "share the night" with each other and others.   I went back to my questions:  Why do people sketch in this hobby?  Why do we post what our finished projects?  How do we grow in our abilities?  Are sketches really reflecting what we see or do our minds add details from images we've seen?  Finally, does it really matter to anyone?

As I looked for answers I would focus on them and reflect, then I would find myself focusing on the sketch and not thinking of the questions.   I turned my iPad and its external speaker back on but changed my music to match my reflective mood.  My mind now went down a variety of paths.  I discovered multiple answers, multiple lanes for my thoughts to meander down that provided a variety of conclusions.

So this post will attempt to organize a few of these thoughts, and I will really try not to meander too much.  I welcome comments, other opinions, other insights. These are my thoughts, and I alone am responsible for them.  So here I go.

My first question is one that I have to modify and apply to myself. I do not have enough hubris to speak for others, but I can answer that for myself.  I've reflected on my sketching, I do every time I sketch when I observe.  I really asked myself why I was sitting out in the desert, in the foothills of some beautiful mountains, sketching the night sky.  Why? Why sketch? Why not just observe? For me, it began because I wanted to see more, to make the most of what I was observing, to pull out details. At the time I was blowing through objects, easily looking at as many as I could, yet I couldn't see what others were seeing. I think I got more excitement at that period when I successful star hopped and found my object than in observing.  Sketching slowed me down and I realized slowly, over time, that observing comprised of various skills and techniques that brought out detail.  Things like averted vision, breathing and host of other techniques, some very legitimate, some debatable; see this link, The Skills of Observing  from the Renseselaer Astrophysical Society.

To perhaps share why I began to sketch two quotes (yes, I love quotes) from the previous link come to mind.  The first is from Sir William Herschel.

“You must not expect to see at sight . . . Seeing is in some respects an art which must be learned.  Many a night have I been practicing to see, and it would be strange if one did not acquire a certain dexterity by such constant practice.”

I firmly believe that observing is an art and a skill, something learned, as is sketching with much practice and constant practice. It is why I believe getting as much time at an eyepiece is so critical to becoming and being a very good visual observer. 

The next is from The Amateur Astronmer’s Handbook by James Muirden.  This quote nails why I sketch, and is far more eloquent  than anything I would write on why.

“No opportunity should be lost to train the eye to work with the telescope; to observe the same object with different powers so as to see the effect of magnification; to try to see faint stars; and to draw planetary markings. In the beginning, to be sure, this may all seem to be a wasted effort; the observing book will fill up with valueless sketches and brief notes of failure.  But this apparently empty labor is absolutely essential; for, as the weeks pass, a steady change will be taking place. Objects considered difficult or impossible to see will now be discerned at first glance, and fainter specters will have taken their place.  Indeed, these former features will not be so glaringly obvious that the observer may suppose that some radical improvement has occurred in the observing conditions.  But the credit belongs entirely to the eye . . . “

I look back at my first sketches, and I laugh at my attempt to capture what I was doing.  Stars wrong, detail wrong, notes short and lacking adjectives.  There was a lot wrong with them but there was one thing right about them. I was observing, I was looking and my eye was adapting.  In time I learned methods to reflect what I was observing and I continue to seek input, to learn and to grow.  Sketching taught me how to really observe, how to really pull out the details of the objects I was observing.

Now I confronted the next question:  Why do I post and share what I do? Why do I have this blog? Well, that was some soul searching, some deep reflecting followed this question.  I examined my motives, my thoughts, even looking inside of myself.  Why share? First, I think it is human to share.  I am a very social creature and will welcome just about anyone who may come around.  I like people, I like being engaged with people and to be honest, I enjoy people. You can ask my daughter and she'll tell you I can go out and its a 70/30 chance I will meet someone I know and have a short conversation with them. With this hobby though,  I'm learning a new skill with people, and that is to sit back and just observe them, and more importantly to really listen to them.  One learns a lot from doing that. Anyway, I share because I want others to share in my experience with me.  Its a need I have, and I call it a human need for I think most of us have it, and it is a way of creating value and social interaction.  I've seen the same thing with those that take astro-photography pictures.  There is a bond there, a willingness to share, to interact, to learn and to grow.  Again, it creates value and meaning for me, and for many I think and I don't think that is a bad thing.

Another reason is long ago I knew I sucked at sketching.  I knew with time and experience I would slowly grow and learn.  I learn by doing, I am a hands on learner and a visual learner.  My mind moves too fast at times to read instructions when I want to do something, though I love reading and slow down for that.  Observing and sketching has helped me to slow down and to really become patient (as will a classroom of students and most importantly, I have learned patience from being a father, it is my greatest legacy from my kids to me I think).  So back to why I share, yes, I think I can show improvement in my sketching and to be honest, for the most part, I think in terms of planetary nebula, galaxies and open clusters I have really come a long way.  Still got to work on my globular clusters though but practice is helping there.  So I share to show that if I can do it, man, just about anyone can and should.

Finally, and there is more I could go on with here, I share because I want to.  Someone asked me once if I had a private agenda with what I share.  Nope.  There are better blogs, far better sketches than mine. I don't make money from my blog, I don't seek any recognition for it.  It exists more as a journal of what I do in this hobby.

Having said that, I must admit that I do have one agenda item and that is to get people to move from their backyards, or from light polluted locations to a dark site, especially around new moon and do more dark site observing.  It is why I share where I observe from, when I am observing and I welcome any who come, hoping they will decide to continue to join and come.  If not, I hope they continue to go to a dark site of their choice and observe.  A dark site, a true dark site, like what we have in Utah in so many places, need to be treasured, valued and used.  So, I sketch to show the difference between a dark site and observing at home, though I don't post what I do at home.  I made a new blog for that, called Red Rock Observing and though I haven't started to use it much, I will b starting I hope, this month in July to use it. It will be for my light pollution observing, DSO comparisons, double stars and lunar observing.  I need to change my introduction there to reflect that.

The next question was about growth and this is a tough one.  I know in terms of writing, or doing anything artistic that input and feedback is critical.  I purchased Astronomical Sketching, and read it and have used it.It helped and I read some of Jeremy Perez's Belt of Venus tutorials and applied what I learned there.  Yet I never felt I grew much as a sketcher.  I fumbled, picking up a tip here or there online.  I also felt that a lot of people post their sketches, but never share techniques or seek input.  Well, many save one that I met online, Alex Massey.  Alex accepts input, reflects on it and decides what to do with it in terms of his own sketching.  Alex as a friend and mentor has been invaluable over the last year to me as I have begun to work on the Mellish method.  His feedback to me in email exchanges is invaluable, and appreciated far more than he will ever know.

So based on that experience, I created the Astronomical Sketching Forums for people to come, share their sketches and techniques and receive feedback.  It is a place I hope where people who have questions come and ask.  It hasn't taken off, and that's fine, and it may fail, that's fine.  If it does, it will disappear but I think that would be a shame.  One of the hardest things to do in life is to seek critical input from others, and I know here in Utah, I haven't met too many people who sketch or share their sketching and their techniques.  I've met more people online than locally so I think the forum can help with growing in one's abilities.   I think it is vital that we are open to input and what others share can sometimes be discarded but often, it becomes highly valuable to use.  How else do others receive feedback for growth? I don't know and I would welcome a comment or even a guest posting on that one.

Do sketches really reflect what we see, or do they reflect a combination of what we see in the eyepiece and what we have seen on images, or is a sketch just that, a sketch?  This question could be really loaded, but I'm going to go simple here. For me, I don't question because I am not there and who am I too judge?  I enjoy the observation and the sketch and the artistic abilities that produced it.

Now to the end question for me.  Does this really matter? To be blunt again I'll just say no.  Sketching doesn't matter because my sketches are not going to make science, or be used for any scientific purpose.  The days of the astronomer who is sketching went out the door in the late 19th century when cameras began to be used to make photographic plates by which to do real science.  For that matter, I wonder if in a hundred years if anyone will sketch in this hobby?  I'm not sure but I know I won't be around to find out.  So, sketching really is a waster of time isn't it?

Having said that, sketching does matter, at least to me.  It's not a waste of time for me. It has made me into a visual observer, allowing me to learn techniques to capture far more detail than I ever did before I sketched.  It has slowed me down, teaching me patient while building some new skills I didn't know I had. Finally, it has brought enjoyment to me. I'm not sure how many people enjoy the sketches I post of my observing sessions,  but I sure enjoy drawing them.  I love the challenge of doing that in the dark, of closing my observing eye, while then letting my red light on and sketching with my other eye and flipping back and forth.  I love dusting the pastel chalk off my shirt after a sketch and often off my forearm.  More importantly, the next day, I love looking at a sketch and saying that is a fair or excellent representation of what I saw.  It's not perfect, probably never will be, but man is it fun.  Finally it matters because it kept me in the hobby as I like to have things that challenge me and that make me grow as an individual, and I can say, I don't think I'll ever "arrive" as a sketcher or as a visual observer, it isn't in my nature.  I'll always strive to learn, to grow and to improve, its in my make-up, in my soul so to speak.  So, yes, sketching may not matter to some, but it does matter to me, and no, sketching is definitively not a waste of time.