text copyright © Don Davis
On Space Art
The categories of fantastic
yet believable imagery explored by devoted artists keeping track
of recent developments and discoveries included distant locations,
distant times, and finally distant places in the Universe.
Alma-Tadema comes to mind as an artist who used ongoing archeological discoveries in his portrayals of ancient scenes. By choice or by neglect, the late 19th century period the works were done in can be determined by the hair styles shown! At the start of the 1900's Charles R. Knight became the old master of prehistoric life, painting dinosaurs and mammals of past eras using his considerable knowledge of animal anatomy to help fill in what the fossils left us to guess at. His mammal work has fared better than his dinosaur work, but our opening visions of the subject at that time are thus preserved.
The desire to see into exotic realities we can never directly experience can be satisfied by an artist using whatever is known of the subject as a starting point, and trying to fill in the unknown by educated guess, instinct, and imagination. The emergence of Astronomical art as a means of showing what such and such a distant place revealed by our enlarged inquiries might look like is the latest of several such schools of painting which have attracted great artists in recent history.
The dawn of space art roughly coincides with the opening decades of the 20th Century, largely with the emergence of paintings of space scenes in the Illustrated London news by Lucien Rudaux during the 1920's. A generation later Chesley Bonestell would practically recreate the genre singlehandedly. British artist Ralph Andrew Smith also created detailed portrayals of a post war Lunar Landing proposal by the British Interplanetary Society.
As our knowledge of the Universe has grown the painters inspired by our new insights and the range of their visions have themselves multiplied, as have the methods available to them.
The website of the IAAA, the International
Association of Astronomical Artists, has information
on this movement and works to continue the tradition. Here is
some info on the greatest luminary of this tradition.
On Chesley Bonestell
Chesley Bonestell was
a contemporary of Maxfield Parrish, and indeed some of their painting
techniques were similar with one fundamental difference. Parrish
painted like a human lithography press, laying down first the
yellow 'layer' applied in it's prearranged strength to combine
with the red and blue layers applied also in amounts carefully
calculated to glaze together and form the desired colors after
being layered atop each other!
The May 29, 1944 LIFE magazine contains an article on the Solar System which probably introduced Bonestell's space art to more people at one time than any one place, the series of Saturn seen from various moons. In this group is the first version of the famous 'Saturn seen fromTitan' piece, the vast Saturn filling the sky of Mimas with the tiny figures 'added for scale', and the Iapetus scene whose mountains made a comeback for the Antares scene mentioned later.
The March 4 1946 LIFE contained a 'trip to the Moon' article where more Bonestell art, which was to appear in 'Conquest of Space', (his classic) first appeared. 'The World We Live In' was a large 'coffee table book' based on an extended nature series published in Life. The resulting book was probably the greatest gathering of artistic talent ever applied in one volume to the sharing of the wonders of nature with the public.
The paintings of Chesley Bonestell would, more than any other artist, gave life to space art, creating as never before the sense of other worlds being places of their own rather than dimensionless dots on a sky chart. His magnificent painting ability was honed by a deep understanding of perspective and lighting effects gathered while pursuing careers of first architectural rendering, then matte painting for Hollywood. His matte work graces the backgrounds of many a fine film in the 1930's and 1940's, including 'Citizen Kane', widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. Another 'Class Act' he had a hand in was the design of the corner gargoyles of New York's Chrysler Building, one of the classics of American architecture. During the planning of the Golden gate bridge he painted studies of how the finished structure would appear. He was in effect a human CAD system for that task!
After World War Two the V-2 and the Atomic bomb made speculation of space travel seem less of a pipe dream, and a symposium on space flight brought to the public a maturing vision of the possibilities at hand. From this series, hosted by prominent author Cornelius Ryan, emerged a series of 1950's articles in Collier's magazine and three widely seen Disney programs. In a series of books with Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun, Bonestell painted the scenery on the Moon and Planets as it was believed to be, embellished with dramatic license within the bounds of what was known at the time. The paintings were endowed with realistic treatment of lighting and shadows and other painterly means to make the picture look plausable. The hardware being imagined at the time to bring people to these exotic places was painted with the crisp realism of a bridge or skyscraper design.
In 'The World We Live
In', the beginning and end of the book featured Bonestell's visions
of the beginning of the World and the infinite cosmos beyond it.
When my Mother and Stepfather moved to Menlo Park, we had as next
door neighbors an eccentric artist couple, Mary Anne and Ted Ligda.
They were especially good to my brother and I, anxious to allow
potential artists to dabble in painting. They had a fully furnished
upstairs artists studio with immense supplies of oil paints and
I first seriously tried to learn oils in that small wooden room with many little shelves built in to the walls apparently tailored to the size of science fiction pulp magazines. There were row after row of issues of yhe science fiction magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astounding, Analog, and Galaxy, mostly from the 50's. I soon noticed the variety and ability of the artists who painted the covers. Fantasy and Science Fiction in particular would occasionally do a wraparound cover for an exceptional painting. Artists like Emshwiller, (he only used the first four letters in his signatures), Mel Hunter, Kelly Freas, Schonherr, Van Dongen, and of course Bonestell could be seen often on newsstands in the golden age of Science Fiction in the 1950's. F&SF in particular seemed to showcase Chesley's work, with works from those prepared for the books Conquest of Space, Exploration of Mars and other space books often appearing. Seeing such a large number of new Bonestell paintings at once was a revelation for me, I admired the realism and wondered how he accomplished it. When I pointed out Bonestell's work the Ligdas instantly knew who Chesley was, and even knew that he lived in nearby Berkeley!
Soon I had looked up Bonestell's telephone number and called him up. God knows what he made of me, but the fact that I asked good questions made the difference. Among other things I asked about artists I admired, and learned that Charles R. Knight had been dead for 20 years, and that he didn't think much of Mel Hunters work. One of the Galaxy issues had an article on the making of the film 'Conquest Of Space', and when I asked him what he thought of the film he unhesitatingly said in a barely restrained manner "I hated it!" Called in as matte painter and technical advisor, he had in numerous paintings taken our vague vision of Mars and filled in the details using his scenery painting skills. Based on the best knowledge of the day, there would only at most be eroded remnants of mountains, and flat rolling light orange sands. The jury was still out on the nature of the dark regions and the seasonal 'wave of darkening' which in earlier decades was cited as possible evidence of seasonal changes in widespread vegetation.
Bonestell visited the Mars landing set for the movie and saw a wide container of dark beet red sand with chunks of obsidian sticking out of it. He at once protested that this wasn't the way it was, and naturally he was ignored. When the final film came out it was such an empty mockery of the book that Chesley became very cynical of the movie business. He in fact warned me to stay out of Hollywood! Now when I see 'Conquest of space' it is a sad irony that the only thing that separates that awful film from the 'Golden Turkey Award' status is the fact that Chesley's matte paintings look so good.
I'm sure I bugged him just a bit
too much, but I convinced him to have a look at my art, and he
told me of an upcoming party he was going to at his agent Bill
Estler's house. Estler was a man active in arts circles
of the Midpennensula. In January '69 it was arranged that I bring
a few paintings to nervously present to the Master, My ship in
a dried out ocean bottom painting, a Moon painting, and a few
others. As I arrived I saw Estler was an avid art collector and
owner of a treasure laden house on Lincoln street in Palo Alto.
Once you went into the long hedge lined driveway, you found yourself
passing through a gate into a tree sheltered sanctuary, with a
generous back yard filled with paths, fountains, and plants woven
into mature patterns on trellises and small statues. His house
was a residential museum.
I asked Bill what his oldest possession was, and he showed me a simple bronze vase from Imperial Rome.
In an outdoor dinner party in his back yard he introduced me to Chesley. At 78 he looked old but far from infirm, with an air of sternness laced with humor. Chesley was truthful but kind to me as I showed him my paintings, seeing enough to encourage me to study perspective and invited me to show him more work later. This was the start of an extended series of visits with Chesley and his wife Hulda, during which many a story and word of advice was given to this young eager artist. At the time of the Apollo 11 mission a massive collection of Bonestell's work was shown at the nearby Palo Alto medical clinic, where I examined many of his originals and could see much that no reproductions could show germane to the painting techniques involved.
Unfortunately, Willy Ley, who had done so much to spread popular enthusiasm during the post-war era for what was about to take place, died a couple weeks before Apollo 11's launch. But he died knowing it was going to happen. Von Braun was capping off his supremely successful multi-national career, and partly due to his efforts Chesley lived to finally see and paint the Moon as it really was, at the start of the 'Third Age Of Space' which Ley had described in 'The Conquest Of Space'. This age, one of human exploration of space, followed the age of telescopic study, which was in turn preceded by that of what the raw human senses could discern.
He told me the first space painting he did was of Mars after seeing it in the then new 36 inch refractor at Lick Observatory high atop the South Bay Area. Shortly afterwards he did a painting of Saturn as seen through that telescope. Here is a scan of a print of a version of that work he gave me while making sure I had good references for the rings.
No artist saw as much of our perceptions change of ones subject matter as did he. From imagining and painting a Mars with canals, grassy plains, and no mountains he finally got to paint the truth based on probes actually landed there. He lived to know what asteroids looked like, how the Moon would be first explored, and what a lot of moons unknown when he was born actually looked like. Most of his pre space flight Moon paintings tended to exaggerate the vertical relief of mountains, partly because of their appearance in contrasty observatory photos, and partly because of dramatic license inspired by the landscape elements in Gustav Dore' engravings.
Among his advisors were giants in the space field, from Rocket Men Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun, to Astronomers Robert S. Richardson and Gerard Kuiper.
In the 'Seventies I began a long and rewarding series of visits to Chesley Bonestell's house in Carmel, where his gracious wife Hulda would entertain me and my girlfriends (and eventually my wife) until Chesley would appear, take me up into his studio up the stairs in the back, and look at whatever work I had brought. He would look good and hard at it, tell me first the things he liked about a particular work then about the aspects of the picture he didn't like. He was ruthless and also enlightening to show one's work to. He told you what he thought and you listened. I came away from every visit determined to do better the next time. He was highly educated, and enjoyed discussing ancient civilizations, religion, politics, and of course art. He revered FDR, but despised Truman. In one of the Colliers nuclear destruction paintings he pointed out the White House blazing brightly, with reserved glee saying he was glad to show Truman burning.
Among the many films he painted
background mattes for were 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'The
Thief of Baghdad'. Once while visiting his studio in Carmel he
showed me a detailed photograph of one of the 'Thief of Baghdad'
city scenes, pointing out some ladies panties hung in a window
in the distance. He said it was a little joke of the kind he sometimes
would sneak through, this one appearing as a signal by a housewife
to let her lover know the 'coast was clear'!
Of the San Francisco Earthquake, Chesley recalled being awakened after a short rest from partying by the tremendous shaking and crashing, he started awake and exited through a ground floor window, narrowly being missed by a piece of falling chimney as he did so. He saw the streets suddenly filled with rats, running from below the covered sidewalks and scurrying from one side of the street to the other. This catastrophe impressed itself in his artists mind and future paintings would treat the world to possible disasters natural and man made.
One of his atomic war paintings, of the Kremlin being destroyed, received an angry response from Soviet sources, which called him a war monger!
Once I pointed out an old sepia tone photo of a group of young men in suits, old co-workers with Chesley in New York. I asked if anyone else in the picture was alive and he told me no, he was the only one still living. During one such visit Bonestell was working on the last of his major space art books, 'Beyond Jupiter', which had several portrayals of the same Grand Tour spacecraft featured in a Planetarium show I had just worked on. The painting from this book I admired the most was the dim Mercury landscape, lit from behind by Earth and Venus, with the ghostly tapering Zodiacal light looming above the mountainous horizon.
It was Bonestell who first made me aware of the Zodiacal light when I inquired about the bidirectional glow emerging from the Sun in his paintings. At first I thought it was one of several devices artists employ to suggest brightness, like lens flare or a 'fogged lens' look. This is indeed a real feature, a thin but wide lens shaped cloud of dust occupying the same plane as the orbits of the Planets. Chesley said it is faint but quite observable away from city lights.
When I first saw it years later delicately glowing like a diffuse vague wedge it surprised me how large and noticeable it can be under truly dark skies.
The importance of understanding
perspective was the first thing Chesley emphasized. It is like
understanding the rules of punctuation before trying to write.
The fundamental role of perspective drawing in this business was
repeatedly emphasized, and he even made a series of drawings for
me summarizing techniques for portraying objects in various perspectives.
It was often like drafting a three view drawing, with lines running
from the viewpoint to the object and the angles carefully noted
in the 'plane of the picture'.
He also showed me a good method of drawing ellipses. Radial lines drawn from the centers of two circles (sized to the major and minor axis of the desired ellipse) were connected with right angles drawn from the places the lines intersected the circles. Where the two sets of derived lines crossed (horizontal lines from one, vertical from the other), an ellipse could be interpolated. The more lines drawn the better the quality of the resulting curves. Bonestell also told me of many of his painting techniques. In his matte painting days he found a mixture of white, London Oil Colours Windsor Blue and Burnt Umber made an excellent match with a natural blue sky.
He painted using methods similar to those the Dutch masters employed. Oil paints were applied with initial underpaintings defining the overall tonal values refined by layer after layer of thin glazes of oil paint suspended in translucent painting medium. Black skies are a particular challenge with oils, the 'slope' of the irregularities of the final painted surface must be confined to less than a few degrees if you want a region of glossy dark blackness free as possible from highlights.
This is done with layers of paint sufficiently liquid to lose their brush marks after application. Landscape details are less important to keep smooth, but ideally all the 'modeling' effects desired are portrayed rather than applied, to facilitate photography. Among his many pieces deserving of comment are:
His painting of Palomar observatory, with golden sunset clouds behind it. A more exquisite portrayal of the play of light on solid forms would be hard to name.
The 'Antares' scene from 'beyond the Solar System' (stolen, unfortunately) has a joyous play of multicolored light in the clouds of an inhabited craggy world of a red giant.
The astronaut being buried on the rim of a Martian crater is another of my favorites, reminding one of the unforgiving nature of exotic frontiers.
Chesley made the universe seem
real to a generation who would one day help bring us images revealing
the true nature of many of the things he painted.
Chesley Bonestell and I looking at his first art book at his Carmel house balcony.
Author Gregory Benford met me through referral
by Bonestell. My illustrating some of his stories first brought
my work science fiction magazine covers. This was the start of
innumerable appearances of my work in print over the coming decades.
Here is Greg Benford's essay 'View From Titan', which captures a bit of the times and background of the beginnings of my publishing career. For some reason I can't make this a hot link but copying and pasting works fine: