The Cosmos on a Palette

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"Star Path"

Space art is a genre I absolutely adore. It reels with visions of possibilities for our specie’s future endeavors. It’s a thrilling subject to probe and inspires the imagination. Like space exploration, space art is laden with vast opportunities of discovery. It’s one of those vehicles that approaches the big questions, scientific and philosophical questions. It’s the opportunity to peer back in time, to the beginning of time, to look toward the future, to investigate our origins, to understand our place in the universe, to better understand the very elements that make up who we are and all that is around us.

In my minds eye, as I paint, I love to imagine I’m visiting the worlds we are just now learning about, such as Pluto, Enceladus, and Europa. In my mind’s eye I voyage with future explorers to the surface of distant worlds to conduct research. I am far from Earth looking back at our beautiful blue planet and imagine how much I would miss this special and fragile oasis. These thoughts move me to create.

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“Shoreline of Sputnik Planum”

It is tremendously exciting to create abstract and conceptual pieces that tell our human story, the excitement of discovery, or the emotional response to exploring new realms. Anything can happen in pieces like these. You can tell a story that takes 30 minutes to verbally describe, but just one glance of a well-crafted image can make a viewer see a story in its entirety, stories that reach back to our ancient human migration toward future explorations of discoveries. Pieces such as these tend to lean toward my interests in human evolution, quantum sciences, or particle and theoretical physics.

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Over the years my interests in anthropology and paleoanthropology have strangely affixed to my space interests. For me, the two subjects align to define one single journey, a long, complex journey that man has been engaged in for many thousands of years; a journey from Earth to the stars. I often think about our early ancestors and what they must have thought when looking up on the immense bejeweled territory of the night sky. When did the ancient calling begin that set man’s course to eventually journey off the planet? Perhaps the first cosmic whispers beckoned to us on an ancient night so clear the stars seemed to pulse with life. From stone tools to rocket ships, we fashion the history of our future. How far into the universe can we roam? Such questions came to mind as I painted “People of Pinnacle Point”, a scene depicting a time some 75,000 years ago, when our ancient ancestors dwelled in the caves off South Africa’s Pinnacle Point in Mossel Bay. I wanted just the hint of human activity in this scene which as shown by the subtle glow of firelight emanating from the caves. (see Post #1)

Naturally, astronomy shows up in a lot of my work such as nebula, galaxies, planet and moons. But even when working on a piece unrelated to space I’ll sneak in subtle elements symbolizing science or astronomy. A good example of this is seen in “The Longest Night”. It was a spontaneous piece I started because I wanted to break an artistic block. When blocked I often work on an abstract or spontaneously push paint around until I see something developing within the strokes. It’s a liberating experience! As I worked the deep blues and aquas of “The Longest Night” I saw the shape of the bear emerging and then the questions started pouring out. What’s the story here? Why is the bear alone? Where is he going? How long has he been swimming? What is he in search of? Perhaps a new home? What has given him that look of seemingly peaceful resolve? It would seem the bear is experiencing a very long night. Aha! The title landed in my lap. I knew I wanted a full moon as my light source symbolizing a pathway leading into the distance past. Being that the longest night of the year is the winter solstice, it was fitting to add it to my theme. I researched the next time we shall see a full moon on winter solstice and learned it will be 2094. And so, a little bit of astronomy shows up in the background of a spontaneous composition and carries much of the story line from the past into the future.

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 “The Longest Night”

Unlike most acrylic artists I don’t use a wetting medium to keep the paint wet longer. If I need to loosen the paint for blending I just add a bit of water to my brush. When laying in the foundation I squeeze big globs of paint right onto the canvas and work fast with big brushes or rags to blend in a rough draft. If its a referenced composition, say that of a particular galaxy, I grid my canvas with chalk to scale and start laying in ghost details. The grid creates guidelines to help me maintain perspective as well as get the placement right in the details. As the painting develops I just re-apply the grid as needed.

Every nebula and galaxy have their own characteristics that make them identifiable, like fingerprints or landmarks, they are all unique. I’m careful to recognize and emphasize these landmarks. For instances, the three stars lined up in Orion Nebula M42, the bright trapezium at the core, the swirl of hot pink bowl shaped gases are some of what make it immediately identifiable. I tweaked those areas of my Orion Nebula painting to pop out at first glance.

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“Orion nebula M42”

For the soft gaseous clouds of a nebula and galaxy arms I use a dry brush technique by applying several light layers building from dark to light. I use the texture of the canvas to play a part in creating the soft glow affect of hot gases and star shine. I suppose after all my years of airbrushing my brain just wants that soft airbrush look! I find that light layers of dry brush does the trick. It’s time consuming but worth the effort. The prominent stars surrounding a nebula or galaxy are important landmarks as well and so I hand place them. At least 75% of my star fields are deliberately placed. The rest I achieve by flicking tiny drops of paint off the tips of my bristly brushes.

Whatever I’m painting and whenever I’m painting, I experience a sense of discovery. Every painting is a teacher.

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