Editor’s Report: Sketching the Sky

Visual at-the-eyepiece drawing shouldn’t be a forgotten art.


Before photography was widely used in astronomy — that is, before the late 1800s — research astronomers got as comfortable as possible behind the eyepiece of an observatory telescope and sketched what they saw. There were two main categories of sketching: the surface features of bright objects, primarily the Moon and planets; and faint targets that we now call deep-sky objects.

Sketching was not universally adopted by 18th- and 19th-century astronomers. For instance, William Herschel (1738-1822), probably the greatest observer of all time, attempted a few sketches but eventually gave up on it. Despite his momentous achievements in astronomy — discovering the planet Uranus, building the largest telescope in the world and finding and describing thousands of deep-sky objects — he never made a notable sketch. When Alan Dyer and I were looking for illustrations for our book, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, I searched Herschel’s books and published papers and came up empty. Of the few sketches I found, we decided not to include any in the book. The great man clearly had no aptitude in this area.

By the middle of the 20th century, sketching of all types was abandoned by research astronomers as being too subjective and subject to the observer’s artistic skills, or lack thereof. Sketching by amateur astronomers — both planetary and deep sky — continued to be the main technique used until the 1960s, when it went into decline. Since then, sketching has survived in the hands of a few skilled practitioners.

Karlsson-NGC7789 sketch

Our resident sketchmeister, John Karlsson, whose illustrations appear regularly in Ken Hewitt-White’s Scoping the Sky department, prepared this illustration of the dim but incredibly rich star cluster NGC7789.

One of these, John Karlsson, frequently sketches deep-sky objects, as seen in his 15-inch telescope, for Ken Hewitt-White’s Scoping the Sky department, which appears in each issue of SkyNews. Karlsson’s sketches bring both a realistic representation and an astronomical accuracy to what is, frankly, a languishing aspect of backyard astronomy.

In my long past and inevitably misspent adolescence (late 1950s, early 1960s), sketching was in vogue in amateur astronomy. After I acquired my first Christmas trash scope—a rickety 60mm refractor — I avidly embraced sketching: the Moon, double and multiple stars, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn. Upgrading to a quality 3-inch refractor only fuelled the flames of self-discovery.

What was not as obvious at the time was how sketching and the accompanying note keeping honed my observing skills. Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done, along with variable-star estimations, which was another in-vogue amateur astronomer activity in that era.

One more thing about John Karlsson’s sketches. The one of NGC7789, on the facing page, takes me back to my first look at this cluster with my new 8-inch Newtonian. I was bowled over by the delicacy of this gem in a good telescope under a black rural sky — wow!

Check out the September/October issue of SkyNews (on newsstands now) for an expanded version of Terence Dickinson’s Editor’s Report.

Categories: Editor's Report
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