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Drawing the Planets: some tips and anecdotes


Figure 1. A selection of Richard McKim's drawings of Mars around its 2010 opposition.I am sometimes asked for advice about planetary drawing. Years ago I discussed various techniques at some length with my old friends the late Richard Baum and Paul Doherty, who were among the UK’s masters of the art. I also had discussions with those superb observers Audouin Dollfus and Shiro Ebisawa when I was working at the Meudon Observatory in Paris. And as an archivist (and the BAA Mars Coordinator over four decades) I have had the huge advantage of examining the original Mars drawings of hundreds of famous observers including William Herschel, Eugène-Michel Antoniadi and T.E.R.Phillips. I have given a selection of my own Mars drawings in Figure 1, these being for the 2010 opposition. South is uppermost in all illustrations of planets.

I will mostly write about drawing Mars here, as it is easier to draw than some other planets. You will need a printed blank, perhaps already blacked round, or just a circle 5 cm in diameter drawn on the page. A blank or report form can be downloaded from the Mars Section website. If you are drawing a circle on paper, try to use a medium weight drawing paper. Not too much texture, but also not too thin. White card can be used but must be high quality, and certainly not the shiny sort. Figure 2 is a Mars blank.

What I write about Mars can be applied to the other planets. The other planetary Sections offer blanks and forms for the other planets. But if you want to draw an elliptical outline of Jupiter in a hurry, take a large roll of sellotape, squash it slightly, and draw round the inside!

Figure 2. The BAA Mars blank.

First, if the planet is some way from opposition, you will need to draw in the phase. The BAA Handbook will help you here, but it is perfectly acceptable simply to draw it in by eye. Notice however from Figure 1 that the greatest phase ‘defect’ is not generally 90 degrees away from the north-south line. Second, an outline sketch of the albedo features should be attempted. The telescopic image is small, but the drawing blank for Mars looks relatively huge at arm’s length. Therefore it is important to try not to lose sense of the correct scale when placing the details that you see through the eyepiece. A common fault is to draw the polar cap too small.

Personally I mentally divide the planet’s N-S or E-W diameter into fifths or tenths, and simply estimate how far a particular feature is from the centre or edge of the disk. For example, the northern tip of the Syrtis Major might be on the Central Meridian (the imaginary N-S line that bisects the centre of the disk), in the E-W sense, and one tenth of the polar diameter to the north of that centre in the N-S sense. So now you can draw that in, to scale. I suggest using an HB pencil. The north polar cap might occupy one fifth of the diameter of the disk in the N-S sense, and two fifths east-west, and can be added likewise. Remember that its outline is often elliptical. Keep going, till you have represented everything you have seen through the eyepiece. This process should not take too long. Ten minutes ought to be enough, and remember to note the time once you have finished.

While still at the telescope, lightly shade in the outlines of the darker markings with the same pencil, and if you need to use a darker one, use a B or a 2B. Try to avoid using an even softer one, because they can be harder to control or to erase if you make a mistake. It is easiest to outline any brighter areas, clouds or frost, and the limb brightening if visible, with a dashed pencil line. Some observers use for shorthand a + sign for a slightly brighter area, and ++ for very bright; the letters ‘w’ (white) and ‘v.w.’ are an alternative. Most observers do not ‘finish’ their sketches at the telescope, but work them up indoors where there is a better light, and perhaps where the fingers will not be frozen! Colour notes should be made at the eyepiece, or written up as soon as you get indoors.

Now compare the finished outline drawing with the telescopic image. Inevitably the planet will have slightly rotated, but you should still have a chance to correct any significant mistakes.

Figure 3. A series of stepwise sketches of Jupiter from the ALPO Japan Planet Guidebook 2.

Not everyone has the aptitude or time to draw in colour, but colour notes can still be useful, even in the CCD era. For example, during the 2018 global dust storm a number of observers ’adjusted’ the colour of Mars to make it appear more reddish than it really was. At such times the planet appears more of a yellow colour, and the ‘Mark One Eyeball’ may even give a more useful and consistent opinion. And indeed some observers thought that the polar cap should always appear white, even when it was clearly tinted yellow or orange by dust from the storm!

Let us assume you are now back indoors, and seated at a desk or table. To realistically portray the markings seen, their edges ought to be slightly softened. An artist’s stump is used for this, which is essentially a rolled cardboard tube in the shape of a pencil. Rub this lightly over your shaded drawing and you should get a more realistic looking result. Leave the limb alone as a bright area, as bright as the white paper. You may need to blunt the end of the stump if it is a new one. It can also be sharpened with a pencil sharpener. If you do not have a stump, you can use a bud of cotton wool or even some rolled up tissue paper. The one thing you must NOT use for smoothing is your finger. This is because your hands may be slightly sweaty, and any moisture rubbed into the paper will make it impossible to rub anything out, if (when) you make a mistake. Use a good quality eraser to erase the highlights. If you feel extra brightness is needed, wait till the sketch is absolutely finished and add a blob of Chinese White (zinc oxide) paint.

I have copied a series of stepwise sketches of Jupiter from the ALPO Japan (JALPON) ‘Planet Guidebook 2’ in order to show the progressive steps in making a finished sketch. See Figure 3. Don’t expect to see quite so much fine detail. Note that you must get the positions of the belts in accurately before attempting anything else. With Jupiter, once you have got the belts correct you must work faster with the details due to the more rapid rotation rate of the planet.

Paul Doherty told me that he tended to use fine pencil shading to complete a finished drawing, and was not so keen to use a stump. (He also had a rule that the writing up of notes always had to be done on the same evening, never left till the following morning!) An example of his colour work from the 1973 opposition is given in Figure 4. If you are very careful you can produce an excellent and realistic result with fine shading. Shiro Ebisawa used to draw from memory by observing intensively for ten minutes at the eyepiece, and then stepping away to make the drawing in one go. I have a vivid memory of the two of us taking turns to draw Mars at the eyepiece of the Meudon 33-inch refractor. He built up his drawings by effectively ‘scribbling’ with the pencil over certain limited areas, which enabled one to adjust and then pinpoint the positions of successive markings, in the same way that an artist might make quick, light, pencil construction lines upon a sketch if doing a portrait or drawing the figure of a model. He compared the technique to the way in which images are built up by speckle interferometry, and if I recall correctly, he did not use a stump either. I have adopted some of his advice over the years, and find it very useful for Mars where, with long experience, one knows how to draw the normal markings at any longitude. It is less helpful with Jupiter where so much is variable from night to night.

Figure 4. A colour sketch of Mars during its 1973 opposition by Paul Doherty.

In the early days of the BAA, the late Victorian members of the Mars and Jupiter Sections made use of ‘Mr Green’s erasing paper’, which were sheets of card with a number of pre-drawn blacked-round planetary disks. The disks were tinted with what was termed a ‘warm ground’ colour, and you would draw on them with a soft pencil to add the martian albedo features, or Jupiter’s belts. The fun began when you put in the highlights. Now you needed a sharp penknife, and a lot of skill. You would lightly erase the coloured paint, leaving the exposed white card beneath. Press too hard and the sketch would be ruined! For that reason, many observers used a piece of stale bread (!) to rub away the coloured paint: slower, but more certain of success. (I have tried this using stale bread with one the original cards: it really works.) Naturally, the presence of the fixed warm tint did not enable observers to use other colours, unless they added them by means of watercolour, but the results were pleasing and somewhat impressionistic, and were used to illustrate the early BAA Memoirs of the Mars and Jupiter Sections, where colour lithographic printing was used.

If you have just used a pencil circle for the outline of your Mars drawing, you should now black round the disk using Indian ink and a brush. I would recommend using a black biro to enhance and widen the 5 cm diameter pencil circle first, as this helps to avoid an accident with the ink. Indian ink can dry up shiny, however, and the recommended material for planetary artists is a matt paint called ‘Process Black’ in art shops. I can recommend it, though I tend to use pre-printed blanks.

An interesting point is how observers historically used to ‘fix’ their pencil sketches to avoid them getting smudged after they had been finished. Some used to float the cards face down on a dish of skimmed milk, remove them and let them dry. This did really work, though over the years a yellowish colour would develop. Nowadays you can use a spray fixative obtainable from any decent art shop, if you are sure the sketch is finished.

What about drawing in colour in modern times? Here I am going to share some tips I received from Richard Baum as long ago as 1980. I have used this method in making coloured drawings and can say that it works very well. At the same time I should admit that I generally leave my sketches as black and white versions in my notebook, because I rarely have time to make colour versions. To make a colour drawing you really need to make a second copy of your monochrome sketch, unless you wish take the risk that you might spoil it.

Figure 5. A watercolour of Mars by E-M. Antoniadi painted in September 1909.

Again speaking about Mars specifically, you first need to lay down a coloured background. Select a chalk pastel (not a wax crayon!) as close in tint to the brick-dust red of the planet as you can find. Using a sharp knife or penknife shave off some fine powder from the pastel onto a piece of paper to make a little heap. Using a piece of cotton wool or tissue, dab this pastel dust over the blank, working outwards from the centre and smoothing it, so that the edge of the disk is left white, representing the limb brightening. You should get a disk which is a uniform light orange colour. A realistic effect with the albedo features will now be produced if you generate some pencil dust in the same way from a 2B pencil, and use cotton wool to apply it to draw in the dark markings. You can faintly pencil in the outlines to help. A cotton bud works well here, and you can again use the artist’s stump for smoothing. Mistakes can still be erased. Sometimes the equatorial martian markings can take on a bluish hue, particularly the Syrtis Major at certain times of the martian year, when the equatorial band of seasonal white cloud is present. To tint the markings, you can use dust from appropriate pastels. Colour contrast will affect the apparent colours of the martian dark markings. A grey marking against an orange background will look slightly bluish. However, draw what you see, not what you expect.

It is possible to use watercolours to good effect. The late Harold Hill used watercolour, and sometimes he combined it with colour pastels where a deeper shade was needed here and there. However, this combined method will require a lot of experience and skill, and a thicker and higher quality paper. The paper needs to be slightly dampened before applying a colour wash, otherwise you will get a sharp edge. You may find it helpful to stretch the paper before wetting it to keep it flat, using the special tape sold for watercolourists. Excess paint can be removed with a sponge to create highlights. I will show you an outstanding watercolour made by E-M. Antoniadi from 1909 September: see Figure 5.

Figure 6. Saturn on 2nd March 2006 by Richard McKim.

I won’t deal much with other planets. My drawing of Saturn for 2006 March 2 in Figure 6 uses the colour pastel colouring technique. Viewed telescopically, colours are rather muted, and should be drawn as you see them. (Remember that contrast and colour intensity are often exaggerated in published electronic images.) For Saturn you can use a pre-prepared blank downloaded from the Saturn Section website, or trace or print one off using WinJUPOS or similar software, or use the small outline in the annual BAA Handbook. But I think it is cheating if you do not black in Cassini’s Division yourself. To do this, I recommend using a black biro. Always move the hand away from you in a convex arc when drawing an elliptical curve, turning the blank as necessary. (Ask yourself whether the Division crossing the globe was really black, or actually invisible due to part of the planet showing through it. If you use a printed blank you may end up with some black lines where you don’t want them.) Paul Doherty used to draw in the Cassini Division by hand using a fine sable paintbrush loaded with black paint. The slightest error would of course ruin the drawing, but Paul was an extremely competent artist and had a steady hand. The only disaster he ever had was with a set of Mars drawings he had just finished copying out for the BAA in the mid-1960s, when his cat jumped onto the table and knocked over the bottle of Indian ink all over his drawings. He could not face doing them again, so they remained in his notebook.

Finally, I am also going to show you some lovely pencil drawings of Mars from 1941 by F.J.Hargreaves, in Figure 7. In terms of the martian seasons, the 1941 opposition was very similar to 2020, which was one reason for choosing them.

Finally, you don’t need a clear night and a planet in the field of view to become a better artist. Copy a book or magazine illustration of a planet from a distance. Draw the projected image of sunspots, or try doing a friend’s portrait on a small scale (in this instance, I will allow you to cheat by copying a photograph). Indeed, you can do anything that will improve your assessment of proportions.

I have not touched upon making drawings by using computer software, or drawing with a finger using a tablet of some kind (the latter being something I definitely wouldn’t recommend, as the results are often crude).

Figure 7. Pencil drawings of Mars from 1941 by F.J.Hargreaves.

I could give many more examples as illustrations, but these tips (despite all the digressions) should be enough to get you started, and perhaps to make you think about the processes involved. Don’t dispose of your early works. Keep them and so learn from your mistakes. Good luck, and once you have gained some experience, don’t forget to send in your work to the BAA Section Directors. And I am happy to answer your questions, should you have any. My contact details are to be found at the back of the BAA Journal.

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