Zen and the Art of Lunar Sketching

The Moon is a great target for observing. I once read that a person appreciated watching the shadows "move" across the surface of the Moon and this idea appealed to me. Sort of like watching grass grow or rust, a contemplative appreciation of being. Thinking that I would use sketching as way to pass the time I grabbed my Bic retractable pencil and a piece of blank paper and prepared for some lunar-Zen-time. I quickly learned that with just a few minutes of careful study it is possible to watch the lunar diurnal progress. The deep black shadow stealthily slips across mountain, valley and plain like a Stephen King blob-monster. Instead of using sketching to pass time, it is a race against time as each sketch must be finished in about 40 minutes or else the subject has changed. I have discovered that sketching lunar features reveals more detail and develops an enriching familiarity. I do try to represent the feature to the best of my ability, but I accept that the finished product is my personal perception and should not be critically judged on its scientific accuracy, but rather enjoyed for its value as a record of the experience.

Over the years my sketching technique has changed considerably, in fact it seems to me that it is "technique" more than ability that determines the outcome of a sketch.

When I started to experiment with Lunar sketching I used ordinary computer paper, a Bic #7 pencil and my fingers to blend and smudge. Here are a few of the things I have learned that have improved the quality of my sketches:

  1. Heavier paper. For a few cents more you can pick up a little thicker paper that will stand up better to all the rubbing and erasing.
  2. A blending stump. This is a rolled paper tube that can be sharpened on the end. It does a more accurate and less messy job. Can be found at most Art supply stores.
  3. Charcoal. A stick or bar of soft charcoal or burnt willow allows a light wash of easily erased and workable shading.

The steps in creating a 40-minute lunar sketch:

  1. Search the terminator and select a feature that looks like a nice target. Bump the power up to reduce eyestrain, I typically use 316x and I do not notice any discomfort or lasting "ghosting"
  2. Using the full page, do a quick line sketch of your selected target and the immediate area that fits comfortably on the page,... leave the rest blank (Figure #1).
  3. Use your charcoal and blending stump (or face cloth) to give a light wash of tone to the entire sketch, and then darken the deep shadow areas (Figure #2).
  4. Use your #7 mechanical pencil to black out the deepest shadow and to highlight contours and detail, and then blend to suit (Figure #3).
  5. Using a fine point retractable eraser create the brightly lit features such as crater walls and ridgelines. You can also use the eraser to give form to central peaks (Figure #4).

Each time you do a lunar sketch you will create a memory "connection" with the lunar feature you observed and over time the lunar surface becomes a more familiar place. It is interesting to notice the dramatic changes that occur as the shadows slide across the surface. Who knows someday you might even sketch something that looks a little like what you were looking at!

Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

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Figure 4

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These cold, clear winter nights are perfect for gazing up at the sky and rediscovering the real meaning of space. Itís the same wide-screen extravaganza, unreeling night after night. Your grandparents watched it. So did Mackenzie King and Champlain and Shakespeare and Cleopatra and Moses and Methuselah, all the way back to those nameless, heavy-browed shuffling ancestors of yours and mine, huddling in caves, fearfully peering out at the nocturnal spill of jewels across the sky.

- Arthur Black, CBC radio personality