Astronomical art is the term for a genre of modern artistic expression that strives to show the wonders of the Universe. Like other genres, Space Art has many facets and encompasses realism, impressionism, hardware art, sculpture, abstract imagery, even zoological art. Practitioners of the visual arts have for many decades explored space in their imaginations using traditional painting media and many are now using digital media toward similar ends. Science fiction magazines and picture essay magazines were once a major outlet for Space Art, often featuring planets, space ships and dramatic alien landscapes.
Astronomical art is the aspect of Space art devoted to visualizing the wonders of outer space. A major emphasis of such art is the space environment as a new frontier for Humanity. Many other works portray alien worlds, extremes of matter such as black holes, and concepts arising from inspiration derived from astronomy.
Though artists have been making art with astronomical elements for a long time, the genre of Space Art itself is still in its infancy, having begun only when humanity gained the ability to look off our world and artistically depicted what we see out there. Whatever the stylistic path, the artist is generally attempting to communicate ideas somehow related to space, often including an appreciation of the infinite variety and vastness which surrounds us. In some cases, artists who consider themselves Space Artists use more than illustration and painting to communicate scientific discoveries or works depicting space, some have had the opportunity to work directly with space flight technology and scientists in attempts to expand the arts, humanities, and cultural expression relative to space exploration.
Astronomical art was largely pioneered in the 1940s and 50s by the abilities of Chesley Bonestell to solve formidable perspective problems, paint with the eye of a master matte artist to create a realistic visual impression, and to seek out the greatest experts in the fields which fascinated him. His work helped inspire many in the post war era to think about space travel, which seemed fantastic before the V-2 rocket. To this day numerous artists assist in bringing ideas into presentable form in the space community, both in portraying the latest ideas on how to leave Earth and in showing wonders awaiting us out there.
Astronomical art came to wider publicity only in the 1950s with Collier’s, This Week, and Coronet magazines. The Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley’s book was published in the United States in 1949.
Astronomical art is a spacecraft art. Spacecraft is often closely linked to science fiction and fantasy art, and is often the science fiction itself. Spacecraft has been created in the 1950s by prolific Chesley Bonestell, from the 1970’s onwards, David A. Hardy, Bill Hartmann and Don Dixon, and many others. Space art moves around the boundaries between art and science, and the artist often uses his imagination freely. Space art seldom hits the right image of the surfaces of foreign planets. For example, in Bonestell’s painting, the moon’s mountains are steep, in reality they are rather loose. Bonestell’s image of Titan’s surface is different from that of a Space Sergeant. Since many of the objects in the space can only be made inaccurate, distant observations, the demand for spacecraft is still fierce. Space art can also be an image of a space shuttle in space, for example.
Astronomical Art is the most recent of several art movements which have explored the inspirational ideas emerging from ongoing exploration of Earth, (Hudson River school, or Luminism) the distant past, (ancient history and prehistoric animal art) and finally the steadily revealed universe. Most Astronomical artists use traditional painting methods or digital equivalents in a way which brings the viewer to the frontiers of human knowledge gathered in the exploration of space. Such works usually portray things in the familiar visual language of realism extrapolated to exotic environments whose details reflect ongoing knowledge and educated guesswork. An example of the process of creating astronomical art would be studying and visiting desert environments to experience something of what it might be like on Mars, and painting based on such experience. Another would be to hear of something likely to be amazing to watch close up, then seeking out published articles or experts in the field. Usually there is an artistic effort to emphasize the favorable visual elements just as a photographer composes a picture. The best astronomical art shares with the viewer what it is that catches the artists imagination about the subject portrayed.
Science Fiction magazines such as Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing, Astounding (later renamed Analog), and Galaxy served as a major outlet for the work of space and particularly astronomical artists in the 1950s. The several picture essay magazines of the time such as Life, Collier’s, and Coronet were other major outlets for such art. Today astronomical art can be seen in magazines such as Sky and Telescope, The Planetary Report and occasionally in Scientific American. Individual web sites are by far the best place to see such work today. The NASA fine arts program has been an ongoing effort to hire artists to create works generally specific to a particular space project. This page is primarily devoted to what has traditionally been the most successful aspect of this program, the documenting of historical events in recognizable form by professional artists. The NASA Fine Arts Program operated in the era of seemingly unlimited progress at the time of the first head of that program, James Dean, although even then pictorial realism seemed a subset rather than a dominating visual influence.
Space artists may work closely with space scientists and engineers to help them to visualize and develop their scientific and technological concepts of making the dream of space exploration a reality. Other forms of pictorial Space Art bring the viewer to inner visions inspired directly or otherwise by the fruits of the expanding vision of Humanity. Some aspects of such art pay visual homage to outer space, popular ideas of life on other worlds including alien visitation visions, dream symbology, psychedelic imagery and other influences on contemporary visionary art.
Now that artists have experienced free-fall conditions during flights flown with NASA, the Russian and French Space Agencies, and with the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium, new methods of artistic expressions unknowable today will unfold as artists imagine new ways to utilize microgravity environments to create artistic works. Although such dreams await substantial opportunity, early efforts by artists to have art pieces placed in space have already been accomplished with painting, holography, microgravity mobiles, floating literary works, and sculpture.
The works which document space flight situations such as those referenced above are similar in concept to government efforts during World War II to send artists to battle zones to document things as they saw it, much of which appeared in contemporary Life magazines.
Space Art as a genre and the artists that create it embrace a wide range of styles. In the visual arts these styles can be categorized as follows.
The direct inheritor of the artistic standards of Chesley Bonestell, Descriptive Realism is an aspect of Astronomical Art whose primary emphasis is to show a viewer a scientifically accurate visual depiction of alien places in the Cosmos. When creating Astronomical Art one should have a sense of why the lighting, sky color, even the chosen landscape surroundings appear as they do, and how a change in a specific condition as on other worlds could alter the scene. One should also have a reasonable “grounding” in science, the nature of the sky and weather, geology for knowing the Earth, as well as Astronomy for knowing the heavens.
Like works done in the impressionist era, Space Art works in the Cosmic Impressionism style use color and form to give a viewer the artist’s impression of the image subject matter without trying to be technically accurate, highly detailed, or adhering to known scientific principles. Despite being more loose, the subject matter is still clearly inspired by space.
Hardware Art is usually similar to Descriptive Realism but focuses on the detailed depiction of the hardware of spaceships, probes, and equipment being used in a space setting.
Works of Space Art Sculpture are more difficult to recognize as such as they are usually more symbolic or abstract in nature, like a rocket shape, stained glass windows representing stellar objects, or a sculptured work designed specifically for zero gravity display. However, the prime inspiration for three dimensional works of Space Art is the same as other styles, space itself.
Though the question of other life in the universe has yet to be answered, artists can speculate about it and imagine the possibilities. Cosmic Zoology is the depiction of extraterrestrial life in extraterrestrial settings.
Works in other methods of artistic expression such as music composition and dance can also be inspired by space and are considered Space Art in their fields.
Another close parallel to Astronomical art is Dinosaur art. Both art schools explore unreachable realms with the intent to bring a sense of reality to them. The ‘Grand Masters’ of that field such as Charles R. Knight and Zdeněk Burian worked with experts in the field, using the best available information to create a realistic vision of something we can never behold with our own eyes. Ideally, as with Astronomical art, such a work tries to show what is known about the subject, with some educated guesswork to fill in the unknown and unknowable. We see more recent works by a healthy number of great dinosaur artists which reflect the growth in knowledge in body stances and likely feathers, etc. just as we see alien landscapes now painted which reveal the gathered knowledge instead of the craggy fantasies and the ‘blue sky’ Mars of yesteryear. Most of today’s widely published space and astronomical artists have belonged since 1983 to the International Association of Astronomical Artists.