Space Art : How to Draw and Paint Planets, Moons, and Landscapes of Alien Worlds

cover of space art book
Michael Carroll; Watson-Guptil; 144 pages, color illustrations, paperback, $24.95, ISBN 9780823048762

Reviewed by Don Dixon

I learned to paint from the wonderful Walter Foster art book series, which featured titles such as “How to Paint Landscapes,” “How to Draw and Paint Seascapes,” etc. Every niche of hobbyist painting was covered, from sunsets to still lifes. Typically, each subject would be explored through a series of illustrations showing the development of a painting from simple charcoal sketch, to rough color, to the finished work. Popular masters of the 50’s and 60’s such as Robert Wood and Violet Parkhurst let us look over their shoulders, sharing their “secrets” with struggling beginners. How I wish Michael Carroll’s Space Art had existed back then!

Space Art is not a primer on painting, although a beginner can pick up valuable techniques unlikely to be covered in more traditional “how to” books. While there is a good, brief discussion of media and tools, and an excellent presentation on color, the book assumes a basic knowledge of how to mix and work acrylics. What the beginning painter might find particularly useful, however, is Carroll’s discussion, throughout the book, on how to “see” — how to observe and depict the interplay of light and objects and atmosphere.

Any basic art book will contain a diagram showing how to render and shade the cube, cone, and sphere, but Space Art links this exercise to nature in a way that traditional art books generally do not. For example, most landscape artists rarely paint the moon correctly, either depicting it as a featureless white disk or a weird, banana-shaped crescent. This is, I think, because they haven’t made the conceptual leap that allows them to see the moon as a sphere, subject to the same rules of lighting as is an orange in a fruit bowl. They don’t see the illuminated part of the moon as its “day” side, and the dark part as its “night.” They haven’t realized that the dividing line between day and night — the terminator, to use astronomical parlance — is an arc of an ellipse: the shape of a great circle seen in perspective. After reading Space Art and attempting its exercises, beginning painters will have a deeper understanding of light and shadow that will make them better artists in any genre of painting.

Space Art takes the reader through fourteen exercises, ranging from the the almost mundane — “Earth seen from the Moon” — to the science-fictional landscapes of extrasolar worlds with binary suns. Brief essays by established space artists punctuate the exercises. These essays touch only lightly on technique, but delve more deeply into how space artists interpret the raw data of science and apply this knowledge to imaginatively portray a subject in a way that transcends a mere photograph. The sample illustrations by these guest artists range stylistically from plein air sketches to digital photographic realism. Carroll wisely restricts his exercises to techniques available to the beginner. Although he may sometimes use the airbrush or computer in his commercial work, subtle gradients in the exercises are created using fan brushes and sponges.

Space Art is not only a useful book, but a beautiful one, well printed and rich with color. A reader is likely to learn a bit of astronomy and geology along the way, and Carroll’s impish sense of humor comes through in the text, maintaining the friendly tone of a teacher who loves his work. Again, I wish a time traveler had brought this book to me forty years ago. Highly recommended for beginning — and developing — artists, in any genre.

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2 thoughts on “Space Art : How to Draw and Paint Planets, Moons, and Landscapes of Alien Worlds

  1. As one of the several artists (including, of course, the above reviewer!) – it’s a pity that these are not listed in the title pages or index – I should like to second Don’s comments. This is an excellent book. However, I don’t necessarily agree that it is a pity we could not have had this book in our hands 40 (or, in my case, 50+) years ago. I think that working out our own techniques and ways of dealing with the scales and distances involved gave us our individual styles and artistic characters. But as it is now possible for beginners to study the work of so many fine practitioners of this form of art – I had Chesley Bonestell and R.A.Smith – this book does encapsulate what newcomers to the field need to know.

  2. Dave is right! He had far fewer teachers than those of us who came along a tad later. He was — and is — one of mine, certainly. And in the spirit of full disclosure, both of us are indeed contributing essayists, but receive no royalties.

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