Some artists would consider the subject dull: faceless men in white suits walking around on a gray, powdered surface, the background a starless, ink-black sky.
But to Alan Bean, the fourth of a dozen men to walk on the moon, that landscape signaled a new career and a chance to artistically record a historic subject.
"I think it fulfills a human need to look back and record a great event," Bean said of painting his impressions garnered while piloting the Apollo 12 mission's lunar module in 1969. "My goal is to tell the story of man's first exploration off this world."
Bean, 56, recently attended a five-day workshop at the California Art Institute in Calabasas, taught by artists Neil Boyle and Ron McKee. The school, founded by artist Fred Fixler four years ago, teaches 160 students the basics of drawing, oils and watercolor.
Bean began painting landscapes at age 30 during his test pilot days, but didn't consider moonscapes until after he commanded the 59-day Skylab 3 space station flight in 1973.
"My main regret is that I didn't take along some watercolors or acrylics," Bean said of his moonwalk. "I could have then made the first art on the moon. It never dawned on me. I was so wrapped up in doing the technical part of the job."
Working from NASA photographs and posed shots, Bean has completed 56 paintings, many of them already sold, of moonwalks. He is focusing on that subject, he said, because he knows it best, even though the moon's black, white and gray color scheme creates a challenge.
"How do you take those three neutral colors and make them into something that's beautiful, and also looks like the moon?" Bean asked while looking at a painting of astronaut David Scott drilling a 3-meter hole into the moon's surface. Tucked behind his easel were reserve jars of acrylic labeled "Deep Space, Lunar Surface" and "Space Suit Shadow."
In a painting of himself titled "That's How It Felt to Walk on the Moon," Bean worked around the lackluster colors by painting his white astronaut suit pastel yellow, lavender and blue to convey the ethereal feeling of lunar gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth's.
"There's a certain way you can do it that it still looks like a white suit," Bean said, brushing some crimson acrylic into the leg of a suit. "If you don't do these colors right, then it suddenly looks like a green suit or a blue suit. So it takes a lot of messing around to figure out how to do it."
Before applying finishing touches, Bean texturizes his work with artifacts used on the moon, such as boots, a circular coring device used to extract lunar soil and a hammer. The marks are subtle and Bean feels they add value and interest. Recently, he has mixed charred cosmic dust collected off the Apollo 12 heat shield with his acrylic paints.
"I wish I had more things," Bean said.
Bean also writes a 250-word story that describes each event he renders.
Leonard Andrews, owner of the Andrew Wyeth Helga paintings, which were recently shown at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, purchased one of Bean's paintings and has commissioned another.
"It's incredible--it looks quite good," Andrews said of Bean's use of moon artifacts in a conversation from Andrews' office in Newton Square, Pa. "He's trying to reproduce the ruggedness of the moon--he said it's a very rugged place. It sounds bizarre, but I tell you it really looks fine.
"I think he's a darn good artist."
Bean said he had doubts if the public would consider his work "real art" after he launched his new career, resigning as NASA's chief of astronaut training in 1981. But art collectors, many of them history buffs, pay from $10,000 to $35,000 for an Alan Bean original, partly because Bean is the only moonwalker who has turned his experience into an artistic commodity.
The Smithsonian has shown his paintings and the Greenwich Workshop distributes lithographic, limited edition prints. Bean said he is a little disappointed that NASA and other astronauts have not made purchases, but said he realizes they're not the "original-painting crowd."
An exhibition of Bean's work along with that of Soviet space artist Alexi Leonov, the first man to walk in space, was shown at the Scientific Museum in Paris in 1985. Bean befriended Leonov while serving on a backup crew for the Soyuz-Apollo mission, which Leonov commanded in 1975.
Bean never thought he would one day make a living painting astronauts. He assumed he would "work for an aircraft company or something" after leaving NASA, but a friend suggested he turn his weekend painting forays into a career.
"And I said, 'you're crazy,' " Bean recalled. "I couldn't make a living doing that."
Realizing that being a full-time artist was probably not as romantic and easy as it sounded, Bean took a two-week leave from NASA to explore the new career.