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Imagine That: NASA's Photos Eclipse Space Art

June 18, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

From a cramped garage in Long Beach, astronomical artist Don Dixon has conjured the cosmos -- geysers of liquid methane on Titan, Martian moonrises, a supernova in deep space.

He's taken people to places they could barely imagine through his illustrations, which have appeared over two decades in Scientific American, Omni and other magazines.

Then came the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers and other high-powered robotic explorers that have poured out ever more amazing images.

Even space artists, who have spent their careers imagining the universe, reel at the photos of boulders on Saturn's moon Titan or star clusters 270 million light-years from Earth.

Reality, Dixon said with a sigh, has gotten too awesome. "NASA has overtaken us."

Just as the development of photographic cameras in the 19th century set fine artists on the road to abstraction, new astronomical technologies are shaking the world of space art, spurring space artists to seek out new subjects and experiment with new styles.

For decades, the field was dominated by the "rock and ball" school, named after the traditional space-art approach of meticulously drawing every detail science can glean about a place -- the shape of craters, the angle of light, the hue of the sky, the position of stars.

Now a new school is rising, synthesizing the awesomeness of space with modern art genres. Some have dubbed the school "cosmic expressionism" or simply the "swirly" school, after the swirling sky in Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Combined with the usual blackness of space and alien landscapes are images of soaring eagles, free-floating fetuses, surreal Dali-esque scenery, drip art and other embellishments on the awesome majesty of the universe.

It's a freewheeling mix of genres just barely held together by the fact that they're all set somewhere on the final frontier.

While the rock-and-ballers are still secure in their position as the preeminent interpreters of the cosmos, they are beginning to worry that their trade can't go on as it always has.

Dixon remembers the moment he saw the famed Hubble photograph of the Eagle Nebula's pillars of gas and dust.

It blew his mind.

"Images created from the Hubble data are what some of us jokingly call bad space art," Dixon said. "They are so fantastically weird, like the Eagle Nebula. Before Hubble took that picture, no astronomical artist worth his salt would have painted anything like that."


Dixon, an affable, slightly geeky man with intense blue eyes and a quick step, can be found most days at Griffith Observatory, where he works as art director, overseeing new planetarium shows and the facility's artwork.

But on Fridays -- his day off -- he's usually in his garage working on some extraterrestrial art project.

Dixon, who grew up in Rialto, drew his first picture at age 4 after catching a glimpse of a meteor from the window of his grandfather's Studebaker. From then on, he was constantly sketching rockets and crater-filled landscapes.

It was a no-brainer that he majored in physics at UC Berkeley with the intention of becoming an astronomer, but his artistic career eventually overtook his studies.

He started selling color slides of paintings of Saturn's rings and Martian landscapes to schools and planetariums. Magazines started buying his art, and he landed his first cover in 1974 with an image of Jupiter hanging over the desert-like landscape of its moon Io.

Astronomers have made technical drawings of the planets ever since there were telescopes, but it was an artist named Chesley Bonestell who took the craft and lifted it into mainstream art.

Bonestell, born in San Francisco in 1888, started as an architect who helped design the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. At 50, he began another career, painting backgrounds for movies, including "Citizen Kane" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"He always had an interest in astronomy, and he figured if he combined his interest in light and shadow, photorealist techniques, he could do something nobody did before," said Ron Miller, 58, a Virginia space artist and historian.

Bonestell, who settled in the Los Angeles area, began to sell his space paintings to magazines. "His pictures of the solar system were indistinguishable from travel snapshots in Life magazine in the mid-'40s," Miller said.

Bonestell aimed for scientific accuracy and sought out scientists such as rocket expert Wernher von Braun. Bonestell illustrated a series of articles by Von Braun about manned space flight in Collier's magazine in the 1950s, which have been credited with helping kick-start the Golden Age of manned spaceflight, Miller said.

Others artists quickly followed. Today, the International Assn. of Astronomical Artists has more than 120 members in 20 countries. Some still paint with traditional media, but most create their works on a computer.

Miller likens space artists to the 19th century painters who depicted the sublime vistas of the American wilderness.

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