Sketching -- just part of astronomy's history?

In the November edition of Sky at Night Magazine one of the letters to the editor asks:

I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects
Sadly, the response from the editor doesn't really seem to answer the question. The nearest thing to an answer is:
while we won't be publishing sketches regularly, I'm certain we will cover the art of drawing astronomical objects at some point in the future
which, if I'm reading it correctly, looks like a "no" and a "yes" all at the same time.

The ambiguity in the answer given is bad enough, but some of the other comments made by the editor's reply seem to head off on a strange tangent. Take, for instance, this suggestion in relation to imaging with CCDs:
it's now very affordable, with the cheapest dedicated CCDs available for under £300
Doubtless, relatively speaking, that is cheap compared to prices from a few years ago, but in my opinion it totally misses the point and creates a false dichotomy. This isn't an either/or thing. If CCDs came free in every cereal packet I'd still want to sketch. I don't sketch because I don't have any form of imaging device, I sketch because I like to sketch, it's a great way of helping you concentrate on what you're observing and it's a great method of recording what an object actually looks like in the eyepiece. When I finally get some equipment for doing imaging I aim to make a point of sketching and imaging various objects so as to have a method of comparing what I see with what I can capture.

Another comment that concerned me was:
sketching is a hugely important part of astronomy's past
But not an important part of the present of amateur observing? Sorry, I just don't buy it. It's this sort of thing that has people getting into astronomy thinking that they've got to have a budget getting into four figures before they can really start to see and do anything worthwhile. It's bad enough when you see this sort of attitude on various astronomy BBs, it's very worrying to see it being published in a magazine that trades on the name that is synonymous with amateur astronomy in the UK.

If, as I suspect (and I wouldn't blame them for this), the magazine has identified that captured images look nice and sell more copies then they should just come out and say so — there's no shame in being honest about the economics of publishing a magazine. But is it really necessary to suggest that sketching and imaging is an either/or issue and that sketching is now part of the history of astronomy? It seems to me that sketching and imaging are both very useful.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.


Anonymous said...

The editor's response does seem rather noncommittal. Sketching is a great way to observe, if nothing else it helps you to be a better observer. People who just plug the camera in and press a few buttons often don't spend so much time really looking at the details of what they are observing (yes, I'm generalising, some photographers really do study the objects they observe). The budget issue is a common reason people give for being put off astronomy. A lot of visitors to our local society want to know how much money they need to spend to take good images. The common response is get a reasonable pair of binoculars first, much cheaper and it often suprises people how much you can actually see with simple equipment.

Ian Musgrave said...

I put in another vote for sketching. With a bit of practice and access to coloured pencils you can do gerat planetary detail that you cannot get with standard astrophotographs.

Astrosketching requires no batteries or computer processing. You never have to worry about a pencil freezing up, or getting covered in condensation or the accessiblities of powerpoints to recharge your pencil (you do need to cary a pencil sharpner though).

The advent of cheap webcams has fundamentally shifted how we do astronomy, the ability to do stacking of hundreds of frames mow produces image clarity that was unhead of a mere 10 years ago.

But even I, a web cam enthusiast, still sketch. There are still things your eye picks up that even stacked frames do not, and sketching is fun.

PS How did you get the word verification set up in blogger?

Dave Pearson said...

You should find a setting for word verification under the "comments" tab in the settings for your 'blog.

Tag said...

I haven't seen the article so I can't comment directly, but I'll take queue from the context you put sketching in with respect to amateur observer.

Sketching is as a important as the eyepieces in our toolbox. Once detecting an object, the field notes and sketch are the record. As you, Megan, and others point out, it absolutely improves one's observing skill, a learned art.

Even when one thinks they can't draw well (like myself), the self-criticism of why the sketch doesn't look right or what is missing is contributing to the observing experience even after one has left the eyepiece.

McLuhan would say of electronic imaging, "The medium is the message."


Anonymous said...

Hope you're glad we included sketching at the eyepiece in the feature on Mars in this month's program...

Dave Pearson said...

If, by "program", you mean the TV programme The Sky At Night then, sorry, no, I didn't get to see it (I seldom do). Are we talking about the October edition here? If so I'll make a point of trying to watch it off the website (or, perhaps, wait for it to turn up on the cover disk of the magazine).

Anonymous said...

Yep, the October TV sky at night included a longish piece about observing Mars, and we deliberately included sketching at the eyepiece to try and get away from the impression that astronomy is about imaging.

Any further suggestions about what we should be doing for the non-imaging observer are welcome, via the program email address or website.

Dave Pearson said...

Thanks Chris. I watched the October edition off the website but there was nothing about observing Mars, let alone sketching at the eyepiece. It was all about the conference at Cambridge.

Perhaps it's the November edition I should be watching -- I guess I'll have to wait until that appears on the site. Any idea when that is?

Anonymous said...

Dave, I saw the repeat of the November edition of the Sky At Night yesterday lunchtime and caught the sketches of Mars. I remembered your post so thought I should come and tell you. Little did I realise that it was because of your post that they featured the sketches - I'm guessing that it is Chris Lintott that commented above.

Dave Pearson said...

Stuart: Yes, I've assumed that "Chris" is Chris Lintott although I'm open to the idea that it's just someone playing a vaguely amusing prank — not that it would make much difference. That said, this did all start with me writing a letter to the editor of S@N magazine and Chris is involved with that. On top of this I did post about this to the SPA's BB and, from what I can recall, Chris has been known to drop in there from time to time.

As for my post being responsable for the content of an edition of S@N, I seriously doubt that. My post was on the 27th of October and I'd have thought that the November edition of S@N would have been wrapped up by then; I've still not seen it, but if there was actual footage of someone doing sketching, that must have been filmed a long time before I wrote my post.

Anonymous said...

Awww... you've gone an spoilt my naive thought that you had an effect. ;-)

I don't remember any 'live' sketching, but they did look at Patrick Moore's sketches of Mars drawn over the years and a sketch by someone in his garden.

Dave Pearson said...

Heh, sorry about that. ;)

Still, you never know, stranger things have happened...