June 23, 2013

Foggy Remembering

This afternoon I drove out to the Nielsen Observatory to do some sketching. I've been wanting to improve my "sketching-from-life" ability, and yesterday acquired a small notebook to keep handy for that purpose. I'll just say right off the bat. I've had this urge before...a few times actually. I've purchased notebooks, sketchpads, "journals," and each has ended up in a drawer somewhere with nothing but a page or two filled up.

But who says I can't keep trying?

This most recent impulse is largely inspired by my reading of an anthology of nature writing: "This Incomparable Lande," compiled, edited, and introduced by Thomas Lyon (a Utah State University professor from 1964 to 1997). I've been completely captivated by the writings contained in the book, and scattered throughout are lovely black and white illustrations by various artists.

Black and white...just the thing to get my juices flowing!

So, here's my sketch of an afternoon at the Nielsen Observatory (and please forgive my misspelling...spellcheck is a curse!)

Another impetus for this particular sketch is my experience at the last BRAS public observing session. About halfway through the night, a thick bank of low ground fog rolled in, obscuring the view of everything except that which was directly above us. Our equipment was sopping wet to the touch, but in the exceptionally still air, objects at the zenith shone with a steadiness not typically encountered in this region. I'd been considering making a drawing of the scene, and wanted to reference an accurate illustration of the tree line that borders the observatory. So, I went back this afternoon to try out my new notebook.

Here's what I wrote on the page following my sketch.

Trying to remember how this scene looked at our last public event. The star party began at 10:00 pm with a crystal clear sky in all directions--obscured only by a small crescent moon setting low in the west. Saturn. M13. The Ring. Around 11:00 a low ground fog began to move in. In minutes the tube of my Dobsonian was dripping. Lee set up a camera tripod a little ways off in order to take some long-exposure photos of our foggy gathering. The fog thickened. The air was still. Looking straight up to Hercules the sky was jet black with un-twinkling pinpricks for stars. John said even with the fog, this still air is best for splitting close doubles. He scoured Hercules for gems while Mizar and Alcor shone out boldly for young guests. Albireo was steady and faintly colored. Observing lower into the murk, a stargate still led me to the Sombrero--haze within haze. Sounds muffled. Black trees stare out from a gray sea. M7.  Just barely. Green lasers are beacons. Pages curl. Glass fogs. Everything at eye level obscured. We look up into black. 

June 6, 2013

Accentuate the negative

While continuing work on the Black River Astronomical Society's new member's packet, I've looked for ways to break up the text with additional illustrations. And as plans for my more "formal" astronomy series are still percolating, I've continued to experiment with new creative methods.

Sometimes, when Rob finds me bent over one of my drawings for extended periods, carefully filling in great spans of white paper with layers of black sharpie, he'll ask if I've ever considered painting white lines on black paper instead...which would presumably save time and effort. Or why not just adopt a digital format...enabling easy inversion from black on white to white on black...or back again and a mixture of the two? What effect does method have on the final product? How would the appearance of my work change? Would my vision itself become different? Would the quality of line be altered?

Why not start with some simple inversions. Take a picture of a galaxy...

In this case, a Hubble image of NGC 1300 in the constellation Eridanus (the river). If I were to use my usual method of blacking in space on a white paper, this would take forever. Instead, I created a "negative." Using different sizes and spacing of dots, I made the brightest areas the blackest, while also trying to leave white areas for dust lanes and background space. Making those internal white areas appear natural and flowing, as they do in the photo, was the most challenging part. I only hoped that things would look a little better with the inversion.

To invert the photo of my drawing on my mac, I opened it in preview, selected "tools," and "adjust color," and then slid the top black slider all the way over to the right, and the top white slider all the way over to the left...

 Ok, that's interesting.

I see now where I could've refined my detail even more...spent a bit more time getting all those intricate dust lanes to come out. Still, the whole process only took about 1/2 hour, and it came out looking alright...not really identifiable as NGC 1300, but a reasonably clear illustration of a spiraling galaxy. I'll bet I could improve my technique with practice too.

Now for something to help illustrate the concept of "averted vision."

Text from the packet:

"Objects like the moon, bright planets, and many stars are usually easy to see, but when you're observing a very dim object like a galaxy, nebula, or even a faint globular star cluster, a technique called "averted vision" will help you see in much more detail. Rather than keeping your focus in the center of the field of view, instead try looking toward its edge, while simultaneously directing your attention to your peripheral view. You will be amazed at the details that emerge!"

Below is the original "negative" version of the drawing, in which you may recognize the Andromeda galaxy as the subject under observation. There was still a lot of white space to fill in around the edges, but with most of the detail existing in the center, I still saved time and effort. I'm pleased with the result here. Again, not exactly gallery-quality, but perhaps an effective illustration.

I probably won't be going all digital just yet...for one thing, I can't really afford the tools...but this little illustration exercise was still fun and worthwhile.

June 4, 2013

Groundhog Day

50 points if you can find Mama Groundhog's eye peering out of her den. She's there...I promise...a little above center.

She and her kits had been enjoying a sunny afternoon of leaf munching, when they were rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of an oddly forbidding statue (me...sitting in a lawn chair with a camera propped upon my knee) just a few feet outside their front porch...

...but there was more munching to do yet! After eyeing me cautiously for a few minutes, she decided to give the ok for each kit to come back out.



...and number three climbing out over the top of his long-suffering brother (or sister...I have no way to tell). Zoom in on these photos to see the details of their interaction...it really is quite precious.

That number three was the gutsy one. Vaulting past his two siblings, he bounded out from behind the bushes without a care in the world.

Well, almost. Under Mama's skeptical supervision, he didn't get much past the bushes before pausing to eye me warily.

Eeeeeee! I wish that stray piece of hair would quit tickling my forehead! 

A moment later, they'd all plunged back underground.

...and I finally rubbed away the tickle!

June 1, 2013

In My Own Backyard: 2

Last September I took a field trip out into the backyard to see what the neighbors were up to. Now that it's spring, there seem to be a lot more neighbors to keep up with!

Our resident groundhog has had babies. We've counted up to five. They come nosing out from under the porch next door in the early evening, and sometimes follow their mother out into our yard in a little groundhog train. They've been difficult to photograph...a little camera shy...they just don't seem to know how cute they are! This one's just noticed me and bounded off behind the house a moment after my shutter closed...

All over our yard, flowers are in bloom. I wish I could take credit...

Especially luscious are the peonies. They garland our foundation with enormous blossoms of deep red, soft white...

...and pink with yellow pom-poms.

 Our yard is reasonably large, and stretches back into a cool stand of trees and tall grasses. Well...the grass is tall only because I haven't been great about mowing that far back. There's at least one neighbor that doesn't seem to mind the unkempt lawn. After all, it makes a great place to sit back, relax, and chew your cud without being noticed...she hasn't even seen me yet...

...Oph! Looks like I spoke too soon...

I wonder if she'll be back tomorrow...

After all, where else in town is she going to find such a comfy patch of bedding?

If this is what a neglected lawn looks like in Ohio, I may never mow again!

Well, ok...since it's not my yard, and we've only actually got it for another couple months, I guess I'll do the work. Not today though. I've still got some exploring to do before the thunderstorms arrive this evening. And how could I give up the chance to get up close and personal with these little green hoppers?

Make sure you click on the photo below and zoom in a little. Those green eyes are really something!