5 tips for sketching the stars

The star fields of the Milky Way contain many great sketching targets. Credit: Will Gater

After all the excitement of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year results, I spent several evenings earlier this week enjoying a completely different way of recording the night sky. Sketching is an aspect of amateur astronomy that doesn’t always get a lot of coverage, but it’s a superb way to train your eyes to see detail at the eyepiece of a telescope; indeed sketching was, once, an important part of astronomical research. Whatever equipment you use, a simple sketch showing what can be seen through the eyepiece can be both a personal memento of a night’s observing and, if drawn carefully, a useful reference to other observers.

A sketch of the Lagoon Nebula (M8). Credit Will Gater

Above and below are a few of the sketches I made, while on holiday at a dark sky site, earlier in the week. They’ve been inverted in Photoshop Elements and the background sky has been tinted to more closely match the view through the eyepiece. I was observing with a 66mm refractor on a photographic tripod. The sketches were done on a standard artist’s sketchpad (135gsm) with 2B and 3B pencils. If you’re thinking about having a go yourself here are a few tips.

  • Use two or three pencils of varying softness to depict different objects. I find a sharp 2B is ideal for drawing on stars while a softer, slightly blunt, 3B is better suited to sketching diffuse nebulae, galaxies and clusters.
  • Always start by drawing a few of the brightest stars. If you can find clear patterns/shapes of stars in the field of view add them in early on. This way you’ll gradually build a framework of stars which you can add to, aiding the placement of other fainter objects.
  • With a gentle rub, use your little finger or a tortillion to create the smooth diffuse appearance of objects like galaxies or nebulae.
  • Take your time. Be sure to constantly go back and forth, between the eyepiece and the sketchpad, to check your sketch with what you can see.
  • Always record the date, time, equipment, location and observing conditions along with the object’s name, on your sketch.
A sketch of the Andromeda Galaxy, M32 & NGC 205. Credit Will Gater
A sketch of the globular cluster M22. Credit Will Gater