Category Archives: Sketching

Messier 13

Ever since I became interested in deep sky observing and sketching nearly 20 years ago, I have mostly used 6, 8 and 12 inch telescopes for my observations, plus the odd big ones (20, 36 and 48 inches) at star parties such as Texas. My new 18 inch dob has now brought my observing into a Whole New Realm – the magnitude or so difference over my 12 inch means that there is a lot more to see.

The other night, October 15th, as the conditions were a bit lousy (nearly-full Moon plus some mist) I forsook my usually faint galaxy-hunting and decided to sketch M13 instead. I haven’t done a lot of sketching while using the 18 inch yet, as I have spent the time in my six sessions with it so far searching for more detail in objects and things such as faint galaxies in the field of view.
While sketching M13 I found – totally unsurprisingly – that the big and more detailed objects are far more challenging to sketch when viewed in larger apertures. You’re just overwhelmed with the profusion of detail and M13 is a prime example of this; while it isn’t totally resolved in the 18 inch, it is a very large glittering ball of many stars.

Here’s the sketch I made the other evening:


And the same sketch inverted for a more natural look:


And, for comparison, here’s a sketch I made back in the 1990s with my old 8.75 inch f/4.5 Newtonian:


I am looking forward to M42, that will  present an interesting challenge later in the winter – weather permitting…

From the notebooks 3 – TSP 2008 galaxies

Some galaxy sketches to brighten up your (and my) day – and mine is in serious need of a brighten up! These were made at the 2008 TSP, while observing with Larry Mitchell’s 36″.

NGC 5907, Draco
Spectacular, cutting right across the field of view in the 36″ at 232x. Prominent dark lane and a bright, elongated nucleus. Very thin, indeed. I am fond of edge on galaxies and this is one of the best.

Hickson 44, Leo.
A nice group of which NGC 3190 is the brightest member. 3190 (below centre) has a prominent dark lane. NGC 3187 (to the left of 3190) is faint and evenly bright. NGC 3185 (top) has a slight brightening towards the centre. NGC 3193 (bottom right) is round with a dense core and a fuzzy halo.
36″ at 232x.

NGC 4206 and 4216, Virgo
A lovely view. 4216, the large galaxy at right is very large, very bright and elongated. It also has a very bright compact core.
NGC 4206 is much smaller and fainter and does not have a bright core.
36″ at 232x.

M52 and NGC 5195, Arp 85, Canes Venatici
This is one of the best views I’ve ever had of this pair. You line up the huge dob, go up the ladder and this dinner plate, with the little saucer NGC 5195 next to it, is in the eyepiece.
It was hard to draw, as I was balancing near the very top of the ladder.
The arms are not uniformly circular as they appear in smaller apertures. They are bent, probably due to the influence of  5195 nearby distorting them. There are bright HII regions in the arms.
The bridge of material connecting them is easily seen and quite bright in the 36″ at 232x.
5195 is oval, distorted. the side nearest M51 is brighter than the side away from it. Fantastic.

‘From the notebooks’ does sound a little pretentious (I was going to say ‘poncey’!) but it’s quite a good title – and this stuff IS from the notebooks! – and posting old sketches is a good way of keeping the blog active while I scratch about for something interesting to post. It’s gone dead observing-wise here, due to the most appalling weather (August has been a total wash-out this year, with torrential rain, flooding and gales. I feel sorry for anyone on holiday here, especially if they’re camping) and the last few nights the Moon’s been in the way. The beginning of the month was okay for observing, with one okayish night, one good night, the Perseid peak, the Milky Way sketching session and that absolutely sensational night we had.
Anyway, some more ‘From the notebook’ type posts will appear over time, depending on what else I can talk about. It depends on how much observing I get in. I’m hoping the weather will improve during September.

Off topic, but still relevant (which I’ll come to in a minute) is my work situation. I’m currently doing a seasonal driving job delivering tourist guides to hotels, attractions, ferries and train stations, etc, which I like very much. It’s part time which suits me nicely as I can start what time I like – very handy after late observing sessions and all-night runs! However, with the tourist season winding down soon and just another couple of weeks to go of the main season, my hours will probably get reduced.
I can’t find anything else at the moment as the employment situation in the UK as a whole, not just where I live, is appalling. I’m getting interviews but then nothing comes of them, usually it’s because there’s always some git with more experience than me (although I am sure it comes down to pulling names out of a hat). Even the temping agencies have nothing – indeed the manager of one described the situation to me as ‘absolute crap’, and when even the agencies use words like ‘crap’ you know it’s bad indeed. The fact that a very real threat of a ‘double-dip’ recession is hanging over the country (although I do get the feeling the Bank of England and the Treasury are talking us into this, aided and abetted by the media) does not help the situation any.
Despite this, I am still planning to get a 20″ dob (I am one of these people who has to have something to aim for – I do NOT believe in just existing, because that’s just depressing and pointless), firstly buying that mirror-less scope I’ve mentioned in previous posts, as I already have most of the money for that. The mirror might take longer to acquire than I previously hoped, though, depending on what happens on the work front.

I am pleased to say the observing shed has held up in the recent bad weather. Some rain got blown in through the vents, as it has been pretty much torrential and blown horizontally for the past few days, but otherwise – touch wood – it seems more or less ok. I did seal up non-vent suspect points with duct tape and also fixed the roof down better, just in case as I don’t trust their flimsy method of attaching the roof. I also stuffed an old t-shirt into the vent where the rain was being blown in, I’ll remove this when the weather improves. Let’s hope it continues to be dry in there. The mirror also looks as if it’s remained condensation-free, so the silica gel cat litter seems to be doing the trick.

Milky Way sketch

After yesterday’s rather lengthy rant it’s back to the observing!
Last night, it unexpectedly cleared so it was time for some observing. However, the forecast called for it to cloud up so I decided on a short session and to do something a little different.
Back in 2006 I decided that doing a sketch of the Milky Way would be a cool thing to do. At that time, I’d torn a muscle in my back and couldn’t carry my scope in and out, so I began a naked eye sketch of our galaxy through Cygnus and down towards Sagittarius. I never finished that sketch as the weather closed in for a few weeks and my back got better. I dug out that sketch recently and decided to have another go at it. I decided that I’d start again from scratch as the 2006 sketch wasn’t that great.

Last night’s sketch was done while lying prone in a reclining garden lounger and it wasn’t easy, with the sketch book held upright on my chest it made for an awkward process. I decided to just do the part of the Milky Way that runs through Cygnus and slightly south. I included Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila in the sketch but left out the other constellations in that area. I also only added the brightest stars – I’d have been there a week if I’d tried to put all of them in, as it was mag 6.5+ at the zenith!
Unfortunately, by the time I’d got as far as adding the Milky Way glow the sky started to deteriorate with mist moving in.
For the sketch, I used an A4 (11.75×8.5 inches/297x210mm) sketchbook with heavy cartridge paper (my usual book for sketches), a 2B pencil for the stars, a 4B for the Milky Way and a chamois leather for the smudging. I’d never previously used a chamois leather before as it never even occurred to me, but it is ten times more effective for smudging nebulosity than a blending stump (tortillon) or finger tip is; how I’d heard about using a chamois was via Jeremy Perez’s excellent Astronomy Now series Drawn To The Universe. I bought mine from Halfords (for people outside the UK, Halfords are a retail chain who sell car and bike accessories), for around £3.99. It smells disgusting but works a treat!

The sketch isn’t totally complete, I really should have added more stars and the surrounding constellations, such as Delphinus, Lacerta and Sagitta, etc, but I daresay I will repeat this at another time, when conditions are better and I have more time.

From the notebooks 2 – Obscure Planetaries from Australia

Here are some more sketches from that 1997 trip Down Under. These are some of the more obscure planetary nebulae I observed on that trip. All of these sketches were made at the 1997 Queensland Astrofest at Lions Camp Duckadang, Linville, Queensland on 25/26th and 26/27th August 1997. The scope I used was a 20 inch Dobsonian.

Henize 2-111, Centaurus

Henize 2-141, Norma

Henize 2-207, Ara

Longmore 16, Scorpius

Menzel 1 (PK 322-2.1), Norma

Shapley 1 (PK 329+02.1), Norma


PK 322-5.1, Triangulum Australe

The observatory is still not up yet. That is because our weather has gone completely to pot and is now more like that of October than it is of mid-July. There are gale-force winds, low temperatures (17C/63F) and rain. Plenty of rain. This will please the miserable buggers who have moaned about the heat and lack of rain and who have now got their own way but I hate this crap and want summer back as soon as possible. Apart from anything else, there’s no observing to be had but even before the weather completely broke up we’d been stuck in a cycle of clear afternoons and cloudy nights for a couple of weeks.

I might have to rethink getting a big scope. I have not yet been able to find a permanent full-time job and the agency work has completely dried up, although I have some part-time seasonal work delivering tourist guides. I have an interview in two weeks’ time for a part-time data-entry job which offers just over £6000 ($9000) and if I get that, which won’t be enough on its own, I could at least combine it with the seasonal work. Unfortunately this seasonal job only lasts for the duration of the holiday season before dropping back to a few hours a week.
A 16″ Meade Lightbridge, at +/- £1800 is not beyond my financial reach on part-time/low wages but a custom-built scope at just over £3100 is, as things stand. Maybe I should just get a LB and then go for a custom-built David Lukehurst Dob when/if my work and financial situation improves? LB’s aren’t bad scopes with a bit of tweaking, although their mirror boxes are incredibly heavy for the size of the scope. Hopefully, though, by the time I have managed to put away £1.8K things might have improved.

Some sketches from TSP

I have finally got round to scanning in various sketches, as I was doing a rebuild of my website and needed to scan pictures for it. Among these are some of the pics from this year’s Texas Star Party. Click on each sketch for a larger image.

NGC 3245A, Leo Minor
Observed with Dennis Beckley’s 18″ Obsession at 258x.
Very thin and very faint. Pops into view with averted vision. Evenly bright throughout.
Prude Ranch, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

NGC 3279, Leo
18″ Obsession, 258x
Bright, very thin, elongated.
Prude Ranch, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

NGC 3432,Leo Minor
18″ Obsession, 258x
Very thin, irregular. Mottled, elongated centre.
Prude Ranch, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

NGC 5394 and 5395 (Arp 84), Canes Venatici.
48″ Dobsonian
Very large and bright through the 48″. Full of detail. 5395 is the larger of the two galaxies and is interacting with neighbour 5394. There is a bridge connecting the two galaxies. There is distortion in the spiral arms of 5395.
The Lowrey Observatory, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

NGC 3242, Hydra.
48″ Dobsonian, 814x.
This is, like all eye candies, pretty nice in more modest apertures but is absolutely sensational in the eyepiece of ‘Barbarella’. There are two green rings, the inner ring is more oval than the outer one and is thickened at each end while the outer one has a furry appearance. The central star is bright. Between the rings is ‘gauzy’ looking nebulosity which has a tinge of pink to it and the whole p.n. looks three-dimensional. I try not to write ‘wow’ in observing descriptions but…like, um…wow. As they say. Fabulous!
The Lowrey Observatory, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

NGC 4038 and 4039, Corvus
36″ f/5 Obsession Dobsonian, 352x.
Very large and bright at 352x in the 36″.
NGC 4038 is the thinner (uppermost in sketch) of the two galaxies. It is elongated and distorted with a brighter, mottled centre. NGC 4039 is fatter and not so elongated. It has bright HII regions and is very mottled. I can see 4039’s tidal tail easily but 4038’s is fainter and does not show up in the scan, although it is in the original sketch.
Prude Ranch, Ft. Davis, TX, USA

By the way, my website has been added to, with Messier galaxies the first observations up. Click here to visit the site.
I am getting itchy feet and am longing to visit Australia, or somewhere else south of the Equator, to see southern goodies again. Last year’s visit Downunder wasn’t the best for astronomy, although I wasn’t actually on an astronomy trip, with the single opportunity I got for some serious observing washed out by storms and torrential rain during Australia’s wettest and windiest winter for 25 years! However, any potential trips will have to wait until at least the end of 2011 as I want to get that 18″ scope first!

Sketching or electronic imaging?

Often in astronomy the question of visual astronomy (Mark One Eyeball) vs electronic imaging (CCDs) crops up. Being very firmly in the first camp I get a tad annoyed when people assume that imaging is the only way to go about getting lasting souvenirs of a nights observing. All too often I encounter beginners who are itching to go straight past visual observing and dive right into imaging and, often, they know nothing about the sky and how to find their way around it. They don’t want to know about the joy that is visual deep sky or planetary observing! They’re missing the best bits!
I guess that most of the reason for this is because astrophotos are eye-catching and pretty and imagers garner a lot of praise – and rightfully so because imaging is not easy – for their work in getting the pictures. It’s also been mentioned elsewhere that imagers are quicker and more keen to blow their own trumpets than visual observers and I believe there’s a lot of truth in this. I love a good astrophoto as much as the next person, indeed I have astrophotos on my walls at home, but while I am grateful for the dedicated souls practicising this art I would like to discredit the notion there seems to be that it is the only way to practise amateur astronomy.
While the magazines are full of ads for wonderful electronic gizmoes and feature lovely photos of colourful swirling nebulae and mysterious galaxies and legions of ‘how to’ articles on imaging, there isn’t a huge amount aimed at the purely visual observer, bar the usual “Such and such is in the sky and you can see it with the unaided eye/binoculars/scope”. The UK’s Astronomy Now and BBC Sky At Night magazines now feature regular sketching articles by Jeremy Perez and Carol Lakomiak – and this is excellent to inspire others to take up astronomical sketching, although AN is better in this regard because Jeremy gets a couple of pages while Carol, in S@N, gets a mere half page although this is better than nothing as S@N resisted featuring sketching for a long while (I wrote to the editor a few years ago about featuring sketches and got a dismissive reply, I stopped buying the magazine for a long while because of this).

People tend to think of astronomy as an expensive hobby but it isn’t and, once you have a scope, you need nothing else except pencil and paper. Give visual observing and sketching a go, it is not hard and a lot easier – and more fun – that you think. Don’t let the imagers have all the fun and grab all the plaudits!

A few more sketches

Here are a few more sketches from the summer/early autumn. These, too, have been scanned straight from the original sketch and processed a bit in PS Elements 6. I have tried to make the stars rounder but without making them appear bloated. By the way, the light patches in the corners and sides are the result of the scanning process: my sketchbook is spiral bound and so the scanner lid does not shut properly, causing light to leak in.

Click images for larger versions.

NGC 7662 ^

M33 with HII regions NGCs 595 and 604^
NGC 604 is the elongated patch just below centre, 595 is labelled at bottom left
NGC 205^

Photoshop sketch experiment

A couple of weeks ago, I tarted up some sketches in Photoshop. A couple of these sketches were of portions of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus, and I decided that maybe they didn’t look quite nebulous enough as my sketchbook doesn’t have an entirely smooth surface so I tried an experiment with the Photoshop Elements Smudge Tool. I also made the stars rounder with the Blur Tool, although they turned out a bit fatter than intended, but I suppose they represent the sort of seeing we often get here!

It definitely needs a lot more experimentation to get it exactly right though. Here are the first sketches treated in this way, these are scanned straight from the original sketches as I did not bother re-drawing them from their raw state. Click for larger image.

NGC 6992/6995 above

NGC 6960 below