Some notes on drawing the Moon

A lunar observer can be defined as anyone who looks at the Moon with a purpose. That purpose may be to pursue serious and painstaking research. Alternatively (and, it must be stressed, just as meaningful an activity), most amateur astronomers observe the Moon for unashamed visual pleasure.

The constantly-changing vistas of the Moon’s surface are every bit as stimulating as the contemplation of an impressionist painting – the beauty is that the Moon belongs to everyone and doesn’t cost a penny to look at. Most lunar observers regard the telescope eyepiece as if it were the porthole of their very own Apollo command module. The privilege of just seeing is satisfying enough, yet ever since Galileo sketched the lunar craters nearly four hundred years ago, many observers have striven to keep some kind of permanent record of their forays around the Moon’s surface.

Powerful CCD technology is becoming ever more commonplace. Instantaneous and highly accurate records may be secured and later enhanced to reveal features which the eye alone could not hope to discern. It may be tempting nowadays to dismiss the efforts of the observer who sketches the Moon’s features (and, for that matter, any other celestial object), for what possible reason is there to engage in an activity which appears to belong in the distant past?

There is no doubt that the amateur astronomer who takes the opportunity to make lunar drawings will discover an activity which improves every single aspect of his or her observing skills. The Moon is packed with very fine detail, and the ability to discern this is found to constantly improve with hours spent at the eyepiece. During a course of lunar “apprenticeship” the apparent confusion of the Moon’s landscape becomes increasingly familiar. I have had the honour of seeing the work of hundreds of newcomers to lunar observation in the SPA Lunar Section, and without exception everyone’s observing abilities have been enhanced.

Do have confidence in your own drawing abilities – disregard everything your art teacher ever told you. The lunar observer isn’t some kind of weird nocturnal art student – marks aren’t given for artistic flair or aesthetic appeal. Observational honesty and accuracy counts above all. Few of the great lunar observers have been “good” at drawing – the Hanoverian selenographer Johann Schröter (1745 – 1816), the American Fred Price and Patrick Moore (I’m sure the latter will agree) are just three examples of the non-artistic Moon-mapper.

To improve your sketching skills I recommend that you practise by drawing sections of lunar photographs which appear in books and magazines. Invest £5 in a set of softleaded pencils from HB to 5B and an A5 pad of smooth cartridge paper. Basic outlines are first drawn lightly using a soft pencil, giving you the chance to erase anything dubious if the need arises. When shading dark areas try to put minimal pressure onto the paper; the darkest areas are ideally shaded in layers, and not in one mad frenzy of pencil pressure. After several attempts at “armchair” Moon drawing you will surprise yourself at how quickly you improve. The most important thing to remember is to be patient. Do not rush, even if you are only practising.

Binoculars should be on a steady mount or tripod, leaving your hands free. When the Moon is sharply focussed in the eyepiece don’t be intimidated by the sheer wealth of detail. Find your bearings with a decent map of the Moon. Select and identify just a small target area of the Moon’s surface, such as an individual crater, preferably one close to the lunar terminator where most relief detail is visible. If possible, go back indoors and make a light outline drawing of your chosen area; this will save time and give you a distinct advantage at the eyepiece.

It is reasonable to set yourself about an hour or two per observation. Patience is vital because a rushed sketch is bound to be inaccurate and frustrating. Make your drawing at least 50mm across, larger if you are attempting a region full of detail. Unusual and interesting features should be highlighted by making short written notes. Of course, record the usual essential observing information, such as date, start and finish times (UT), instrument and seeing. Remember to produce your neat drawings (one for your own files and one for the SPA Lunar Section) as soon as possible after the observing session, while the information is still fresh in your mind.