Sketching the deep sky


A detailed version of this article is published in the Dutch astronomy magazine Zenit of january 2009.

Sketching deepsky objects is a great addition for you’re observation logs. Not only you observe the objects a lot better, but it’s also handy and fun to use as reference or to compare. And sketching doesn’t have to be difficult! There are many ways to make sketches. On this page I describe the way I make my sketches. Click here to view the sketches I’ve already made.

First of all, make sure that you’re eyes are used to the darkness. You see a lot more if you’ve been standing outside in the dark for a while before you start to observe and draw, because the pupils in you’re eye’s will dilate so it catches more light. That’s also the reason why you have to use a dimly red light when you make you’re sketches outside. Some people make there final sketch right behind there telescopes. I prefer to make a quick sketch outside with a regular HB pencil and make a final sketch inside the day after. I use a template with a circle to sketch. This circle corresponds with the view trough the eyepiece. I make the quick sketch in the same way I make my final one (see the description below). It’s important that you describe a good a possible what you see: where is the nebula (or other object) at it’s brightest, can you see any stars in or near the object, etc.

So I make my final sketch indoors, mostly the day after the stargaze night. If you wait to long, you’ll forget important details, so that’s why I make my sketch as soon as possible. I use a sketching template with a circle for the sketch itself. I also leave some room for details like the telescope I used, name of the object, type, magnitude, seeing and transparancy, magnification, filters and some room for a short description of the object.



You can make sketches with a lot of different materials, like charcoal and graphite pencils. I prefer graphite pencils myself. An eraser and sharpener are of course necessary when you make you’re final sketch. Also a blending stump is quite handy for making structure and shades in galaxy’s or nebulae, but you can also use you’re finger.


Making the sketch

Before you make you’re sketch, mark the north and westside in the circle with N and W. The side where you see the object disappear in you’re eyepiece is the west. It depends on the sort of telescope you use which side is north. In reflectors you find the north always left of the west (see picture). If you are going to sketch a galaxy, you mark the position with a line so you can use it as reference and draw the stars in the right places.

Next you mark the positions of the brightest stars with a HB pencil, so you can define the fainter ones better later on. If you want to sketch a nebula, mark it’s place and size roughly.


Draw in the fainter stars. Make the brightest stars a little bit bigger and thicker than the fainter ones. If you made an open cluster, then you’re finished.



Now that the stars are in place it’s time to work out the objects. In this example you see a galaxy on the left and a nebula on the right. Draw bright area’s with a soft pencil (for example a 2B), the dimmer area’s with a hard pencil (HB or 1H). Don’t worry if your pencil leaves scratches on you’re sketch, we take care of them later on.


I’ts time to finish the sketch. Use a blending stump to rub over the area’s that are to dark, to spread the graphite you’re pencil left on the paper, over the area’s you like. You can also use you’re finger. You will notice that this is a good way to create shades in you’re sketch. If you’re pencil left some scratches, you can use the blending stump in the same way we use it to lighten area’s.

If an object appears to glow, than you can create this glow with you’re finger or a blending stump. Just rub gently in circles over the sketch so the graphite will spread evenly. The brighter the glow, how longer and harder you rub over the sketch. Remove the redundant graphite with an eraser.

When you’re done you can make a scan of the sketch. In an art- or photographic program (like Paint of Irfanview) you can make your sketch negative to create a black background and bright stars.


Click here to view my sketches.