Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Mars, Bryce Canyon, and the Sketchbook Project

Detail, Mars Landing. Watercolor, ink, gouache, and
mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
It's almost exactly a year later, and I just found a few drafts I wrote about Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse last year! That's a little embarrassing, but I'm embracing it. It's not late and disorganized, it's time-travel. So, kick back with your device and get ready for a few throwback posts about the art project that kicked off my 2019. Ready, set, go...

One of my favorite things about art is a little thing called "artistic license."

Artistic license means I can change how something looks just for the sake of aesthetics I have the freedom to be realistic or abstract in my depictions. I especially love surrealism, art that recreates the impossible in a life-like style.

I used a lot of artistic license in my paintings for the Sketchbook Project last winter.

For example, obviously we haven't found extraterrestrial life, especially not lunar life, but I invented a Moonhorse.

Obviously you can't fly to Mars in a night, at least until they solve the problem of faster-than-light travel. When that day comes, you better believe I'll be vacationing on Mars!

I've never seen or heard of a horse walking a tightrope, and even the deepest craters are more like gradually-sloping bowls than the straight-sided pit I painted Hellas Planitia to be.

Nothing in my story is possible, but I still drew inspiration from reality.

I modeled Silhouette Girl's steampunk shuttle after the NASA shuttles of the last few decades, changing the color to bronze and adding just a few "steampunk" details of my own. The terrain of Mars is based heavily on Bryce Canyon, Utah. 

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, October 2018.

The Mars we see sometimes in the early morning, like a large, untwinkling star, is a planet humans have long been interested in. It's our second-closest neighbor and bears many similarities to us.

We're tilted on similar axes, share similar seasonal patterns, and the geography of Mars has many of the topographical features we have - mountain ranges, valleys, deserts, canyons, plains, and polar ice caps of frozen CO2 (we're familiar with this as dry ice). Mars even has water, amounting roughly to that of Lake Superior, frozen underground. It also has many craters like our moon.

Speaking of our moon, Mars has two lopsided moons, named Phobos and Deimos. 

Though it's smaller then Earth, a Mars day, called a sol, is about 40 minutes longer because it rotates much more slowly. Orbiting at a greater distance from the sun, however, a Martian year is 669 sols, or 687 Earth days.

No planet's orbit is a perfect circle, and the oval-shape of our orbit causes the seasons.

Sol 343 on Route to Mount Sharp, Mars. Curiosity Rover, NASA .
July 24, 2013.
On Mars, the seasons are almost twice as long as Earth, and tend to see slightly more dramatic temperature shifts because Mars' orbit is more eccentric, or oval-shaped, than Earth's. This means that even if Earth and Mars were the same average distance from the sun, Mars would have greater temperature extremes.

Negev Desert, Israel. April 20, 2007. By brewbooks.
Earth is covered with a strong atmosphere that burns up approaching space debris and blocks the sun's most harmful rays. We rarely even think about space debris even though it's flying around us all the time, because virtually anything that hits the atmosphere is incinerated.

Mars also has an atmosphere, but it's very thin and provides little protection. Mars has craters like the moon because its atmosphere isn't enough to burn up all of the space debris flying at it.

In the research stage of my project, I was surprised to find that on top of all these scientific similarities, most our photos of Mars look quite a bit like any number of Earth's own rocky deserts.

In fact, a quick Google search brought me to the Negev Desert in Israelsome of the pictures of Mars and the Negev Desert are almost indistinguishable, aside from the blue skies and a few signs of life. Sparse vegetation dots the landscape, dirt roads criss-cross through it, and animals like leopards, gazelle, hyenas, tortoises, and birds.

However, I wanted to make Mars look entirely foreign, while still echoing patterns in nature. It is, after all, an entirely different planet!

Bryce's otherworldly hoodoos were the perfect model for my Mars.

The main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon. The edges of the thousands of
hoodoos are a little difficult to make out in this direct light. October 2018.
Hoodoos like these are found on every continent, but Bryce is the largest concentration of them in the world.

Bryce Canyon is a national park in southern Utah, famed for its bright orange rock formed in strange towers and walls, like castle ruins.

Bryce is a beautiful park. Less popular than its neighbor Zion, but definitely worth visiting. If anything, being less popular means it's easier to find a parking spot so you can get out of the car and enjoy the park.

The main part of the park, a huge natural amphitheater, looks a little like a giant bowl holding a stone army, all wearing pointed gnome hats.

A series of smaller amphitheaters and hoodoo outcroppings are lined up north-to-south from the main amphitheater, extending about 20 miles to the highest point of the park, Rainbow Point.

When my family and I visited, we drove all the way up to Rainbow Point and then made our way slowly back down, stopping at most of the viewpoints until we reached the main amphitheater. Once there, we hiked down into the canyon. This seemed like a fine idea, except that once you're at the bottom, you have to get back up. It turned out to be a much tougher hike than I was prepared for! This really dampened my experience, but I try not to hold my own lack of fitness against Bryce.
Bryce Canyon National Park, October 2018. This is the photograph on
which I based the scene below. 

Months later, back in my basement-bedroom in Ohio, I turned to Bryce's alien terrain for Mars-spiration.

Watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
I transferred my initial sketches onto the sketchbook pages, painted the dark sky and orange-brown watercolor landscapes, and added line details in gold, yellow, and black ink. I painted the stars and moons with white gouache, which is basically opaque watercolor paint.

The poetry text boxes were the final touch before packing up my sketchbook and mailing it to the Sketchbook Library in Brooklyn.

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse irreversibly ties together Bryce and Mars in my mind. This is the power of artistic license. You can arrive at entirely new connections, create new ways to envision and understand reality. Not that I've forgotten what I see in photos of Mars, but that there's a vast gap between reality and my creative depiction of it.

There's a little irony hereMars looks so much like Earth that I instead based my fantastical Mars illustrations off a geological feature on Earth. Granted, we've only seen a tiny fraction of the red planet. I'm certain there are hidden wonders on Mars, just as there are on Earth. But still, we live on a spectacular planet, indeed.

I wonder if a group of Martians and a group of Earthlings switched places, the Martians might be much more shocked by our terrain than we'd be by theirs.


No comments:

Post a Comment