Saturday, July 20, 2019

Painting the Moon: Astronaut Alan Bean

Harvest Moon
9x12 Oil - Available
by Michael Chesley Johnson

It's one of those historic events about which people ask, "Do you remember where you were when...?"

I was 12, going on 13, staying overnight with friends of the family in Georgia, on a sweltering summer night, watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk on TV.  When the words came, "That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for Mankind," one of the adults said, "Take these binoculars out and see if you can see anything."  As a space buff who'd followed every second of the Apollo flights, I knew better—the moon was a good quarter of a million miles away with the landing site invisible to even Earth's most powerful telescopes—but I humored him and went anyway.  (I'm sure he was just humoring this over-enthusiastic teen, as well.)

I worked my way outside the ring of light cast by a porch light and beyond the dark shapes of pine trees obscuring the night sky.  The humidity wrapped itself around me like a wet blanket; the clear night sang with countless crickets. I looked up, and there was the moon, blindingly bright in its fullness.  I did use the binoculars to scan its surface, noting what was now familiar to so many of us who had watched Walter Cronkite's broadcasts over those last few days, the pale blue splotch marking the Sea of Tranquility.  Although I couldn't see Neil Armstrong and his little lunar lander, I marveled that at that very second, a human tread lightly on the moon.

That was 50 years ago today.  The simultaneity of the moment struck a chord in me that reverberates to this day.  It is fainter, but if I listen closely, I can still hear it.

What also fascinated me that night and the following years as I viewed images from our explorers was the sheer bleakness of the lunar landscape.  Much different from Earth's, it is all rubble, sand and dust with the occasional house-sized boulder thrown in.   Still, I enjoyed looking at detailed maps and glossy photos of it because it was literally an alien landscape.  (We had no Internet in those days, but I could mail-order these from the Government Publishing Office or somewhere.  I did the same with the maps and images of Mars from the Viking landers a few years later.)  I was painting landscapes back then, but it never occurred to me to try to paint moonscapes.

But astronaut Alan Bean did.  Bean was the fourth person to walk on the moon in 1969 for Apollo 12.  When he retired from NASA in 1981, he became a painter—and his specialty was moonscapes.  The biggest problem with moonscapes, he found, was color.  "If I were a scientist painting the moon," he said, "I would paint it gray.  I'm an artist, so I can add colors to the moon."  And add colors he did, enriching that grey world with pastel tints of the rainbow.  You can see his paintings at

Maybe someday a plein air painter will go to the moon.  Because the moon has no atmosphere and the temperature range is extreme, most media won't be practical there.  Pastel, however, is a different story.

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