Our Dreams of Space Are Fueled by the Art of David A. Hardy

The legendary space artist chats with us about his six-decade career and Pluto's dwarf planet status.

David A. Hardy is one of the most legendary space artists of all time. The author of books, the illustrator of compelling magazine covers and artist behind thousands of works in a career that has spanned six decades, Hardy is still active at the age of 78. He is known for creating swooping alien landscapes, including rovers on Mars, spaceships, and compelling planetary scenes.

Space art is an art movement just like impressionism, abstract expressionism or internet art. The early artists who defined the genre include American space artist Chelsey Bonestell, who wanted to show the world what he saw in a telescope, and French astronomer-artist Lucien Rudaux, who helped carve out space art in the 1920s and 1930s.

While sci-fi and fantasy art allow for unlimited freedom of imagination, space artists work with scientists and engineers to combine the arts with space exploration. Even so, the style has a huge range of subject material: while some artists pay homage to familiar space environs, others create their own worlds with alien visitations, dream symbolism, and psychedelic images.

There are different kinds of space art. "Descriptive realism" shows the cosmos in accurate form, while "cosmic impressionism" is a less-technical view of space—more interpretative, but still scientific. "Hardware art" focuses on the mechanics of spaceships, probes, and space equipment, and "cosmic zoology" shows extraterrestrials in their own habitat.

"Jupiter from Io." Image copyright David A. Hardy

Since his career began with an illustration for a book by Patrick Moore in 1954, Hardy's body of work has covered a wide range of styles, with a particular emphasis on space colonialism. To celebrate his career, the International Association of Astronomical Artists, an organization devoted to be the vanguard of artistic space exploration, is currently organizing a touring exhibition showcasing Hardy's work alongside 13 other space artists for The Artists' Universe (drop them a line to bring the show to your city). 

In preparation for the show, I spoke to Hardy about his art, Pluto, and how technology changed the game.

MOTHERBOARD: You've had a longer career than anyone else in space art. How have you seen the movement change since the 1950s?
David A. Hardy: When I first started there were two main space artists: Chesley Bonestell in the USA, who was a big influence through his books such as The Conquest of Space, and R.A. (Ralph) Smith in the UK, who worked with Arthur C. Clarke and the British Interplanetary Society, which I joined in 1952. (I met them both, and later worked with Arthur). 

When Ralph Smith died in 1957, for many years I was the only astronomical artist in Britain, and I worked mainly with astronomer and author Patrick Moore. Of course, in 1957 the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, went into orbit, and with the space race between the USA and USSR the interest in space grew greatly. In the USA especially, more space artists began to appear.

Was the scene big in the 1980s when the IAAA was formed and around the time of the 1988 Iceland workshop?
I did not hear of the IAAA until about 1985, and I joined in 1986. Meeting other space artists in Iceland in 1988 was a wonderful experience, being able to talk to people who were on the same wavelength! 

Until then, most members had been American, though one Canadian, Kara Szathmary, was at this workshop and we became good friends. (He is actually Hungarian). And of course I also met the Russian artists including cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. I soon became the first European vice president, and later president [of the IAAA].

A concept Martian rover cruises Mars as part of Robert Parkinson's Mars in 1995 project. Image copyright David A. Hardy

How has the growth of CGI software and other rendering tools changed the field?
Technology has changed the way some artists work, and it has certainly sped up the way we are able to communicate. The field has only grown since the 1980s and become more diverse and interesting.

It is natural that some of us work with organizations like NASA or ESA to show the spacecraft being built, or the places they have visited, or will visit, and by their nature these have to be quite photographic. So these can be defined as illustrations. 

But some artists, like Kara, produce work which is not at all photographic, or even realistic, but impressionistic, expressionistic, or abstract. Most of these artists work in traditional media, such as oils or acrylics on canvas, or even watercolour; personally I still use all of these techniques, as well as digital. Most of us hope that our form of art will be accepted by major galleries as an art movement. It has not really happened yet, so I hope you can help!

Mercury. Image copyright David A. Hardy

Is it safe to say you started the modern movement, or at least help propel it forward?
I would not claim to have started anything, but I do know from letters (and now emails) I have received that my books, such as the ones with Sir Patrick Moore—like The Challenge of the Stars (1972) and its sequel, Futures: 50 Years in Space (2004)—have influenced many artists and have even caused some to become space artists themselves!

Why were you drawn to space?
It's hard to say. Some of my friends at school may have wanted to be footballers, or train drivers, but from a very early age, I was fascinated by the unusual: photos in books of the Moon's craters, Saturn's rings, or of volcanoes, geysers, and aurora. 

Once I had observed the Moon and planets through a telescope, I quickly wanted to know what it would be like to go there and stand on these worlds. All I could do was use my imagination and the facts available, and paint them!

"Pluto and Charon." Image copyright David A. Hardy

How long would it take you to make a painting? 
It can vary greatly with the size of the painting, the subject, the medium, and so on. For instance, any work containing people or vehicles takes longer than a pure landscape or space scene. So it takes me anything from a couple of days to several weeks or a month.

How do you feel about Pluto no longer being a planet? In retrospect, some of your pieces are time capsules in themselves.
As far as I am concerned Pluto is still a planet. It has been re-classified as a dwarf planet, but there are dwarf stars, and they are still stars!

How can you tell a good space artist from a not-so-good one?
If an artist shows that he or she has done their research, made sure that what they are depicting is how that object can really be expected to look (geologically and astronomically), and have good technical, compositional and artistic skills, as well as imagination, they will be good space artists.

On the Internet these days there are (unfortunately) many, many images which may look spectacular and appear to be space art, but they are just 'rocks and balls,' with no real value or content.