Former Astronaut Paints the Moon

Filling the Frame With Memories of Moonwalks and Bits of Space

Posted July 17, 2009 at 3:18pm

“It’s taken 20 years to go from the heart of an astronaut to the heart of an artist,— Alan Bean says. While the retired astronaut may have been the fourth man to walk on the moon, he’s the first to tell the story of his journey through space with paint.

Bean, born and raised in Texas, was with NASA 18 years and had traveled to the moon and back with the Apollo 12 mission, the second manned mission to land on the moon.

Eventually, though, his love for art drove him to give up his spacesuit and pick up a brush. “I looked around the office and saw plenty of young people who could fly the shuttle as well or better than I could,— Bean says, “but I didn’t see anybody who could tell the story like I could.—

Bean had been studying art throughout his career with NASA. “On weekends and nights I painted instead of playing golf,— Bean says. Still, most of his astronaut friends had their doubts when they first learned of his plan to become an artist and didn’t think Bean was making very good use of his education and experience with the Navy and NASA.

In the end, Bean’s willingness to take risks, as an astronaut and an artist, paid off. He has amassed a collection of around 160 original works, 50 of which are now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in a show called “Alan Bean: Painting Apollo,— along with photographs, artifacts and a life-size moon rover. Viewers are given the chance to see how lifelike Bean’s works really are as the museum has incorporated tools and materials into the exhibit that were actually used on the moon and that Bean has included in his paintings. (The museum also recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, when man first walked on the moon.)

Painting What He Knows

The paintings themselves are enthralling. Bean paints with acrylics, what he calls “the best technology of today,— on pieces of aircraft panel coated with acrylic modeling paste. He uses a bronze model of a space boot and a hammer and core tube bit he used on the moon to create imprints and texture on the surface of the painting.

Then, Bean truly integrates his experiences exploring the final frontier by adding bits and pieces of his Apollo 12 patch and sprinkles of moon dust to the surface. “If I had known I was going to do this, I would have had [my fellow astronaut] Pete rub dust all over me,— says Bean, referring to his dwindling supply of moon dust. The final step in the process of a painting’s creation is the application of actual paint, which seals in the materials and imprints, resulting in another cosmic addition to Bean’s collection. “I try to make them special to the moon.—

The final result demonstrates Bean’s admiration of impressionist artists, especially Claude Monet. The paintings, ranging from large panels to small studies, have the same effect of a 1960s television, but in color, of course: From far away, the images look crystal clear, but brought closer the viewer can see the brush strokes, blurred lines and sheer effort that went into the piece.

One of the most striking aspects of Bean’s works is his attention to detail and insistence that his finished products are totally accurate. In order to ensure this exactness, Bean paints from miniature models of spacemen and uses a light and perspective measurer to depict what the shadows and craters really looked like. “I think one of my jobs is to make these as accurate as I can,— Bean says, revealing that he has taken commissioned and sold paintings back from their owners after realizing one aspect or another was not represented truthfully.

The Early Years

Bean didn’t always paint scenes of outer space. During his early career as an artist, Bean stuck to more familiar genres. “I painted earthly scenes because that’s what I was taught to do.— His style and technique have also evolved as he has painted his many depictions of men on the moon.

“My early paintings were mostly gray, [but] as I understood the role of the artist better, I changed the colors,— Bean says. “I’m not an Earth artist anymore.— The giant mass of rock and dust known as the moon has never seemed so alive as it is in Bean’s works. Shades of teal, orange and yellow compliment the grays, blacks and whites that Bean says are so common in images of the terrain.

His mini model spacewalkers helped Bean create one of his most impressive and thoughtful pieces yet. Bean’s painting “First Men: Neil Armstrong— depicts Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, holding a camera with a reflection of Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s companion in space, in his visor. Bean crafted this scene from a famous photograph of Aldrin in which Armstrong, holding a camera, can be seen as a reflection in Aldrin’s visor.

Bean used his models, lights and the picture of Aldrin to re-create the scene in his studio. He studied training videos of Armstrong to fill in the details that can’t be seen in the reflection, and finally crafted an incredibly accurate and clear representation of what Armstrong looked like while taking the picture of Aldrin as they made space history. The painting offers a new perspective on Armstrong, and a credible one at that.

Bean hopes to complete 200 to 250 paintings in his lifetime. As a man who has seen more than most people, Bean is happy to provide an endless supply of stories about experiences at NASA, his journey as an artist and the many great and interesting people he has run into along the way. Realizing that these stories are important, and a great addition to history and culture, Bean says he hopes to record, in art and in words, what he has seen.

“I work at this just as hard as I physically can,— says Bean, who hopes his paintings will remain as evidence for those who cannot make the same journey he could. Gesturing proudly to the gallery filled with his life’s work, Bean’s spirits are soaring. “When they have art galleries on the moon,— he says, “they’ll be there.—