by Bob Bahr, Editor PleinAir Today

Joanna Barnum says her plein air painting experience allowed her to make a successful watercolor under the tight schedule allowed by NASA recently at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invited 23 artists from across the country to the Flight Center, which is located in Greenbelt, Maryland, to paint the James Webb Space Telescope. This new observatory is scheduled to open in October 2018 and offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity — enough to allow the observation of the first galaxies, far, far away. The $8 billion venture was a collaboration of 17 countries. Barnum was in awe.

Joanna Barnum painting the James Webb Space Telescope at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Photo by Maggie Masetti
Joanna Barnum painting the James Webb Space Telescope at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Photo by Maggie Masetti

“In many ways, my experience as a plein air painter prepared me for this event, and in many ways, this was of course different from the typical plein air painting experience,” says Barnum. “I am used to completing work from observation quickly under a variety of unusual conditions and distractions. I had about two hours to do this painting, which is on par with how long I usually spend on a plein air piece, so I felt confident I’d be able to accomplish something finished. However, the James Webb Space Telescope is probably the most complex and challenging subject I’ve ever tried to paint from observation. The mirror is made up of many hexagonal segments, forming a slightly convex shape. It’s also extremely reflective, and bright gold. Both the structure and surfaces were a challenge to get right.

“James Webb Space Telescope,” by Joanna Barnum, 2016, watercolor, 22 x 15 in.
“James Webb Space Telescope,” by Joanna Barnum, 2016, watercolor, 22 x 15 in.

“The limited window of opportunity and the gravity of the subject matter also put a lot of pressure on me. Although I’m used to working quickly and always want to paint well, I can be relaxed because in the back of my mind I know there will always be other opportunities to get it right if the piece doesn’t turn out. In this case, I had this one window to paint a subject of tremendous historical significance, and was one of the few artists given this access to do so while the completed telescope is at NASA Goddard. So, I was sweating a little!”

If the resulting painting looks like a portrait of the device, that’s not a complete accident. Barnum thought hard about the design of her piece. “When we break composition down to its classic ‘rules,’ we talk about how it’s often a bad choice to center something on the page, or to make a composition too symmetrical,” Barnum says. “It can be stagnant and boring. The flip side of this is that it can feel formal and traditional, which may be desirable in some cases. One example I’ve heard a few times, and that I repeat to my students, is that you often see something centered and symmetrical in religious artwork.

“I thought about other ways of composing this, but ultimately putting the mirror of the telescope horizontally centered felt like the correct choice to me. It felt like the way to convey the gravity of this technological feat. In a sense, this is a piece of religious artwork — the mirror is even a giant golden halo! As I listened to the scientists explaining this project to us while we worked, how the James Webb Space Telescope will allow us to see things we’ve never seen before, answer questions we haven’t thought to ask yet, see the moments after the Big Bang, essentially looking back in time — well, I felt a sense of awe at the vastness of our universe as well as the best of humanity’s accomplishments. I do not have religious faith. But I have profound feeling for the world around us, and science and art both, as a means of greater understanding.”

The Goddard Space Flight Center plans on exhibiting the artwork from the November 2 session this spring.

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