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I came, I saw, I painted: Alan Bean

August 14, 2009
Bean stepping onto the lunar surface for the first time on Nov. 19, 1969.

Bean stepping onto the lunar surface for the first time on Nov. 19, 1969.

This year marks 40 years since the Apollo landings on the moon. While the world reeled from the great leap for mankind, Alan Bean was making his own unique mark upon the world.

Starting out as a navy test pilot, Bean was handpicked for the Apollo missions where he achieved his dream of putting foot upon the dusty lunar soil.  After winning the accolade of being the fourth man on the moon on the Apollo 12 mission, Bean then went up for another 59-day stint in space on the Skylab.  When he retired from NASA, Bean took up an unlikely second career;  the fine arts.

His work boasts the unique position of being the only paintings in the world which include lunar dust and fragments of his spacesuit.  They are currently being exhibited at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  He’s also on the cutting edge of technology today with a website: www.alanbeangallery.com Do go and explore it- the stories that go with the paintings are well worth seeing!

For the past twenty-eight years, Bean has been busy at work in his studio,  but he very kindly took time out of his day to share his experiences with us as the first artist on another world. Here’s what he had to say:

Hello, is this Mr Bean?

Yes it is, thanks for calling right on schedule, very punctual.

How are you doing today?

I’m doing great! I’m in Heuston Texas, he weathers warm bu I don’t know, life’s pretty good down here!

So, to start off, what kind of stuff are you working on these days, art-wise?

I’m working on a painting over here that’s called the spirit of Apollo. There’s Neil and Buzz moving across the lunar surface towards the viewer, Neil is on the left and he’s carrying the American flag because that’s the country that got there. Buzz is on the right and he’s got a golden olive branch as a symbol saying we came in peace all that time and behind them there’s the earth, very large, larger than it would really appear and I think its gonna be a really nice painting when its finished. I’m looking at it now, thinking it needs work! But it’s gonna be pretty when it’s finished.

How long have you been working on it for?

Well, unfortunately I’ve been working on it since last year. I’ve been doing a couple of little things but trying to, when your doing something like this you’ve got to examine everything, you’ve got to get the astronauts, the wrinkles in their suits, the positioning, you’ve gotta get the dirt, the earth, you know, its not like an actual photo or resource- you’ve got to invent all this and when you do that, it just passes time.

Do you make sketches of the individual components in the piece first?

Oh, yes. I make sketches. First I build little models.  I’m looking at them now, they’re 11 inches high. [The one I’m looking at is] one of the old Apollos and then what happens is- I sketch them and then as I’m looking at the sketches, I see that the models need to be built a little differently, the flag held differently, the legs differently and then I kind of rebuild the model and then I start doing the painting.

As I’m painting, I discover some other things that need have the models rebuilt so it takes about 3 paintings to get the models right,  then finally, like now, they’re just right. They’re going to be okay, I can finish the painting. But this is the normal way I do this to get the shadows accurate, there are just too many parts to a spacesuit to try to imagine them all, you really need a model and I can’t just go back to the moon!

That would be the best thing, you need a model and a light just like the moon that has the same shine, that’s what works for me, and I haven’t found any better way.

Painting CompletedIs Anyone Out There?, 2000.  30 3/4 x 41, Textured Acryllic with Moon Dust on Aircraft Plywood

Painting Completed'Is Anyone Out There?', 2000. 30 3/4 x 41'', Textured Acryllic with Moon Dust on Aircraft Plywood

How vivid is your recollection of the lighting condition on the moon, when you’re approaching these pieces, or does that even enter into your concern?

I think it’s good enough. I look at the videos and photos all the time and I look at it and I’ll say ‘I remember it being lighter than that.’.  But well, maybe that camera was shut down, so it looked darker. That’s never the problem, though. The problem is taking a white suit and making it look like Neil and Buzz are right there. It’s obviously a white suit but when I look at it, it has greens, reds, violets blues, purples. How do you do that? It’s very hard to do, I’m telling you. I couldn’t do that when I first left NASA. But you got to learn something in 28 years!

Do you photograph those models and then take the photo and work from that or do you work from the model itself?

Kind of a combination, it’s like a lot of things, whatever you do is never quite right. Then you do that and you think ‘ Uh oh, this isn’t right and I need to change this’ and his arm looks a little too long or it’s not positioned right and you’re constantly drawing it and fooling around with it until suddenly it looks right. That’s one of the principles of art- it’s different to engineering, if it looks right, it is right. Untrue for engineering for sure.

And you’re using oil paints rather than acrylics, is that correct?

Acrylics are a modern invention, maybe 50 years old. Oils are about 500 years old, they look great I like them, I’ve painted with them a lot but the technology is not as good in the least. Other people would disagree.

Well that’s the luxury of being the painter, you get to choose what you work with.

That’s exactly right! And you don’t have to convince anybody else either. You just have to say this is what I like and if people like it, then they do, and if they don’t then I guess they don’t. I’m always by myself painting, so it’s not like I can take a vote and say, well what would you do? Or, like, I wonder what I should do here?

So this piece you’re painting, it never really happened?

No, I never happened, that’s why it’s called The Spirit of Apollo. I planned to paint it when I left NASA, but I never knew what the spirit was.

I could figure it out in words, because we said it all the time, but for the image of it- I couldn’t find a way, so that is one of the reasons it was difficult to do. But I think it’s good, it’s as good as I can do. Maybe some other artist will do it better some day, but I won’t. This is as good as I will be able to do.

So this is the piece you were thinking about doing as you were leaving NASA?

Yeah, there were several, but this is one out of them. I wanted to do a spirit of Apollo, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then a friend of mine who lived in Germany, his name was Professor Lotzmann, he worked on it with me and he came up with ideas and he mailed them to me and I would look at them and say, well its not exciting enough, or something, and he put up with this for about 6 or 7 months. He came out with the basic idea of this painting and working together, we’d come up with something better than he could have done alone.

Cernan, Gnomon and Crater, 1998.

'Cernan, Gnomon and Crater', 1998.

Right, so looking at some of the things you’ve said in the past of you, yourself as a tribal artist, I’m assuming the tribe would be astronauts or space explorers?

You know, I think of myself in a way as a person who tells stories. I know about what I did within a painting. I paint it and then I tell a story to go with it, usually in a couple of hundred words so that people will know what we’re doing.

Lots of the people on the earth now were not alive when we did this, so I’ve tried to preserve what we did in those paintings, because what we did is the same thing humans will do, when we go back or go to Mars or wherever, because these are the things that you do to find out what the world can tell you that might be important for people on Earth, so they’re gonna dig the same ditch that we did, they’re gonna drill the same holes, they’re gonna bring back the same rocks, only they’ll be different, because that’s how you evaluate what’s useful there for people on Earth.

We didn’t go there just to hang out, so it’s more like- Go there, it’s a new world, go there and see what it can tell us about our world and see if there’s anything there that can improve life in our world, so that’s what’s gonna be going on when we go to Mars, asteroids.–That’s what it’s all about, us humans here trying to make the world a better place for the future.

So how do you feel your art is contributing to that? By exciting people or firing their imaginations?

Well, I’m not sure, it’s more things that I believe would help future generations understand what we try to do and then those who are interested, who have read my stories and looked at my paintings, they would understand what we are trying to do better and if they did, then even more accurately so.

It’s like leaving a hopefully, beautiful, digestible documentation of one of the great human inventions.  I often say ‘Don’t we wish that Magellan had taken an artist with him around the world?’ Maybe it’s equally important or more important as the centuries unfold, with humans leaving the earth.

Absolutely, I agree with you there, myself.

So, I don’t know I think of it differently, what can I do to help future generations understand this great adventure, that’s what I do and I can say– this is the spirit we had, this is what were trying to do.

Some people will not be interested and other will, and I guess as future astronauts some will be very interested, and if they’re not, they’re not very smart. They will look at this and read it and they can say ‘You know, when we go back to the moon or we go to Mars, those guys did pretty good, but we’re gonna do it even better.’and that’s, I think, the story of history.

Well I guess if we’ve already had one artist on the moon then the probability is pretty high that we’re going to have more.

I think it kind of is. I have met young people who have said to me, or their mothers have said to me, ‘My Johnny wants to be an astronaut and an artist.’ and I thought– I never heard that before, and it never was connected in peoples’ minds before.

I think if this art is becomes known as I hope it will be, it will make people realise that you need both your left and right brain. You need both of those halves of yourself to have a really wonderful life.

I think one of the main reasons that my life is special is I have used a lot of my left brain, which kept me alive as a pilot and maybe a good astronaut.

I use my right brain you know, to conceptualise the paintings and do other things back in the NASA days, I had a lot of good ideas in there too, so people liked using my left brain, other people didn’t like using from my right brain so much because they were mostly left-brained engineers. I think people will say ‘If he can do that then I don’t have to be just an artist…I can be an artist and something’  I can be an engineer or a physicist and something that uses the other side of the brain, you know, the brain is like a muscle, if you use that part, it gets stronger. If you don’t it, atrophies. I think this could be, for some people an accidental benefit, but not for most, most wouldn’t think of it that much.

Sure, so how did your artistic self present itself to you? How did you become aware that you were artistically inclined when you were young?

I wasn’t  aware then, it was when I was a test pilot in the navy, and I was flying all the airplanes the navy had, the best, the highest.  It was a dream of mine since when I was a kid,  so that dream was being satisfied and so suddenly, although I didn’t recognise it, this other idea of being an artist popped up, it always popped up, with a way of saying look, I’ve always looked at paintings and these things were always more important to me than the other people I was with, so I thought- you know, I can paint a painting that good, looking at some on the wall or in museums or in galleries, so I enrolled in night school while in the navy.  I enrolled in drawing and water colour, and I soon found out that it was very difficult and in fact, I could not do the things I wanted to do.  I was not skilled enough.

There’s no training for artists where the path is laid out like when you want to learn to drive a car or an airplane. You can go to art school but when you graduate you’re gonna have a general education; they will not let you compete with the real  world. So it was only later on when I was in Nashville painting, and I was thinking whether or not I wanted to leave NASA, to leave the greatest job in the world, I thought, which has got me trained to use a space shuttle, so I began to realise– you know, this is something that has been part of me all along, but I didn’t notice it, because I was only doing it as a hobby. I sewed the drapes in my first cell, but the other pilots did that, not many. When I bought a car, I didn’t buy the one that was engineered the best, I got the one that was the most beautiful.

Bean, Conrad and Gordon. (The Apollo 12 astronauts), 1992.

Bean, Conrad and Gordon. (The Apollo 12 astronauts), 1992.

So I didn’t recognise that, but looking back I do and now I see that once I was flying spaceships and things, then this other thing [art] came up and I never thought I would be a pro.Then I realised that there were a lot of young men or women who could fly a shuttle as good as I could or better, but there was none of the 12 of us who walked on the moon that was interested in doing these paintings and I said I could make a more valuable contribution to future generations doing this, because they’ll never miss me in NASA and they haven’t, and if I hadn’t done this, these paintings wouldn’t exist and many of these stories wouldn’t exist. So that painting I’m working on right now, the Spirit of Apollo, would not exist if I hadn’t made this change. None of the stories I tell are told in books. Well, some aren’t, so it’s just another way to celebrate them.

It doesn’t replace any books, its no better than anybody’s books, it’s just a different way in celebrating a great adventure.

Sure, so what kind of painters were you influenced by or which did you admire when you started out?

Well I’m a colour guy, so paintings that appeal to me have to have beautiful colour, Monet was and still is my favourite painter. Now, I couldn’t paint [like Monet] to tell stories, because most of Monet’s paintings do not tell stories. So I had to then look over to somebody like Remington and Russell that told the stories of the Old West. Maybe Albert Bierstadt, who told about the early West, Frederick Church, or some of these others who told people who couldn’t go there what the West was like.

So more of a narrative in their pieces?

Yes, because if I’m telling stories that’s it, so I’ll  have to be a little more realistic than I wanted to be.

Thats just part of anything when you start out, you’ve probably had to do a lot of things in your life that you didn’t want to do when you imagine what your life was like, I know I did. And I think that’s part of it, to accomplish the goal of having people understand these things. I have to be more realistic, and so I had to learn to do that, and make my paintings that way but not think of it, I am as impressionistic as I can be, that’s the way I think about it.

I’ve got to be realistic to tell the stories and I make them as impressionistic as I can and get away with it. and since there’s no real law, its mostly just me being here saying, you know, I think it’d look good if I did this, and I look back on my 28 years of doing this and I look back on periods there and I think I really went too far and others I got lucky and was just right, or not far enough.

You went too far with what?

The colours. Not the other stuff, but the other stuff is just the stories, and you can’t go too far with that, and the colours are the hard part of painting, in my opinion. If I look at an art book, I can tell the skill level of an artist really quickly by, not the drawing, cause everybody can pretty much draw, but how they harmonise the colours and things like that, and that’s the difference.

How do you feel when you’re looking at NASA and some the iconography they use to connect with the general population, do you think they’ve done a good job, in your opinion?

Oh, yes I think they’ve done a very good job and I think they have to be more technical than I do, you couldn’t use my stuff in a government agency.

It just wouldn’t connect with the image of a government agency being  precise and technical and all that, people like [my work], but I would never recommend that they use the Spirit of Apollo in a technical manner, if they wanted to use it in an event, then that’d be fine, but as far as explaining what NASA does [and what astronauts do] on the shuttle or repairing the Hummel telescope, they have some wonderful artists, they’re contracted for them, they do all this hard work that you see. They imagine what it would look like to dock with a space station and what a space shuttle would look like when it’s completely finished. And they’re fabulous artists but they have a different function to what I do.

When you were up on the SkyLab, did you do any sketches or was that even a possibility?

No, it was a good possibility, but I am a single minded person, one success I’ve had in my life, I get by that way. I know lots of people who are multitaskers, think about a lot of things, they kind of want to do that, like the guys I was with.

But to be successful, I had to use all my brainpower on that one subject. When I was going to the moon, that was all I thought about, I never thought about my art one single time. Or in the sky lab I never thought of art, when I was training for over a year, and when I flew in for 59 days, I never said ‘Gee, I wish I made a sketch of this’, or anything like that. My mind was on trying to be a great astronaut, and then it was only when I got back, well next I worked as a back up space craft commander, I spent my time trying to be a great astronaut for that. So, right now I’m trying to be a good artist. So, don’t think about being an astronaut much except for telling stories.

Do you have a favourite contemporary artist at the moment?

Well first of all, I don’t know the big commercial art scene, because it just doesn’t fit what I do, see.

So, [I like] Monet, Remington and Russell, with colours, think of Manet, I like him a lot- he told some stories, he’s a great artist.

Another one that I look at a lot is a fella, in the western art field, his name’s Howard Terpning and I look at his work because he tells stories about the American Indians. And I think he’s good. There are a number of others who I like but I have to say he’s my favourite in so far as scale and ability to tell stories and come up with a of better stories to tell.

So what do you think of space- related science fiction illustration, as a field of art?

I like them, I think there’s some fabulous artists who do them. In general, they’re a little more realistic then I’m trying to be. I’m trying to tell the story realistically but trying to be more impressionistic as I can be. But generally, sci-fi is moving the other way. They are trying to do it very accurately you know, all in all, its harder to do than what I do, by the way, in my opinion, but I’m not trying to be like them. If I could be like somebody I would be one of the people I just mentioned. What happens is, when you first start out in art, anyone can teach you ‘cause you don’t know squat. Then after a number of years, longer than you think, you begin to say, I want to paint more like that guy…[in my case, it was] Howard Terpning, so I went to a couple of his workshops and tried to emulate him. I would not go to a [sci-fi] workshop, even though someone in the sci-fi  field is a better artist than I am, because I am not trying to move in that direction.

So you have to be careful. And nobody tells you all this stuff, like I said, there’s no path. For example, I was having difficulties with little astronauts in the background and things like that, so I went to a fella that did fantasy art,  he did a lot of little fairies and gargoyles and animals and people, things like that.  [The] little astronauts were so  little and I was doing it with light brush strokes, you know. But no way, you still have to paint every part of that little astronaut with the same detail as you would the big one. Once I got that in my head, and quit taking shortcuts and hoping that if it’s one third the size, I can do one third the brush strokes. You’ve got to do them just as accurately.

Just as well they didn’t put a whole bus load of astronauts on the moon then!

Yes, well, tell me about it! (laughs) It’s hard enough with one or two. At least for me, well, other people are faster than me, I’ve been at this full time for 28 years working hard and I’ve only done 170 paintings, I’m sure Monet did 170 paintings or more in a year! So there’s a big difference between Alan Bean and Monet or Terpning.

Well you can just be yourself, it’s all you can be.

That’s it. I’ve discovered that. I used to wish that faeries would come in or elves, you know, that old story? Where the elves come in and work on the paintings when I sleep, or maybe Monet would drop by, but he died in 1925 unfortunately so he never showed up. So I’ve had to struggle along with all the other artists I’ve met.

Thank you very much for your time, and good luck with the piece you’re working on!

Thanks, I’ll need all the help I can get!

Alan Bean’s work can be seen at www.alanbeangallery.com .

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