Drawing with Celestial Light


This week, I took time to visit The Drawing Room and The Photographers’ Gallery to attend the exhibition “Double Take”. The exhibition draws inspiration from William Henry Fox Talbot’s “Pencil of Nature” and refers to the gesture, which can be found in both drawing and photography. “Double Take” gave me an opportunity to reflect on my drawings with celestial light.

In my last post Meteotypes, I explored how celestographs can be created with meteorites – matter originating from outside of Planet Earth.

In today’s post, I’d like to begin a conversation about celestial light drawings, or what I call celestographs. In the gallery above I have experimented with three different types of celestial light drawings / celestographs.

  1. In the first image, reflected light from the Moon has been used to create a gestural drawing, and in this case the drawing is directed by my own movement of the camera.
  2. In the second, I have created a solargraph, a long exposure pinhole camera which has been pointed in the direction of the Sun for a duration of three weeks. The resultant image shows the Suns’ movement through the landscape, here the Sun has burned its impression on to the photosensitive paper.
  3. In the third image, a stationary camera was pointed towards a sky full of stars. Over an exposure of seven minutes, the Earth turns on its axis by a small fraction and the stars seem to draw perfect lines in the sky, with varying degrees of whites and greys depending on the distance and brightness of each individual star. This technique is often called a “star trail photograph” in the field of astrophotography.
  4. Elsewhere in The Photographers’ Gallery, I was surprised to find a star trail / celestial light drawing by Trevor Paglen in the Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize .
PAN, Trevor Paglen from The Other Night Sky

This image uses the same “star trail” technique, but in this image Paglen is specifically interested in the geostationary satellites, the unblurred dots between the star trails. Here, Paglen comments on the intense levels of surveillance that we are blissfully unaware of.

These star trails and solargraphs are often thought of as a cliche, but why is this?
These star trail images make use of technology that has taken over 150 years to refine, and display light emitted from objects that we have only just begun to understand, due to their immense distance.

Celestial Drift by Scott Carnie-Bronca_2015_Young_Commended2
Celestial Drift, Scott Carnie Bronca, 2015

In “Celestial Drift”, Carnie-Bronca has chosen a setting on his digital camera which takes multiple shots over a period of time. To create an image such as this, it is necessary to take multiple shots of the stars moving through the landscape. Left as a continual exposure, the light coming from the stars would over-expose the image and obscure important details, such as the wispy blue and orange detail in the sky. Instead, the images have been amalgamated in to one image using computer software such as StarStaX. The movement of the stars through the sky is recorded over a sustained period, but with fragmented jolts through time. As this image is a composite photograph, I am left wondering whether this image could be defined as a “Celestial Light Drawing”. Is a composite digital photograph any less of a light drawing than my solargraph? These are questions I will be attempting to answer over the next couple of months.


In my last post, An Introduction to Celestography, I defined the term “Celestograph” as something that originates or is caused by phenomena existing outside of Earth’s stratosphere. The aim of this blog is to understand how various forms of celestographs are made, through the creation of my own celestographs and through the exploration of relevant archives.

Recently, I presented my latest project “Meteotypes” at MATTER, an exhibition which brought together Fine Art Research students at the Royal College of Art. In Meteotypes, I explored the curious interaction between the function of images and how they are caused. The Meteotype is a photographic etching print where the ink forming the image is imbued with the very same material that it represents. The image is “caused” in the indexical sense where light bounces off of an object and into the camera. However, it could be said that the viewer has a ‘physical’ connection with the original meteorite which has been transformed into ink. Can Meteotypes be referred to as a “Celestograph”, as some of the physical material making up the image does originate from outer space?

Meteotypes, Photo Etchings with Meteorite-Imbued Ink, 2016. Chondrite: Found in the Sahara Desert.


I would like to thank the Royal School of Mines and the Department of Earth Sciences at Imperial College London for allowing me to use their fabulous mill in order to grind the meteorites into a fine powder.

I have previously spoken to David Faithfull, who was able to create Meteorite Ink by dissolving meteorites in acid, inspired by Yuri Gagarin. However, as I wanted to make a photo-etching, I could not use this process as the ink would not take to an etching plate.

Instead, I visited the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College and asked them to grind up my tektite and chondrite fragments into a fine dust. After I had created the dust, I was then able to make an etching ink under supervision of intaglio printmaker Alan Smith at the Royal College of Art. We tried a number of different recipes, using the raw material and extender which did not stick to the plate.
Eventually we chose to mix readymade ink with the meteorite dust to create the print above, but it is my intention to develop this process so that this addition is not necessary.

An Introduction to Celestography

The term “Celestograph” was first used in the 1890’s by August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright. Strindberg laid out a series of photographic plates on the ground, hoping to capture scenes of the night sky. Of course, Strindberg did not capture scenes of the night sky, but instead created what we would now describe as a “chemigram”, an image that is created by chemicals interacting with photosensitive emulsions. These photosensitive plates were not designed to be left outside exposed to the elements and thus reacted strangely, resulting in these beautiful images.

Celestograph XIIIf
August Strindberg, Celestograph, 1893-4 (all images courtesy National Library of Sweden
Celestograph XIIj
August Strindberg, Celestograph, 1893-4 (all images courtesy National Library of Sweden)

So what actually is a Celestograph?
To answer this question, let us briefly return to the etymology of the word “photography”.
The word photography is an amalgamation of the Greek word photos meaning light and graphe meaning drawing. In it’s most fundamental sense, photography simply means “to draw with light”.

If we then apply the same logic as used for photography, celestography means “to draw from heaven”. The etymological origin of the word “celestial” comes from the latin “cealum” and is the source of the usual word for “sky” in most latin-based languages.
In modern times, the term “celestial” is most commonly used to describe astronomical objects, such as stars or planets. A celestial object exists outside of Earth’s stratosphere, beyond the reach of the sky.

In this blog, I will use the term “celestograph” to examine a series of images and recordings which have been written by celestial objects. The aim of this collection of texts will be to understand how various forms of celestographs are mediated with various technical processes.

For example, in the case of Andrew Ainslee Common’s photograph of The Great Nebula in Orion, light travelled over 1500 years to reach the glass plate coated, which was coated with silver halides suspended in a gelatinous substance. Celestial light was able to interact directly with matter to create a physical object, mediated only by a telescope lens and atmospheric disturbances.

The Great Nebula In Orion, Andrew Ainslie Common, 1883.

To me, The Great Nebula In Orion is a perfect example of a celestograph, an image created by an interaction with a celestial object.

As an artist, I have created a number of my own celestographs using various processes. With my limited means and resources, I have experimented with the following techniques:

A photographic print created using ultraviolet light from the Sun to affect photosensitive emulsions.

A long exposure pinhole photograph print which is written by the light of the Sun, moving through the landscape.

The Pulsar Oscilloscope
An installation and film which transforms pulsar recordings into a wave form. It is my intention to use the wave forms to create a light installation, thus bringing the pulsar recording back to the visible light spectrum.

Photo-etchings created using powdered meteorite fragments.

During my course study at the Royal College of Art, I hope to visit a number of observatories around the world to find out how celestographs are currently being made. For example, how do astronomers interact with unrepresentable and unimaginable phenomena existing in the universe, and present their findings as proof?

From undertaking this body of research, I would like to understand how direct astronomical recordings are and how many processes raw data has to undertake before being published. In this course of study, I intend to explore the possibilities of making celestographs myself, during residencies in dark-sky spaces and at observatories around the world. The practice-based element of my research is highly important, as it enables me to understand how these mediation processes work in fine detail.


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