Painting Pluto with Coffee

One of my favorite things about having a creative life is that I can play and experiment with a lot of ideas and they don't really have to be correct or accurate. The part that I am not very good at yet is to materialize those ideas and make them actual projects.

Sometimes I need a little motivation, and last week that motivation came from one of the most influential Planetary Scientists alive today, and one I particularly admire: Dr. Alan Stern, head of the NASA's New Horizons Mission that flew by Pluto in 2015.

Alan Stern has been studying our Solar System for decades. When NASA launched the Voyagers missions in the 70's, those missions where able to explore the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but not Pluto. He fought for years to have a mission to this tiny frozen world, and he also keeps fighting to put Pluto back in the Planet category instead of considering it a "dwarf planet" (and that is another long discussion that I will skip for now or I will write another 1000 words). We all owe him and his team those beautiful images of Pluto and Charon that anyone can find over the internet with a simple "hey google (or Siri), show me a picture of Pluto".  

I attended several of his talks in 2015 and 2016, and he has been a great inspiration in my life. That's why, when I made my collection of planetary postcards, I wanted to thank Alan Stern for his amazing work and sent him a postcard of Pluto. I didn't expected anything in return, so it was a surprise that he actually replied with a note and some New Horizons stickers. 

I don't brag often but I feel I have something I really want to brag about: Alan Stern actually liked my painting of Pluto!

Which brings me back to what I was writing at the beginning: I have a lot of ideas, but sometimes I need a little bit of motivation. One of those ideas was to make another painting of Pluto, this time using coffee, and this time using a canvas instead of paper. Having the approval of Dr. Alan Stern motivated me to finally work on this project. 

But how was I going to paint on canvas if I only do watercolor?

Well, I recently learned about a "watercolor ground" that Daniel Smith manufactures. This ground is a glue-like polymer that you can apply to almost any surface and will allow you to paint with watercolors on that surface. I applied two layers on a 12 x 12 canvas and let it dry for several weeks (because I was just waiting for the right moment... you know how that is blush )

But the "right moment" was quickly approaching. I realized that the historical New Horizons encounter was on July 14th, 2015, so we are in the 6th anniversary of the Pluto flyby. Also, Pluto will be in opposition* to the Sun on Saturday the 17th of July on this year, so why not celebrate and make something special? 

Next came the fun part. My plan was to use normal coffee but I discovered that it was way to diluted to create that rich and opaque brown color that we see in the images of Pluto, so I used instant coffee instead. And that worked wonderfully. When I added a few drops of water on the coffee part, it created a nice crater-like features. I love it!

My original idea was to only use coffee, but I had a sample of mineral colors, also from Daniel Smith, and I really liked the glittery effect that they provided for this painting. Pluto is completely frozen, so being able to give that effect was something I was very happy about. I am not sure if it will be appreciate it in the prints, but it definitely shines in the original.  

The other property I like about the mineral pigments is that they have a granulation effect. That creates a unique texture very appropriate for painting a planet. I used mainly Black Tourmaline genuine for the black contours and Red Fuchsite genuine for the Tombaugh Reggio (or the heart-shaped feature).

The original was exhibited at Brandy's restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona during the Artists Coalition event in August 2021. 

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*A planet is in opposition to the Sun when the Earth is right between that planet and the Sun (the planet is in the opposite direction to where the Sun is in the sky, and similar to when the Moon is full, it is up all night), meaning that first: it only applies to the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) and since it is when its closer to the Earth, it's easier to observe because it will look brighter. Unfortunately, Pluto is so far away that we cannot see it unless we use a really good telescope, even during its opposition.