Alan Bean

Alan Bean Apollo moon landing paintings
You will sometimes hear people argue about the most important events in human history — the discovery of fire, the wheel or the printing press, the first cave paintings, or, in a longer view, the first deliberate cultivation of plants or the rise of cro-magnons and the apparent extinction of the neanderthals.

But, as a friend of mine, paleo artist Bob Walters, pointed out, and on reflection I think I have to agree, if you truly take the long view, you could make a case that there are basically three really important events in the entire three and a half billion year history of life itself on this planet:

– Life begins.

– Life emerges from the sea and establishes itself on land.

– Life leaves the surface of this planet and travels to another celestial body.

Some of us alive today were witness to that third event.

On July 16, 1969, 40 years ago today, three human beings left the surface of the Earth to travel 238,897 miles (384,467 km) to the moon. On July 20th, two of them descended to its surface, and all three then returned to this planet.


I was in my girlfriend’s den, watching the Apollo 11 mission with her and her younger brother on a small, round cornered television screen in black and white. I knew it was very cool, and pretty important. I didn’t realize how important. I don’t think a lot of people, even those who saw it, realize still just how important it was.

Some may argue that space exploration is a wasteful extravagance and unimportant to day to day life on Earth, and I’m sure those same arguments could be made that life in the primordial oceans was doing just fine without bothering to crawl up on the land, thank you very much, and human beings were fine living in Africa, Europe and Asia without bothering with the American continents.

I’m not so much bringing this up to argue the case (there are plenty of political or even science blogs where that can be argued ad infinitum), but rather to point out how important I personally think this event was, how much I am in awe of it, and how astonished I am that it occurred in my lifetime.

Which brings us, as always on Lines and Colors, to art.

There have been many landscape artists throughout the history of art, whether they were called that or not (see my post on Giovanni Bellini, for example), but we now have a artist who is the only one to paint the landscape of another world from first-hand experience.

Alan Bean was an astronaut on the Apollo 12 mission, launched four months after the landmark Apollo 11 mission, and was the fourth human to step foot on the moon.

Bean retired from NASA in 1981 and devoted himself full time to painting. He had been interested in painting, and taking art classes, since his days as a test pilot, and studied by making copies of paintings by Cezanne and Degas.

While he obviously couldn’t paint “on location” on the moon (en plein vacuum?), he is the only painter who can paint it from the experience of seeing it with his own eyes, and he has done so in an extensive series of paintings.

Some of them are very direct and observational. In others, like most artists, he is interpretive, and beings his own sensibilities to the subject. In particular he follows his desire to bring color to the moon, which seemed to him at the time visually richer than photographs could convey; the latter usually showing grey and black vistas of mountains, craters and dust, broken only by the color of the astronauts themselves and in particular the bright foil skin of the landing module.

In some of Bean’s interpretations, the lunar surface itself is aglow with impressionistic colors. He also uses heavy surface textures in many of his paintings, particularly in images of his fellow astronauts, and often revisits the same theme with varying degrees of color and texture.

His web site contains a series of galleries. Site navigation is horrible, but if you click around long enough you’ll eventually find your way through them. Be sure to click on the image previews, and then on “Large image” to see the textural surface of the paintings.

While Bean may not have made it into the National Gallery of Art, his paintings are on display at another part of the Smithsonian, in the National Air and Space Museum. The show Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist On Another World opens today and runs to January 13, 2010.

Addendum: there are two new books out with Bean’s artwork: Alan Bean: Painting Apollo and Apollo: An Eyewitness Account By Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker Alan Bean.

13 Replies to “Alan Bean”

  1. Great research, Charlie. I had no idea Bean was an artist, and I certainly remember all of his exploits.

    I intend to post about the landing on the 20th. I guess I watched at elementary school, but watched many missions at home on the tv set.

    I think these paintings beat the funny little B&W films by far!

  2. Very cool.
    And I agree with you and your friend on the three important events.

    Maybe I should do a quick story about some ancient fish discussing the move to land…”Y’know, we’ve got enough problems to worry about down here in the water. Why waste time going up on land, learning to crawl, developing thumbs and stuff like that?”

  3. Thanks for this posting. I had known about his artwork but I hadn’t checked to see if he had a web-site. I’ll be studying his images the way I’ve been studying the full sized detail images in a book I have on the paintings of Odd Nerdrum.

    That texture in Bean’s paintings comes from his pressing or scraping the ground with lunar tools and a lunar suit boot – items he kept when he retired.

    Back in 2000 a friend and I had a discussion on what would be the most significant image from the 20th Century. We decided on two – first would be any picture of an atomic – mushroom cloud and second would be the Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph. The significance being that during that century we gained both the ability to destroy our world and the ability to see our world as it really is.

    I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and I’m working my way through your postings – and learning a few things.

  4. Great post, Charley. As always, thanks.

    It’s worth mentioning that Bean incorporates a few grains of moon dust in each of his paintings – apparently there was some left on the suit patches he got back after the mission.

  5. I’ve never been that interested in space science but these are amazing, particularly the top two it feels as if you’re there. I was going to ask how he created that ‘scratchy’ texture but mike has answered it above, thanks

  6. Ft Bragg, NC. Motel off base with 13 other guys. Yes, and two beds.
    Lots of beer, swimming, frolicking, a burger run and then the excitement to the touch down.

    Midnight or so. I look around the small motel room and 13 guys are asleep in whatever pose they could muster. I watched “One small step for man..” solo on a 12″ B&W.


    I also met Alan at the Society of Illustrators about 1998. He is a serious artist who knows that most illustrators have him in spades in talent. Yeah, but he’s been to the moon!


  7. Hi, Charley,
    Thanks for this post and the photos, especially. I wrote about this tonight on my blog before I looked at your post.
    Mine pales in comparison, so I am sending people here from there to read more. I thought it pretty wonderful and will go up to DC for sure to have a look.
    Thanks for the link to his site too, will go there first.

    1. Thanks, all, for your comments. It’s worth noting that there are two new books with Alan Bean’s art. I’ll try to look them up and post links when I can.

  8. Thank Charley, I found your blog through goggling.Your art is superb.I want to extend your blog because from here I can attempt more information about space science .

  9. Charlie, I was 12 when this happened, a little young to grasp the importance then, but I have recently dug deeply into the wonderful book display celebrating the anniversary of this event at my Barnes and Noble. As usual, I’m always drawn to books by the artwork. The art this event generated is exciting beyond words. Its spiritual. I am sad that at least one generation and possibly all the rest to come will miss out on the awe and impact this event had. This was the only time in the history of human beings that the human being ever left this planet to go to another planet millions of miles away and return to tell about it. Scary, scary, thrilling, thrilling. Unbelievable really, at the time. We take it all for granted now. We don’t even enjoy the moon anymore because it is hard to see thru city lights. Its beauty is diminished by the bustle and speed of life today and the fact that we are plugged in to gadgets not caring to look out the window or take a stroll at sunset. In honor of this incredible achievement we should all dedicate at least half an hour, one night to find a place, out of town, to observe and enjoy a full moon and contemplate that humans went there and came back. We haven’t really done anything so great since. Its exciting to wonder what we will do in the future that may match this,..and who the artists will be who will capture it for us. As always, your site is amazing. I am a recreational researcher too. Between your site,, and the Library of Congress, I should be engaged the rest of my life. THANK YOU. Betty.

  10. Dagnabit! I wasn’t 12, I was 19 when this happened. And, is the moon really only 238,897 miles away?!:! Why doesn’t that seem far away? P.S. I’m a big Giovani Bellini fan. I am so glad you referenced him. I love renaissancinal shifts in history and Bellini was part of one with his improvements to landscape painting. THANK YOU. Betty.

    1. Thanks, Betty.

      (Sorry about the delay in getting one of your comments through the spam catcher.)

      It’s been remarkable and sad for me to think of the last few decades as the “post space-age”, in which we reduced manned exploration to routine orbital trips (we even made it seem more boring and commonplace by calling it a “shuttle”). Unmanned exploration, and the Hubble telescope, have opened up new vistas, we now know of many planets beyond our own solar system. Hopefully the drive to send humans beyond the bounds of Earth orbit will awaken again and the “space age” can resume.

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