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Pat Rawlings and his Cosmic Canvas

August 1, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

Where were you on the afternoon of July 20, 1969? That's thirty-five years ago, but I can still remember it clearly. I was sitting with my Mother in my grandmother's house in Austin, Texas, watching a small, black and white television as one of mankind's oldest aspirations was realized.

"Houston… Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Just twenty seconds shy of 4:18 P.M., Eastern Daylight Time (20:17:40 UT), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Moon, the culmination of a brilliant pageant of trial, tragedy and triumph set in motion on May 25, 1961, when John F. Kennedy challenged us to reach the moon before the end of the 1960s.

In a speech at Rice University in September 1962, President Kennedy said the national expenditure on space would rise to about fifty cents per week for every man, woman and child in America, a figure he mentioned was less than Americans spent on cigarettes and cigars. Today, the comparable figure, adjusted for inflation and population growth, would give NASA an annual budget of about $47 billion. That's still about what we spend on tobacco products and, frankly, space exploration would probably be a lot better for our national health.

We're now spending about a third of what we spent in those days of grand visions, which now seem long ago. NASA's requested 2005 budget totaled a little over $16 billion and recently a House appropriations committee slashed about a billion from that, leaving NASA with less money than it received in 2004. Sometimes it seems we have turned our backs on the days when we dreamed large and accomplished even more.

Click for larger images...

In 1997, Pat Rawlings painted "The Deal" showing a lunar oxygen mining facility in the eastern Mare Serenitatis. The site is only a few kilometers from where Apollo 17 touched down in 1972. Image courtesy of NASA.

In the photorealistic "First Light" Pat imagined the morning sun rising above astronauts exploring the Noctis Labyrinthus, a Martian canyon. The painting was created for NASA in 1988. Image courtesy of NASA.

But there are still plenty of talented men and women working on the future of space exploration. Surrounding NASA's Johnson Space Center in far southeast Houston, Texas, are dozens of companies, all working on current projects and future concepts for space exploration.

One of these companies is Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, the largest employee-owned research and engineering firm in the United States. Founded in 1969, SAIC is today a multi-billion-dollar company working in a variety of fields.

SAIC doesn't just work on the big dreams; it has a unique way to share its visions with the rest of us. For the past fifteen years, in addition to the scientists and engineers working on NASA projects, the SAIC roster has included Pat Rawlings, one of the leading space artists working today.

Chances are, you've seen Pat's fantastic work many times, especially if you're a science or space buff. His illustrations of space exploration and other worlds have appeared in a large number of publications, including Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine and Air and Space/Smithsonian Magazine. His work has also appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica and books from Ballantine, Bantam and Time/Life Books.

Pat Rawling's realistic paintings are the result of an exceptional talent and extensive research. Pat works with astronauts, engineers and experts in a variety of fields from spacecraft design to geology and meteorology. As part of the preparation for his illustrations, he will often build models. These might be based on information supplied by a client or the pure creations of Pat's vivid imagination. For backdrops and settings, Pat uses NASA photography, topographical maps and even family vacation photos to get the right feel for lighting, colors and shapes.

While Pat used to use plastic and foamcore, these days most of the modelmaking is virtual, carried out on the battery of computers he now uses to create the majority of his work. Pat uses an Apple Macintosh G4 and three custom-built PCs running creative software from Adobe, Corel and, as he puts it, "many other apps waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun." He also works in acrylics and oils for special commissions like a recent portrait of Neil Armstrong, the latest of six portraits Pat has created for the Rotary National Space Achievement Award.

Pat Rawling's achievements extend beyond the bounds of still portraits and illustrations. He designed the colony and all of the spacecraft for the critically acclaimed special effects used in the IMAX production "L5: First City in Space" and worked on the Walt Disney TV movie "Plymouth." He now regularly creates digital animation for various clients using Adobe After Effects and Newtek Lightwave 3D.

Click for larger images...

The 2002 illustration "Ground Floor," depicts an offshore base station for a space elevator, a low-cost concept for lifting loads from Earth to a geostationary terminal 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) overhead. Image courtesy of NASA.

With Saturn looming large over the horizon, future spacefarers stand on the coast of a Titanian sea in this illustration from 2002. Image courtesy of NASA.

Pat Rawlings' often adds a humorous touch to his illustrations. "Late for Class," which Pat created in 1992, gives us a glimpse of what might be a typical student's room at a university far beyond the bounds of the Solar System. Image courtesy of NASA.

Pat Rawlings was born in Greenville, a small city northeast of Dallas, Texas in 1955. He caught the space bug early through regular childhood doses of science fiction. I asked him about the artists that shaped his vision and style.

"My influences," he replied, "include, in the proper order, all of the Tom Swift books, Robert Heinlein, Norman Rockwell, JRR Tolkien, Jurek Putter (a Polish artist in St. Andrews, Scotland who did historical reconstruction art of ancient St Andrews), Leonardo daVinci, Bob McCall, Chesley Bonestell, Ludek Pesek, Frank Frazetta, The Brothers Hildebrandt, Syd Mead, all of the Star Wars movies, all things Star Trek, Jim Burns, Chris Foss, Roger Dean, Michael Whelan, Rick Sternbach, Kim Poor, Ron Miller, Maxfield Parrish, and HR Giger."

Another major factor in Pat's choice of subject matter is his own desire to travel in space and have the opportunity to join in the grand explorations to come. He truly draws on the universe, adding romance, adventure, and even an occasional dash of humor to a photo-sharp concept of possible realities to come.

Pat began his college career at East Texas State University and continued it at “just about every junior college southeast of Houston. By the time he graduated with degree in Applied Design and Visual Art from the University of Houston at Clear Lake, he was already creating paintings for NASA, where he also served as exhibits designer.

Following six years with Eagle Engineering, Pat began his career with SAIC, where he holds the title of Art Director.

In addition to his work for SAIC and NASA, Pat has created illustrations for Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas and Wyle Laboratories. His paintings can also be found in collections around the world.

Considering his extensive catalog of published work, you won't be surprised to learn that Pat is a charter member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, an elite organization whose membership includes most of the top names in astronomy, space technology and science fiction illustration.

The images I have used are just a small sample of those that can be seen on Pat's website and I want to thank Pat for his kind permission to reproduce them here. I strongly encourage a visit, whether you are a fan of first-rate space art or just want to experience a marvelous vision of our universe and mankind's aspirations to explore it.

Incidentally, very nicely timed to coincide with the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight is Dragon Wings' new model of Apollo 11 and the Saturn V rocket that lifted it from the launch pad. It's not only a nice model of a historical spacecraft; it's a pleasant reminder of the thrill of dreaming big.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005