On Abstract Painting with Moon Maps

By Thom Wright  Mar 2022

In February I began a new series of small, abstract paintings that begin with a black and white image of a section of one of the moons of our solar system. These photos were taken by NASA in the 1990s when they began explorations of the outer planets of our solar system and their moons.  NASA sent its camera-equipped satellite into close passes or orbits around each moon, and over many orbits, photos are taken with high resolution of small scene portions. Then that image data is transmitted back to earth from a billion miles away.  Each moon’s collected data is then mathematically scaled, corrected for a common exposure level and sun angle, and connected into much larger sections of that moon. 

These science images were published in large photo books and sent to many libraries across the world.  I copied images from one of these books in the CSULB Library in 2004 when I was an art student there.  An example is presented below for a moon of Jupiter.

          NASA image of Europa, the fourth largest moon of Jupiter’s 79 moons


As interesting as this image may be in its surface structure and with NASA constructed lat/long coordinates and English-named plains and crater sites, what does this have to do with my abstract painting?  Well, if you have not dealt with how to begin a mulit-colored painting with a B&W image, and you ask why would I want to use this image in an abstract painting, then addressing these questions in this blog is my intent, to be discussed next.

To begin with the “why” question, there is a famous quotation, “Art making responds to its time.”  And another quotation is applicable, “Dark times make dark art.” Our lives in the 21st century are unlike ever before, with scary calamities happening, and even worse expected in the near future, such as:  Climate change and its impact on both man and nature, the Coronavirus pandemic, global destruction of nature from man’s takeover of wilderness and destruction of the natural environment, species extinction, political polarization in democracies, rising numbers of refugees, unbounded human population growth, the rise of China and India as economic and political powers, the long-ongoing clashes of major religious groups, and the rise of AI and robotics that will displace human workers, just to name some big ones.

Now nobody expects “abstract artists” to find the answers to these global issues.  In fact, no one much cares that artists might make art addressing them.  However, some people do, including art collectors, and some of those might be interested in contemporary art related to this darkening time. It has also happened in past art, where it focused on famine, war, disease, drought, etc.  Picasso’s painting of “Guernica” made during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s is one of the best known examples.

 I begin with my first small painting in my “Moon Map” series, to describe its development and confronting aesthetic issues.  The image below presents the first stage of this painting, with only the moon image onto the canvas that has a warm-tinted background.

         “Moon Map J-2, Exploration, Stage 1”, gesso transfer on canvas , 12” x 16”

It is clear that I purposely ripped the NASA B&W moon image into pieces, and then made the gesso transfers of them in related order.  The transfers were OK, but the result looked bad.  The torn pieces set up a strong horizontal movement, and do heighten its “darkness”, but do not leave much room for anything else. It definitely has a dominantly dark beginning. And at this point, I spent several days considering how to proceed. In particular, the bottom section could hold more content that relates to the B&W pieces.  I decided to extend the lat/long lines out from the image pieces over the entire canvas to unify the elements inside and outside.  The pale yellow background color was also too different from the photo, so I added a semi-transparent layer of light blue-grey over it that gives a gray tint that better relates to the inner greys.  Next, I added a smaller NASA color-photo that I ripped into similar shapes and gesso-transferred them below their corresponding B&W shapes above.  Then, I painted organic color shapes on the B&W pieces that suggest areas of particular characteristics indicated by different colors, and these colors and shapes also relate to the smaller color map pieces below each B&W map piece.  That and more playful drawing and painting additions in the border areas repeat the crater shapes and make additional color associations.  A few, faint white-lines in the original image are probably digital data outage marks, but they suggested that I add more of white lines suggesting linear connections. All together, they began to become the unified dense design with related parts.  The image below shows this intermediate stage of the painting.

         “Moon Map J-2, Exploration”, Stage 3

At this point, I signed the painting and began work on the second one.  But after several more days of looking, I decided that more changes are needed.  The grey image was still too dominant, and more organic color shapes were needed.  In particular, I chose to add semi-transparent “pink” and “red-orange” color shapes.  These colors would warm up the grey areas and add a color luminance and complement the dominant blues and blue-greys of the outside area, and reach an overall color balance with the amount of grey.  The last stage of the painting is show below, although I have continued to make additional small adjustments.

 “Moon Map J-2, Exploration”, 16” x 20”, Acrylic, ink, and gesso transfers on canvas, Thom Wright  2022


Having discussed the details of the early stages of these paintings, I will address only the finished results of the next two paintings.  My second painting is presented below.

“Moon Map J-3, Exploration”, 16” x 20”, Acrylic, ink and gesso transfers on canvas, Thom Wright  2022

The single, whole B&W moon image still acts as the prime mover of the painting, but there is more outside room for vignettes of quasi-rectangles containing a large number of circles and small rectangles in each.  These areas suggest further analyses of the moon craters and ties with colored rectangles inside the B&W image.  The outside rectangles reference the inside color rectangles, which is a reference to a reference. Only when the viewer discovers his/her own possible associations can the parts begin to work.  Note also that the B&W image has far less color content than in the first painting, but its average light-grey value is still similar to the outside blue-grey background areas.  There are a lot of little circles in the outside rectangles that mimic the many craters contained in the image, where the colored circles may possibly suggest properties like crater size, depth, height, age, presence of water or ice, and minerals composition.  Thus, the painting parallels the work of NASA scientists who are studying every planet and moon for possible riches and possible past and present signs of life.

The color-map image in the upper left area is an oddly shaped gesso transfer, but that also has the white border like the other rectangles, and has its own color and shape relationships to the B&W image in the center.  In particular, the black ink splat in both maps suggests the origin of the craters, made by impacts of asteroids of all sizes over the billions of years of our solar system that have shaped the barren and lifeless surfaces of these moons. 

Asteroids are actually composed of many different minerals and chemicals, with some including ice (H2O) or all ice.  The heavier elements in asteroids add more minerals to the moon surface, while the lighter elements like H2O evaporating as gases.  Small moons with low gravity levels lose their atmospheres over time, so now they mostly look like earth’s moon surface.  NASA science has shown that many of these incoming ice asteroids were drawn from the Kuiper Belt region beyond the large planets into the inner planets of the solar system, and of course some landed/collided with the earth, bringing us our oceans of water and ice on our planet. They also brought other chemicals like salt (NaCl) that’s in our oceans and our blood to this day. And these shooting stars are still coming, albeit now at a much slower rate.

The center B&W image did have all of those white-lined, numbered rectangles in the original image, and they are references to other more detailed images that might also contain scientific analysis data.  My intention in adding different colors to them is to heighten the apparent significance of these areas, and then also associate them with the outside area images with similar colors.  Color enlivens the painting as I compose it as an abstract painting. My goal is to achieve a balance of the dark greys and the colored lights in a balanced, abstract painting.


My third small painting, shown below, offers another combination of choices relating the inside B&W image with the outside area elements.  The B&W image in this case was first scissor-cut into four different pieces, that are  then transferred to the central area of the canvas.  The more slightly curved lat/long lines were extended to the outside areas as before.  Initially I painted a diluted, transparent yellow over all of the photo shapes, because the greys seemed too dark.  Most of the crater features are still visible.  The extended lines then begin a kind of a checkerboard pattern of light and middle value blues. 

The bottom area again functions as explanatory vignettes of the inner image, with a series of red-toned shapes cut from a single color photo.  On the left side is a new collage element, a green electronic circuit-board that matches the size of the adjacent red-toned shapes.  This bit of high-tech in the painting is another of my references to NASA’s high-tech satellites and rover vehicles sent to the outer planets for scientific analysis. 

Lastly, to better relate the green circuit board/satellite element to the moon map, I added two green arcs to the B&W image. They might suggest electro-magnetic transmissions like radar signals sent to the moon surface, and signals bounced back to its radar receiver, or some other technical gear to collect more multi-spectral image data.  But as one art-friend at an art critique pointed out, “The painting needs more green.” Consequently, I added a larger third-green arc, but with opposite curvature.  Its technical meaning is not material to this abstract painting.  I believe it works as a allegory of mysterious relationships of the colors and shapes.

“Moon Map J-4, Exploration”, 16” x 20”, Acrylic, ink, collage and gesso transfers on canvas, Thom Wright  2022


In these first three small paintings, all beginning with a B&W moon-map image, they differ significantly from all of my previous paintings, and they diverged in their compositions from each other.  In spite of their small size, they also contain many shapes and colors, and appear quite dense.  However, my intention is to draw the viewer in to the fine details comparable to the rich density of craters and plains in the Moon Maps, and to portray shape and color relationships, and to hopefully lead the viewer to appreciate its mysteries as well.  And as another art friend told me, “Now work bigger.”

Readers of this blog are invited to leave comments, and they will be appreciated by this painter.

Published by Thom Wright Art

Thom Wright has combined his passions for art, music and engineering, and all of his practices have benefited each other. In 1986, he had an epiphany, one of those moments when he realized that he had to be a better artist. His subject matter moved toward contemporary issues, including geopolitics, global environment, technology, cultural and natural processes of change, and jazz. His abstracts also migrated towards mixed media and printmaking. These interests and processes continue in his art work. Desiring to improve his skills, theory and knowledge in art, he took early retirement from the Boeing Corp. in 1999 and entered art school full time. In May, 2006, he completed the MFA program in Drawing and Painting at California State University, Long Beach.

2 thoughts on “On Abstract Painting with Moon Maps

  1. This one spoke to me! I love the progression.



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