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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

From David Aguilar — and Open Invitation

Calling All Artists, Designers, Art Directors, Photographers Who Work with Non-Fiction

This post is David’s response to Linda’s question on how he creates his art. I would love to have more posts like this from any of you who are involved in the visual side of non-fiction — from those who select typefaces to those who make maps, paintings, photographs. If you’d like to tell others about how you work, let me know.

I use a Mac computer and Photoshop as my pallet and brushes. I also make models out of plaster of Paris, clay or plastic. My spaceships, like the ones in my book "Planets, Stars & Galaxies" were made from pieces of junk plastic found around the house. Look closely at it and you may see printer cartridges, a laundry detergent plastic funnel, plastic plumbing parts and a few odds and ends scavenged from an old tank model kit. 
First I do research using recent scientific articles and astrophysicists here at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for accuracy. From there I generate pencil sketches in my work book to best portray the angle, drama, size scale, etc. portraying the object I want to paint. 
If I need to make a foreground landscape model to go with my painting, I go into my basement studio and sculpt it out of plaster of Paris and paint it with acrylic paints. I then photograph it and load it up on my computer. I then make a background of stars – each one a white or colored dot clicked with my mouse – on a black background. Then I import a digital image of one of my models. I stretch it, pull it, clone it, and paint over it using different Photoshop brushes that are just like an air brush with real paint. 
Then, using layers that are like clear plastic overlays, I spray colors onto the screen and build up intensities and contrasts until the object I’m painting looks real. When I make a planet I begin with a square format, paint vertical lines using different colors for ground, water, mountains, clouds, etc. Then I use the "spherize" tool in my Photoshop filters box to make it warp into a sphere. Then I cut it out, spray black color to make shadows and drop it in to my other piece of artwork. Sometimes I may even begin by using an image of a rock or plaster wall I photographed somewhere for the beginning texture of a planet. I’m always on the lookout for interesting ideas as I travel. That’s pretty much it. I am self-taught and I learn something new every day. My greatest challenge is to take an object that exists out there in the cosmos that we cannot see like a Hubble photograph, and make it look real as if we were actually there. And that’s the fun of it! (If you go my website at <> you can see more examples of my artwork. ) David 


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    Marc, thanks for asking. David, thanks for taking the time to answer the question. It’s interesting reading about your illustration process. The end results are pretty cool. FYI: Since I opened the book (which will eventually get to my niece), we’ve viewed Mars with binoculars, my husband has looked up star visibility in the Northern hemisphere, and I’ve found that the Copernicus Observatory is open during the winter. It’s on the list.