The first eclipse Butler painted in 1918 was also the first total eclipse he had ever witnessed. Knowing that he’d only be able to view his subject for just under two minutes, he made exhaustive preparations. These included refining methods of sketching and notation that he used to record the hues, forms, and lines of the sky, clouds, moon, solar corona, and solar prominences (eruptions on the sun’s surface that extend into the corona).
“Of course no actual painting was possible in time so limited,” Butler wrote. “I therefore employed a method of shorthand sketching (which I had been developing and practicing for about 20 years) for recording sunsets and other transient effects. The method is simple but does require practice.”
It required both practice and extreme meticulousness. Butler divided the 112 seconds of viewing time into 10- and 20-second tasks: “Note value and color of sky, 10 seconds,” “Draw outline of Corona, 20 seconds,” “Record position of prominences, 10 seconds,” and so on.
Butler followed his instructions precisely on the day of the eclipse, for which he’d traveled from New York City to remote Oregon. “When I came actually to do the sketch with the model posed before me for 112 seconds, I found I had ample time,” he wrote of the experience. “I began with the sky.” Over the next several days, he painted from the sketch.
Mitchell and Adams were pleased, and Mitchell described it as “true both as to form and colour” and “a great work of art which has the added advantage of being scientifically accurate.”
For as regimented as Butler’s process was, and as accurate as his paintings were, they also brim with the expressive power of an artist driven by curiosity, wonder, and the thrill of investigating the universe’s mysteries. It is this quality that continues to make these paintings so enthralling, long after they’ve become scientifically obsolete.