I am prone to make digital maps that try to look like they are assembled from actual materials other than pixels and protocols. It’s because I like physical, tactile, maps. They are real in a way that digital maps aren’t.
So I tried my hand at drawing a map for the first time since like, maybe seventh grade. My motivation was to make a Christmas present for my sister and her husband, who recently finished renovating, and moving into, a cottage on Lake Paradise, in Northern Michigan.
I have no idea what I’m doing. But I am influenced by some prior art, as is pretty much any creative endeavor. The first example is the (insanely intimidating) Cartographer’s Guild. I am amazed at the hand-wrought masterpieces there. And I noted a method or two that I especially liked.
Another example that I like is Matthew Maury‘s bathymetric map of the Atlantic, made in 1855. But it has always bothered me that his stippling inverts the appearance of depth.
Lastly, I grew up staring into the penned illustrations of Shel Silverstein for hours and hours. I can even recall the disquiet I felt at seeing the two kids and their dog perched at the edge of the world on the cover of Where the Sidewalk Ends.
These influences lean toward a penned stippling technique. So that’s what I wanted to try. I’ve even tried to replicate it digitally. But this time it was going to all be by hand.
Here are the materials I used…
Watercolor paper. The least expensive option at the grocery store.
On which I splashed around some really watered down acrylic paints, to approximate watercolor.
These are the fine-tipped pencil and black ink pens I used…
And lastly the colored pencils that I hadn’t planned on using but really enjoyed…
First, I patched together a reference map of Lake Paradise bathymetry and surrounding landcover. Then I drew a reference grid over it. It’s so much easier to draw 108 tiny maps than one big continuous map. I learned this in my middle school art class, which happened to be taught by my Mom.
Then I lightly penciled-in this same reference grid onto my paper…
And I carefully traced out the coastline and bathymetric contours, the reference grid providing a nice framework for accuracy.
Then watercolor. I was really intimidated by the watercolor. For each depth band, I used a little more pigment…
I did not like it. But, like any process, I find that if you keep at it and continue to add layers of detail then things start to straighten out. It’s a little like the in-between phase of growing out hair from short to long.
I got the pens out and started tapping away at some shading. I loved this. Meditative. Lots of dots. I gave the bathymetric thresholds more dense stippling to create a little bit of a 3D effect, like Matthew Maury.
Now for inking the roads. I tend to steer pretty clear of map labeling in my normal life. But I was sort of excited to pen some hand-drawn text onto this map. I am a bit all over on size and letter spacing, but it turned out alright. I also took the opportunity to start layering in some colored pencil to help give the lake depth some dimension. Shallower areas got a yellow shade and deeper areas a purplish shade.
I was having fun. Next I used the colored pencils to add in some basic road casing, to help en-thing-ify them a little. And I added in the river, at left, and a swampy area, at right…
I wasn’t sure how to handle all the landcover around the lake. There was a danger in breaking the seal. How much landcover will I have to draw? Will the lake become a diminished element? Will I ruin it all? So I decided to tint the non-lake between-roads areas with a couple layers of green and yellow. And I chose to highlight the handful of wooded nature preserves around the lake. These were penned in with ink and scratched over with colored pencil. A little scale bar and all that was left was to sign it in impossibly small letters…
And that was it! I called it done. I had a lot of fun doing this. It’s funny how much of it was informed by my GIS/cartography work and, in turn, how many ideas this hand-making gave me for the digital environment. Maps are maps. The tools we use to create them is a means to that end. The process of making informs all sorts of other dimensions of our creative experience, and we are richer for it.
Happy Map Drawing! John