Off the Map

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Anatomy of a Map, Part Two: The Geography

April 14th 2013

I’m a mapmaker, right? So first things first: let’s think about how we arrange the pertinent geography. Cartographically, Anne had two aims: (1) to focus on 36 place names in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania; and (2) to show the continent of Africa, highlighting all the countries she and her husband have visited. If I give full tribute to her East African place names within the frame of a map of the African continent, I’m making an impossibly big map. Solution: zoom in, zoom out. The main map, with its concentration of place names, is East Africa: zoom in. I’ll relegate the continent to an inset map: zoom out. Anne has very kindly provided me with a map of East Africa–she’s annotated it with all the locations they’ve visited, keyed by number to a typed list. She wants me to get it right, so she’s put a lot of time and thought into the information she provides me. You see how it’s total collaboration, the client/mapmaker relationship. Here’s the inset map: the countries Anne and her husband have visited are deeper in hue than the others. By the way, do you remember that Anne asked me to  include a porcupine quill on the canvas? Here it is, holding up the scale of miles.

Anatomy of a Map, Part One: The Wish List

April 11th 2013

July 2010. Anne Armfield came to me, as my clients do, with a wish list looking worthy of an exotic scavenger hunt: a porcupine quill; Masai beading; exotic animal skins; a hot-air balloon, a Hemingway quote, a map of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania with 56 place names circled; and, finally, masses of gorgeous animals to depict–leopards, rhinos, ostriches, lions, giraffes, cheetahs, Cape buffaloes, elephants, an array of beautiful/amusing birds. My mission: to combine–with as much beauty and  clarity as I can muster–these elements on canvas as a birthday present from Anne to her husband, with whom she has sojourned in East Africa. I knew it was a great project from the get-go, and I was exciting about starting.

After nearly twenty years of making maps for people, I’ve established a routine for the design phase. I begin to apply a formula, but with every new job, there’s something new to figure out. Louis Kahn famously said that all “problems” are actually challenges, and I agree: the challenges keep me interested, keep me in the game.

By the same token, each commission carries with it a happy surprise. And sometimes the challenge ends up being the happy surprise. Stay tuned for this series, in which I profile every stage of Anne’s project, including the challenges and blessings.

Photo shoot: hey, it isn't all about me!

March 29th 2013

Photo shoots always bring up a deep primal fear: not that the camera is going to steal my soul, but that I’m going to look like a fool. Gripped by this fear, I greeted Brad Trent one morning last autumn when he came to photograph me (all day!) in my studio for a Wall Street Journal article. Brad’s a great photographer (look at his website and all the luminaries he’s shot); he’s also a mellow, amusing, talkative fellow adept at putting nervous subjects at ease. It worked: I (almost) forgot why he was there. Between shots, he and his assistant dickered with lighting issues–for me, a welcome break from smiling and holding poses, but for him, the chief challenge of the day. Recently Brad wrote an entry about this photo shoot, “Making Sun Where There was None,” in his blog, Damn Ugly Photography. Take a look!

Three day map-making workshop, Oct 4-6, 2013

January 16th 2013

If you want to learn the art of manuscript map-making (maps made by hand, that is), come to this workshop, held in my Durham, CT studio. By Sunday afternoon, you’ll have finished a map and learned all my deep cartographic secrets. What more could you ask for? An autumn weekend in the beautiful Connecticut River Valley, that’s what! And that’s not all:  camaraderie with fellow attendees, and food: breakfast, lunch, and day’s-end wine and cheese. Mapmakers work up a powerful appetite! Act now: workshop limited to 10 students.

Workshop Details (PDF)

Email me ( for more information.


May 8th 2012

The mystery of the Marco Polo maps! Interested? Dr. Benjamin Olshin, Renaissance scholar extraordinare, offers his expertise this coming Saturday, May 12th, 2:30 pm at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Ave at 40th St (across the street from the main library), on the 6th Floor. Olshin’s lecture, free of charge, is sponsored by the New York Map Society: see their website for details.

Maphead out in paperback TODAY!

April 17th 2012

When Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings was seven years old, he bought an atlas: it was his passion during the day, and at night it was his teddy bear, tucked under his pillow. He says he was a weird kid. I identify with that–I was kind of a weird kid myself, now I’m a huge map nerd. That’s where we intersect, me and Ken.  Where we hugely diverge is that he’s a best-selling writer/famous polymath, and I’m a gnome-like manuscript map-and-globe maker.  No grudges, though:  in fact I urge you all–map nerds and generalists alike–to read his wonderful & amusing book Maphead, now available in paperback. For a little preview, listen to a 9/21/2011 interview with Jennings on NPR’s Fresh Air, or read his blog, Ken Jennings: Confessions of a Trivial Mind.

Maps on Stamps

April 16th 2012

Did you know maps on stamps is a thing, has been for years? And did you know there is a  CartoPhilatelist Society? Surprising sub-cultures under every rock.  I really like this trio of German maps, and the cancellation marks only add to their charm. Here’s the story: “The town of Ingolstadt was first mentioned in a document of Charlemagne in 806. In 2006 Germany issued a stamp to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of Ingolstadt, picturing a portion of a map published by Philipp Apian (1531-1589) in 1563,” says Dan of, a website with zillions of beautiful and amusing maps on stamps, including a section of map-on-stamp fails. Next up, maps on the heads of pins.


Who's the proud teacher!

April 11th 2012

Here’s a hand-drawn map by Betsy Booz, who attended one of my workshops. The problem with teaching a one-day workshop is that it’s nearly impossible for me to accomplish more than provide basic direction, and nearly impossible for attendees to design and complete a map in one shot: that’s why I’m going to teach three-session workshops from now on. Hazel Jarvis, featured recently, took her idea home and painted a map on canvas; Betsy, who lives here in town, returned to my studio for a couple of little refresher sessions. Her nostalgic map, executed in colored pencil and pen on watercolor paper, shows the camp she and a friend attended when they were kids–in fact, she made the map as a gift for this friend.  At home, Betsy worked on the map in leisurely fashion, weighing design options, and ended up providing a key beneath the round map to identify salient locations. Note her interesting use of negative space on either side of the map at the top, and her use of the map convention called “breaking borders.”

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