Off the Map

Advanced Mapmaking Workshop Next Week!

September 9th 2015

Whoever wishes to know the true shape of the world, their minds shall be filled with light and their breast with joy. Hadji Ahmed

I have an amazing line-up of attendees coming to my three-day advanced workshop next weekend. For those who are alumni of my workshops, so it’ll be a reunion–and the newbies will quickly be enfolded.  Everyone is knowledgeable and accomplished: although I’m technically the map teacher, I’m more a map midwife here. At this level, the workshop functions as a design lab, a place for artist-cartographers (this year, exclusively ladies–“Sheographers,” as my friend Wendy Brawer says) to exchange ideas, inspiration, and friendship. To enhance the experience, I’ve engaged Hazel Jarvis, talented artist and educator, to teach with me–she’s also a mapmaking workshop alum! I can’t wait to see these projects blossom.

One of the returning attendees is Californian Rhonda Dibachi. Last year in the workshop, she started an elaborate map, a re-imagination of Turkish cartographer Hadji Ahmed’s famous 16th century woodblock work entitled A Complete and Perfect Map Describing the Whole World.  This cordiform (heart-shaped) map is a beautiful amalgam of Ottoman and European styles and cartographic knowledge. Though produced in Venice, it was probably intended for a Muslim market, since the text is in Turkish. Here it is in one of its incarnations (this, actually is a French copy from the 19th century, but it works best for our context; see why I choose it instead of the original woodblock):

Fast forward 415 years to Rhonda’s beautiful pen-on paper (28 x 30″) version, shown below.

 She’s updated the world to reflect current geography (I was worried about that challenge, but she was all over it) and turned it into a map about her life with her Iranian husband, showing where each was born and the places where they’ve lived. The title, in Farsi, translates thus: A Complete and Accurate Map of the World of Farzad and Rhonda Dibachi. Hidden in the winds are the names of companies where they’ve worked and/or have founded. Says Rhonda, “I imagine that these were the winds of change that have figured heavily in our destiny.” The highlighted constellations in the celestial maps feature their astrological signs, along with their son’s sign. Note her trompe l’oeil touch: the map looks like it was made it pieces, then improperly joined, a clever echo of  the earlier map. So as not to discourage fledglings, know that she did not finish the map in the course of last year’s three day workshop; she worked on it over the year.

Adapting  an existing and venerable map is a particular cartographic and aesthetic journey. Among my students, Rhonda is unusual in having followed this path. Though it is just one path among many, it’s an amazing and revelatory educational experience–I recommend that every mapmaker follow it at least once.  I do it myself: sometimes a client asks me to create a map  in the style of a particular historic map or mapmaker. I love it–it appeals to my scholarly nature; beyond that, however, I learn techniques I might not have learned otherwise. It’s great to apprentice and submit oneself to the masters.

For what Rhonda and the other Sheographers do next week, stay tuned!

Anatomy of a Map, Part Five: The Happy Surprise

May 12th 2013

As I said in my first Anatomy of a Map post, each commission carries with it a happy surprise.  Here’s the happy surprise in this project:  my client Anne Armfield turns out to be an amazing nature photographer.  Clients often take photos on their trips–we all do, right?  Especially now that digital cameras and phones allow us to take lots of pictures. And most clients take good photos, good enough for me to use as the basis for map illustrations. Anne’s photos, however, took my breath away: they’re extraordinarily beautiful. I mean, look at these zebras!  I marveled at the 190 shots she sent, wondering how we were going to choose just a few candidates for the map.

We managed, Anne and I, to make choices–after that, however, I was on my own, pretty anxious about my ability to do these images justice. Above are my painted zebras–pretty decent, less splendid than their models.  It was an honor and a challenge to work with this gifted artist. I’ve kept Anne’s photos on my computer: sometimes when I need a break and a shot of inspiration, I look at them. In the next few posts, I’ll treat you to more examples of her work.

Anatomy of a Map, Part Four: Lettering

April 24th 2013

Raise your hands if you want to make letters like this. Such a  pleasurable pastime, if you like that sort of thing. This is from the title page of Literarum latinarum (1541), a treatise on the Italic hand written by the famous map-and-globe maker Gerard Mercator, and here’s the text, translated from the Latin: “How to write the Latin letters which they call italic or cursive.” Mercator provides page after page of instruction, available to us (well, maybe–it’s out of print) in facsimile with an English translation by A.S. Osley. I happened upon this facsimile volume in a used bookstore in Blue Hill, ME; it’s an excellent and beautiful handbook. Below is Chancery, a modern, more streamlined version of Renaissance italic:

Sometimes I use a combination of Chancery and Mercator’s italic, saving the really fancy Mercator capital letters for water place names. I used both in Anne’s map, but for the Roman upper and lower case lettering and for the numbers, I used–as I mentioned last time–Bell Roman, one of my favorites. Here it is, from Jan Tschichold’s classic Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering:

Isn’t it beautiful? Look at the numbers, especially that delicious 2.  And the ampersand–oh, all the gorgeous ampersand styles! These are easy to master if you’re hand-lettering: just make plain letters and add the thicknesses & serifs & flourishes that characterize the style. Practice a little, and you’ll get the hang of it. Mercator’s italic, Chancery, and Bell Roman are just three, the three I happened to use for this project. There’s a whole world of historic and contemporary lettering styles and fonts, each with its own history.

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.