Off the Map

Slow Mapping Workshop

September 21st 2015

Last Friday morning September 18th, eight women (just happened to be one gender this time!) arrived for three days of intense manuscript map painting.  They came from California, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Virginia, New York, and Connecticut–all advanced students, with cartography experience gained at previous workshops here or in other contexts. Hazel Jarvis–talented painter, mapmaker, and art instructor–taught with me on Saturday and Sunday. As a bonus, Elizabeth Porcher Jones, a workshop attendee and phenomenal calligrapher, demonstrated her art for us yesterday. Watching her form letters in her exquisite hand, all of us were transfixed. She often combines cartography with calligraphy:

Hazel and I did a little formal teaching, but mostly we acted as map-making midwives as attendees composed and then began to execute their projects– All hands were busy:

Workshop maps varied from student to student: an environmental anthropologist mapped her family’s Irish heritage; the calligrapher mapped a camp her son had attended; an eclipse-chaser mapped a lunar eclipse she witnessed in Niger; a graphic artist mapped her family’s migration from China to Cuba, Guatamala, and the United States; a linguist mapped two childhood years her family lived in Penang; a neuroscientist mapped a recent hiking trip in the Dolomites; the Californian mapped her very favorite and her least favorite restaurants in LA in saturated 1950’s design style; and a master gardener (also the only townie in the group–she lives down the street from me) commemorated her brother’s beautifully restored Victorian house in the context of its neighborhood.

Mapmakers need sustenance, of course, and breaks from the studio. We ate and drank and enjoyed sunny September warmth:

Nobody finished her map in three days: these are complex and ambitious projects, and I don’t expect to see final results for some time. Hand-painted maps take hours: maybe that bucks current trends, but there’s great value in endeavors that blossom over time, and great pleasure in performing each step with care. Hazel and I hope we gave them enough guidance to continue on their own–with recourse, if they need it, to the Redstone Studios 24-hour Cartographic Hotline. I usually correspond with my students long after our weekend together. For us and for them, there’s value in the journey. Part of the mapmaking journey is our shared interest in maps and, invariably, in each other’s lives and interests. We make maps here, but we also form friendships and support each other’s creativity and visions. It’s just three days, but it’s three days carved out of busy lives for a rarefied purpose.

I’ll be teaching a 3-day intro workshop at the Osher Map Library in Portland ME from June 24-26 2015. Contact me if you’re interested:; 860 575 4640.

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 Three: More Geography (and some lettering)

April 18th 2013

Here’s a detail from the commercial map of East Africa which Anne annotated for me: the circled numbers refer to a list of locations she compiled. You can see that the numbers are heavily concentrated; if I wrote the corresponding place names right on the canvas, they might render the map a “nomenclatural gray” (I borrow this term from Denis Wood and John Fels’ excellent book The Natures of Maps, published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press). Instead, I decide to follow Anne’s example by providing a key:

I’ve “superimposed” this list on a part of the map that bears no significance to Anne’s purpose–in fact, I enlarged the scope of the map’s field to include elements like this list. Of course there is no actual map underneath the list of names: this is a bit of mild trompe l’oeil.I like the faux parchment look–having seen it in antique maps, I frequently appropriate it for my purposes. Looking at the map, you’ll see that aside from the red numbers (every map needs a touch of red!), I’ve only included enough general place names to provide context. I have one purpose here, and that is to show my client’s East Africa. There is no Board of Map Correctness hovering over me.

Now look at the lettering styles, both on the map and in the list of place names. For every project, I ponder which lettering styles would work best. Lettering casts a particular spell and contributes greatly (though quietly) to the look and mood of the map. Obviously, the names and numbers have to be legible.  But they have to be graceful and consistent with the design style I’ve chosen for the map. Here I’ve used Bell, a slightly old fashioned Roman lettering, along with Bell’s distinctive numbers (each lettering style, in fact, comes with its own numbers). For the country headings in the faux parchment list, I’ve used Chancery, an updated version of a 16th century lettering style. And I’ve busted out elaborate Renaissance lettering for the Indian Ocean. Obviously I’m a big ole map design nerd, but I bet you, too, would enjoy forming these letters and numbers. We’re the species that invented writing (and alphabets): it’s in our blood.