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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.”

A Map by Hazel Jarvis

April 4th 2012

Enough of my maps–here’s a wonderful map by Hazel Jarvis, who attended one of my round map workshops last spring. Wow, I’m a phenomenal teacher, right? Alright, full disclosure: Hazel Jarvis is an accomplished and inventive painter in her own right–visit her website,The Art of Hazel Jarvis. Furthermore, she teaches painting at her lovely home studio and at The Garden Education Center of Greenwich; if I lived in Fairfield County, I’d be tempted. While I can’t claim to have taught her a thing about painting, I did provide the pointers  she needed to create this map, which is, by the way, 16″ in diameter, acrylic on canvas. But you don’t have to be an artist of Hazel’s caliber to make a great map–if you attended one of my workshops, and want to share your work, speak up!