Off the Map

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.

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!

Vulgo (and other matters)

March 17th 2011

In honor of St Paddy, I dined on corned beef, cabbage and potatoes–and, in a rare departure from wine–beer. But I’d like to honor a more contemporary Irish spirit, the on-line Irish culture magazine Vulgo, whose NY Diarist, Julia Judge, just happened to feature me at just about the same time a genealogical search revealed  that I’m more Irish than I thought. Here’s the article. Read it first, of course, but check out the whole magazine–subscribe, even–it’s really good.

The map-making workshop I announced in my last post filled up immediately: that’s what happens when you combine “free” with wine and cheese. I’m planning to do another one on Sunday,  May 22nd, from 2-5. Again, it’s free, and we’ll have a fortified social hour at the end. For the substance of the workshop, see my 2/27/11 post.

I’ve volunteered to be the program coordinator for the New York Map Society for the 2011-2012 season. The Map Society meets once a month for a lecture at the New York Public Library, or a field trip elsewhere in the metropolitan New York area.  We’re interested in all aspects of mapping and cartography, not just antiquarian matters. If you’re aware of a speaker, map exhibit, map organization, or event you think we should feature, please let me know. Even if you can’t help me out here, check out our schedule and come to a meeting.


February 27th 2011

Would you like to make a cool little round map ? I’d like to teach you how–free, in my Durham CT studio, from 2-5 pm on Sunday, March 27th, followed by wine and cheese (what fool gives a workshop with NO SNACKS?) With Matt Knutzen, the New York Public Library’s Geospatial Librarian (and cartographer/artist), I gave such an autumn workshop at the New York Public Library as part of their Crafternoon series. It was fun–50 attendees made all kinds of clever and meaningful maps–like the guy who mapped his kitchen from his cat’s perspective, or the young woman who mapped romantic locations in NYC as an anniversary present for her husband. I’d like to test-drive a more intimate studio workshop, limited to 10 attendees. Reserve a spot with me:

Here’s the first round map I ever made, Greg’s World of Burritos (2007), which some of you may be just plain old sick of, I parade it around so much.  But it’s a good model for you nascent mapmakers: it’s simple, low-palette, and small.

Let's All Make Maps

October 19th 2010

I spend at least a month on each of my commissioned maps, but that’s because cartography is my business.  Sometimes I make little maps as gifts for friends and family, and I finish those in a few hours. It seems to me that mapmaking at this level would be a great hobby for those of you who love craft projects–you need a good focus for your map, but you don’t have to be a trained cartographer or an artist (let me remind you that I have neither a cartography nor an art degree). And you don’t need expensive materials–a pencil, a ruler, paper and source maps will do, though there are lots of clever  and off-beat options. Interested? Kick off your new hobby with a free mapmaking workshop at the New York Public Library this Saturday, October 23 from 2-4 pm. Led by the library’s Geospatial Librarian Matt Knutzen and me, the event is part of an ongoing “Crafternoon” series hosted by rare book librarian Jessica Pigza (aka The Homemade Librarian) and Crafternoonauthor Maura Madden.