The Art of Map Illustration

What do we mean by mapmaking? That’s a less straightforward question than it appears at first glance. A cartographer might talk about projections, scale, use of symbols, deciding which information to put on the map; a digital mapmaker might emphasize GIS and data layers and data sources. Your assumptions about what mapmaking is depends largely on the maps your yourself make. And what we mean by “map” can be quite different depending on the context.

The four illustrators who collaborated on The Art of Map Illustration: A Step-by-Step Artistic Exploration of Contemporary Cartography and Mapmaking (Walter Foster, April 2018) use the terms cartography and mapmaking rather differently. These four—James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill and Sarah King—are illustrators first and foremost. Their maps are neither accurate nor detailed; like decorative nautical charts, they’re not for use in navigation, and they say as much at more than one point. But they can also be seen, I think, as the modern-day descendants of the 20th-century pictorial map (about which see Stephen J. Hornsby’s Picturing America, which I reviewed here last November).

The Art of Map Illustration presents itself as a step-by-step guide. But that’s a near-impossible promise to keep, especially in only 144 pages, and it doesn’t. What it does do is have each of its four illustrators take the reader through some of the steps they take from idea to finished product. Though three of the four (Haworth, Hill and Hancock) produce work in the same general idiom—a basic map with illustrated points of interest that are incredibly detailed, using a combination of physical drawing and digital manipulation—each has their own take on it. King, on the other hand, produces distinct typographic maps that are unlike her counterparts’ work in any sense, but much easier to imitate.

The book is colourful and vivid on every single page, and there’s interest in seeing the artists’ work at each stage, but as a guide it’s patchy and suggestive rather than thorough, because to be honest it has to be. I’m not sure how much the reader is expected to know before reading this book: it goes through some pretty basic concepts like paper and pencil sharpening; and Hill, who works digitally, takes a fair bit of time showing us Photoshop menu items and promises additional bonus material online (as of this writing the page is blank update: it’s since been added). But neither is exactly comprehensive: there isn’t enough to get up and running if the reader knows nothing at all about drawing or Photoshop and Illustrator; if the reader does know something, these sections are unnecessary.

Nor do the artists spend much time talking about the why. The theory of their work. The meta. They dive right into the how, using concrete examples of their own work. It’s more showing you how to do it by showing you how they do it, without much self-reflection. To be fair, this isn’t a book about the theory of map illustration, and the intended audience for this book (a) is not me and (b) isn’t as interested in that as I am. But doing map illustration a certain way—this way, rather than that way—is a choice, and without understanding the context of that choice, it’s a bit harder to take what these four idiosyncratic illustrators are doing and make it into something of your own.

I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.