The Art of Illustrated Maps

Map illustrations. Illustrated maps. Pictorial maps. Map art. There are many different names for a form of mapmaking that is, to appropriate a phrase, “not intended for navigation,” but rather for purposes such as advertising and promotion, political propoganda, decoration, or simply pure art. You may not be able to find your way home with such maps, but that’s not to say they don’t have a purpose.

I’ve reviewed books about maps in this general field before. Stephen J. Hornsby’s Picturing America (reviewed here) explores the rich pictorial map tradition in the United States during the early and mid-20th century. The Art of Map Illustration (reviewed here), on the other hand, is a focused, step-by-step guide to the how of modern-day map illustration.

The Art of Illustrated Maps: A Complete Guide to Creative Mapmaking’s History, Process and Inspiration (HOW Books, October 2015) falls somewhere in between. Written by John Roman, it’s a book that talks about the creative process in considerable detail, and gives many contemporary examples of map illustrations, but tries to place that process in the context of the history of map illustrations.

Roman isn’t just a working illustrator with an extensive portfolio of map illustrations, but also a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. That’s reflected in the first part of The Art of Illustrated Maps, which is a history of illustrated maps that traces their origins to Claudius Ptolemy, notes their divergence from more scientific cartography (he distinguishes between illustrated maps and cartographic or technical maps) and highlights the discovery of linear perspective as “the most significant advance in the airts to aid the map illustrator. Without it, art would have remained abstract and objective, and illlustrated maps would lack the three-dimensional effect that makes such imagery so visually captivating” (p. 38).

It’s a bit under-researched, and there’s a fair bit of historical hand-waving: it doesn’t stand up against scholarly histories of cartography, but as a brief survey whose intended audience is students of map illustration—I strongly suspect this is derived from his college lectures—it serves its purpose. It establishes, like Hornsby’s Picturing America, that map illustration has a tradition.

From there we move on to the present day and the practical concerns of making illustrated maps. Part II talks about the creative process, inspiration, and communicating with the viewer, using some basic art principles. It seems a bit thin for a book, and not quite on topic, until you realize that this is exactly the sort of thing you’d find in a college instructor’s lectures, so, again, I assume that’s where this material comes from.

In Part III Roman takes us through the process of creating two of his map illustrations—one for a magazine, the other a campus map (campus maps make up a large part of his portfolio); Part IV collects examples of work by other map illustrators, giving us a greater sense of the diversity of work in this field, as well as what’s possible, more so than we would have gotten from examining Roman’s own oeuvre.

The end result is a book that does not break any new ground from a research perspective and is of limited use as a reference, but makes a perfectly fine textbook for students of map illustration who are new to the form. Understand it as such.

Previously: The Art of Illustrated Maps.

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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.