Labor Day at the shore has me thinking about the timeless appeal of maps. Why do we even still have them despite the existence of Google Earth, Mapquest, Waze and countless GPS programs? Are we truly that lost? Or is the simple, accessible 2-dimensional abstract rendering of a complex, not-so-easily-grasped 3-dimensional reality still a seductive pleasure to hold and absorb. A steadying influence in turbulent times. It can describe a very familiar place or an exotic locale that you’ve never been to and might never get to see. Both extremes and the whole range in between make up the realm of “maps”. Even in a world awash in detailed information about virtually every place, the appeal of a static, frozen-in-time image has not yet been made obsolete. The serene comfort of contemplating a map, including sharing in all the decisions the mapmaker made in rendering it, is a timeless pleasure, much like reading, which is defying modern obsolescence. Pick up a map, stare at it, and be transported to another place. Give your imagination a free rein. Go and return as many times as you please. The original “cheap thrill”! Make a map part of your familiar environment. You’ll be richer for the experience.
As I sit here on the eve of the first day of Spring, watching the snow fall, I’m reflecting on the choice of this year’s maps. As the dregs of winter provide some of my most productive periods of sustained work, two new maps are rounding into finished form. Similar to those of the Florida Keys, these maps reflect suggestions/requests from some of my correspondents and also respond to some visceral “aha” moment in my own head. Still a bit of self-reflection on why Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard resonated for me seems appropriate.
These iconic New England island islands are rife with history, both from the country’s earliest days and more recent. Beautifully sited south of the Massachusetts/Cape Cod coastline, they face out to the Atlantic Ocean and have launched thousands of ships from their well-protected harbors. Long at the center of the lucrative whaling industry, the islands were home to industrious and prosperous sea-farers and their related supporting groups. While whaling has long ago ceased as an activity, the idyllic qualities and prime location of these isles has continued to attract a truly American mix of A-list celebrities and politicians who seamlessly mesh with the regular folks who give these places their pulse. These discreet summer retreats, even for a number of US presidents, provide such enjoyable activities in a maritime setting that is quite removed from day-to-day drudgery yet easily reached by plane and boat.
I guess I want to visit again soon…and mapping is the next best thing!
To Market, to Market—So a given map is “finished”. Now what? Photograph it. Create a digital record file. Copyright it. Decide the final production sizes. Choose materials such as art paper, canvas or other. Sample color separations, shades and transparencies, UV protected inks and degrees of finishing. Finally, print finished samples for presenting and marketing and adding to the website, along with promoting new entries to make the best effort at reaching and informing the largest possible audience. And, do I really know who these people might be? Are the only really interested folks those with some connection to the specific locale or will this map have broader appeal? How to decide this or somehow market-test it? Why do buyers really like or want to own a map? These very fundamental questions go to the heart of producing these artworks and the desire to put them in front of others to see if their reaction is as positive as my own. A part of this relates to my hopes for the website; to reach beyond easy, geographic boundaries and connect with unexpected and unknown “others”. Who visits the site, when and why, is pretty fascinating. Is it just to see maps or is it their connection to the water and related activities or is it a gift for a house warming or Father’s Day? Each of these visitors could represent a different promotional, marketing strategy and all are valid viewers. But finding them and being responsive is the trick. What I’ve been doing so far has been working fine. Now I’m trying to stretch to another level by putting stuff further out there and seeing what comes back. All thoughts on this are welcome.
Once things are drawn and painted, what remains to finish up the maps is the words and symbols that complete peoples’ expectations. The labels, graphics and type fonts that help viewers orient themselves and understand the areas depicted are critical to engaging them. The names of familiar towns, notable landmarks or bodies of water, etc. all serve to connect with and draw someone in. How elaborate or decorative they should be depends partly on the style of the overall images but also on establishing a hierarchy of importance of the information. The biggest, fanciest letters usually represent the most important words. The main title (A GENERAL PLAN OF…), a big town (NEW YORK) or a large area of water (ATLANTIC OCEAN) deserve more emphasis than a small pond or a back road. Lesser elements are still important but the order of magnitude needs to be respected and fall with peoples’ expectations. Otherwise, the mapmaker can be suspected to be a poor judge of choices and all aspects of the map can be called into question. Does the North Arrow really point north? Is the Scale truly reliable? Can that distance shown really be a mile? This is literally “territory” that no mapmaker wants to find themselves in. How to convey this most basic of informational pieces completes and validates the finished product.
Why color them at all? The maps could remain black-and-white and they are starkly dramatic at that stage. But for reasons of clarity, pop and broad general appeal, color has been part of map making since earliest times. Colors provide an opportunity for subtlety, feature enhancement and contrast that are difficult to achieve with the textures of B&W alone. And it is a proven fact that people are more readily drawn to colored things than to the more austere B&W. Years ago while traveling in Rome, I was in a small print shop looking at beautiful B&W engravings of neoclassic scenes. The proprietor had a large selection encased in plastic sleeves which I was riffling through. Suddenly, a large tour bus pulled up and he hurried over to me, took the folders I had and flipped them over. On the back side of each plastic sleeve was the identical engraved scene but each one was hand-colored in slightly lurid tones. He somewhat sheepishly explained that the “tourists” all like the colored ones much better. Nothing too judgmental, he just knew what sold better. Despite this early piece of retail wisdom, I know that the colors afford a lot more possibilities for artistic expression. As each map always has at least land and water to delineate, the shades and intensities of these areas provide an immediate “flavor” for each map. Should the Jersey Shore look like the Caribbean? Are there indigenous colors that speak to a given area? Are some colors more off-putting than others? Definitely! Color theories are many and varied and this just begins to scratch the surface, but even pop psychologists know that people have very strong reactions, positive and negative, to colors and this certainly is a factor when choosing a map. If they are going to proudly display it in their home, they surely better take pleasure in seeing it over and over. It is pretty rare for someone to say that they really had a bad reaction to viewing something but they bought it anyway. Color is a two-edged sword and I try and negotiate that delicate balance in creating each map.
Finding the Right Expression
As previously discussed, as each map is more fully drawn, it takes on a life of its own. The backgrounds give way to more detail. The details require more research and careful consideration and this often leads to further areas of study not originally planned for. This is not only OK but positively exciting. The maps aren’t produced on a schedule and each one has to take as long as needed to reach a satisfying place. Sometimes these investigations are really fruitful and supply especially salient tidbits that really add to the overall quality of the finished map. And other times, they are just pleasant detours into obscure areas that don’t provide anything particularly useful to the finished product. There is no way to know ahead of time so the search must be done. Making a map is literally not just about the product, it is all about the process. The “getting there” provides as much of the pleasure as the final result. In fact, there is a bit of melancholy when a map is “finished” because it means this particular process has ended and all the pleasant or frustrating interludes along the way are over. And until the next one is started, that aspect of my daily life is set aside. And I won’t know until the next one if I will even have that much fun, as there is no guarantee that each place will be as fascinating as the last in terms of what I’ll find and what the research will require of me. Finding this data and deciding how to record and represent it for others to appreciate is often the crux of how successful or popular a finished map may be. Peoples’ gut reaction to any piece of art is pretty unpredictable and I have certainly seen this with the range of my maps.
Background & Layers
Once I’ve been able to settle on correct and accurate data, which often includes personally walking the sites to verify certain details, it’s time to actually begin drawing the backgrounds of the main elements. This very tactile experience really begins to put me in contact with the area I’m working on in a way that is personal and somewhat transforming. As I draw each individual line and point, bump and node, a connection to the forms develops which is both special and difficult to describe. And like any artwork, as the piece grows and changes, it takes on a life of its own. Every map has been different and each one has its own unique features and problems that insure no two are alike. These initial backgrounds form the base layers onto which all subsequent information is mapped, so their importance can’t be over stressed. These layers, whether they represent roads or vegetation or hillsides, all take their cues from the style of the first outlines. Even the lettering and other graphics are strongly influenced by the types of line weights, thicknesses and accents that go into making the primary shapes. The traditional use of these classic implements, pen-and-ink and watercolor washes on paper, informs the whole process with a compositional quality which I believe most people are able to sense in a very real way. The aspect of doing things “the old-fashioned way” really still resonates for many individuals and they feel connected to the artwork in a way that is very different than what they get from more modern, mechanically produced things. These maps pull for a time when things were still a little simpler than they are now.
Getting It Right
In my last posting, the basic form of the new maps was decided and I had gathered a fair amount of basic information that could be available. The next big step is rectifying and justifying all the competing and contradictory data. The big secret of maps is, despite all the great information they contain and the comprehensive manner in which that information is presented, there are often many inaccuracies in every one of them. Usually, their main focus is quite correct. That is, nautical maps usually get the water stuff right. Road maps get the streets correct. Don’t try and dock your boat using a road map! The requirements of making a legible map mean that each mapmaker often has to show things which are outside the main focus and expertise of their specific interest. You can easily see this in a road atlas. Often a road will literally end in the water and then make a turn back onto the land. The road is usually correct but the mapmaker couldn’t be bothered to correct the landform background beneath the street line. It wasn’t critical to his product. But someone looking at the map knows it is not right! This is a very simplistic example but it is a significant deficit of many maps. Just gathering material from all these different sources points up numerous discrepancies which should be fixed. After all, the expectation of a map is that it is a faithful representation of reality. If two maps disagree on what they are showing, they can’t both be correct. And viewers, even non-experts, have a visceral reaction to seeing something that strikes them as wrong. It flies in the face of what they know and it draws strong reactions. Conversely, I’ve often observed when viewers do carefully explore an area that they are familiar with and find it to be representative of their own experience, they nod appreciatively and satisfactorily and often purchase the map. Despite the artistic nature of my work, the “getting it right” part is still basic to describing what I do as “making maps”. This part of the process is no small portion of the initial work. No one wants a “bad” map. It’s counterintuitive and puts people off.
Getting Started, Where to Begin–Having stated in the “Cartographic Thoughts and Ideas” section about taking you along with me on the journey of making a map, this is step one of the “getting going” phase. Decide what area to work on and begin with basic research of what already exists. This used to be much more onerous but not since the Internet has been invented. Although my process really stresses the hand-crafted quality of the final product, it does not mean that I am anti-technology. There are so many useful ways to expedite and improve what I do, that it would be silly to not avail myself of these tools. Getting familiar with the area helps in deciding even the most basic issues of how much to show, how big to make any given map, what to emphasize, what is the key nature of the place that resonates for those who know it? Without answering these basic questions, it is hard to proceed. In starting to do this, I’ll consult nautical and road maps, USGS and parks surveys, local maps and atlases, the Internet sources, and anything else that is known or can be found. Just gathering and reviewing all of these items starts to shape my thinking as physical issues begin to suggest forms for the maps. The first step is then to literally put pencil to paper and begin rough “cartoon” sketches of how I see what to represent. These first rough sketches usually clarify things pretty quickly and help to crystallize my thinking on how to proceed. Going from “anything is possible” to “this is essentially what I want to work on” is a huge, critical step. Without that definition, it is difficult to get anywhere with the transcription of the 3-dimensional world into a 2-dimensional art piece. Getting this sketch to something I am happy with is among the most important parts of the work, as I will live with the ramifications of these initial decisions for entire the process and the resulting finished product. More next time.