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Manuscript Maps brings art back to cartography. Selling prints of beautiful maps, hand-drawn by cartographer Kevin Sheehan, we feature an ever-expanding range of beautiful and interesting art for your wall.

Making Maps : Part 1 - Planning & Pencil

Making Maps : Part 1 - Planning & Pencil


In this four-part series I delve into my process for drawing maps. In Part 1 below, I discuss my drawing process from the initial plan and sketch, to drawing the final map in pencil. In Part 2, I will explain how I then go over the pencil drawing in ink, discussing the nibs I use, and my calligraphy. In Part 3, I will explore some particulars in more depth, such as what I do when I make a mistake (it happens!) and drawing on vellum (yes, actual calf-skin as would have been used in the Middle Ages). In Part 4, I will talk about the digital process for getting a finished hand-drawn map ready for printing.

Time-lapse of drawing my  Venice Map

Time-lapse of drawing my Venice Map

I. The Plan

Whatever the map, whatever the size, and whatever its content, a firm plan is needed from the start! I often draw several sketches to work out how and where the main map itself will fit, where other inset maps will go, the compass rose(s), decorations such as ships and sea monsters, title box, cartouches, and other elements. On many of my maps, the main central map itself is only 50% of the entire size of the drawing. I look at the shape of the geography, and work out where certain elements could fit in, whilst bearing in mind that enough space must be left for the place-names.

Balancing all of these non-map map elements, which cartographic historian David Woodward has termed “epicartographic”, is an art form in itself! Some must stay at a defined size ratio, e.g the primary map , and while some may have room for manoeuvre and adjustment, fitting everything into a single defined space requires a lot of thought!

When putting together the plan of the layout for the Whisky Map, the primary map of Scotland is a rectangle, taking up about 60% of the map. But within that rectangle is a lot of empty space, so the title box and Shetlands map was placed to overlap into the sea to the north, Islay to overlap to the southwest, and for a cartouche to be put in the North Sea. Space for the thirty logos and inset map of Speyside (bottom right) filled out the rest of the available space.

First sketch of the  Whisky Map of Scotland

First sketch of the Whisky Map of Scotland

II. Pencil

Once I have a plan in place, knowing the exact measurements of every element, I draw the map in pencil on paper. I use fairly standard tools: mechanical pencils, rulers, compasses etc., and the paper I use is Arches hot-pressed watercolour paper (read Part 2 of this series to find out why - it’s to do with making mistakes!).

The  Gin Map  - drawing in pencil

The Gin Map - drawing in pencil

Everything other than fine details such as shading, foliage, the border, etc. is drawn on in pencil, and often this stage of the map-making process takes more time than the actual final drawing and calligraphy in ink. I use various methods to transfer geographic elements to the map itself. For my earliest maps I employed the square grid technique: I draw a grid over a print of a map (something I find open source online usually), and a second (usually larger) grid on the paper, and then copy by eye in pencil, square by square, one at a time.

By far the most important aspect while drawing in pencil is planning and writing the toponyms (place-names). It is a fine art to balance exactly where each place-name goes. The geography itself is static, i.e. where something is located cannot change, so where its label can go is relatively limited. I try to avoid drawing lines from label to place as much as possible, though sometimes it cannot be avoided on dense maps. I also have to be sure to leave enough space between names to actually draw some geography.

More recently, I’ve adopted the technique of backlight tracing, which saves me a lot of time; simply put, I place an image to be copied behind the map on a backlight drawing board, then trace over it. Easy (sort-of). Another technique I’ve discovered to transfer a particular smaller picture (of a ship or something), is to print an image, place it face-down on the backlight, and draw the image on the reverse side using a soft pencil (usually 4B). Then, I place that pencil-down onto my map, and rub against it, to transfer the pencil drawing onto the map. This technique worked wonders for transferring the logos of the whisky and gin distilleries onto those maps.

My mapping desk with backlight drawing board

My mapping desk with backlight drawing board

An added complication is that the more writing - erasure - re-writing - erasure - rewriting etc. one does, fibres of the paper become loose, meaning the ink will bleed more readily rather than staying crisp. It’s a tricky business, requiring clever solutions! On the Ski Map of Colorado, on which I’m working at the moment (pictured), I used small sticky notes of about the size each place-name label will be, to figure out where they could all fit.

Balancing place-names on the Ski Map using sticky notes

Balancing place-names on the Ski Map using sticky notes

Once the pencil is finished, I breathe a huge sigh of relief, have a celebratory cocktail, and then it’s time for ink!

More on ink drawing and calligraphy in Part 2.

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Map Giveaway Winners

Map Giveaway Winners