The Art of Cartography

November 2, 2018
Vickie Taylor

NACIS 2018 Review

I attended the 2018 NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society) annual meeting in Norfolk, VA. I am a long-time cartographer, but first-time attendee to this conference. There were over 20 presentations for “practical cartography day” and at least 100 presentations during the main conference. Needless to say, the sessions were thoroughly covered by tweets, blogs and videos, so I don’t want to regurgitate what has already been said.

The last session I attended was the most thought-provoking for me; it was titled “Cartography and Fine Art: Exploring Intent and Purpose”. Each of the five presentations in this session touched on methods that deployed artistic skills, techniques and visual creativity (with a bit of added philosophy) to make maps more compelling. The presentations reminded me that cartography is a creative process, interpreting the world through graphic depiction of data for specific purposes or intent. The mediums in which maps are created can provide both constraints and freedom to the design process.

Gunpowder Mapping

Two presentations from the session were about gunpowder mapping, a technique which utilizes a stencil and gunpowder to create interesting patterns and visualizations. Paper, stencil and gunpowder are layered and weighted, then the gunpowder is ignited. The gunpowder burn area is guided by the stencil, but it “escapes” for an artistic effect. National Geographic did an excellent review of the process if you’re interested in some visuals.

Intaglio Printing

Another cartographer discussed his experimentation with intaglio printing. He engraves or etches a map image into a metal plate, and he then applies acid to further engrave the lines. Ink is applied to the surface and transferred to paper. This is an old process that was popular as early as the mid-sixteenth century for the printing of maps.


An old map created using intaglio printing.


Both of these techniques resulted in maps that were a combination of the cartographers’ intent and the unpredictability of the medium. There is a physical interaction that is most appealing to me. I began my career in cartography, etching lines into scribe-coat, cutting areas into peel-coat, and hand placing type onto mylar. One spent hours at a light table and hours in the darkroom. A single map could easily contain 50 or more pieces of art, all to be combined into 4 CMYK plates. The resulting map image was revealed after subsequently applying, burning and rinsing the four process colors, one at a time. While “building” the map, you had a vision of the end product, however, the photomechanical processes always added a bit of its own finesse to the resulting map.

The NACIS meeting brought together a very diverse group of attendees and presenters. Included were programmers searching for ways to visualize data, online map providers that offer custom map platforms for websites and applications, traditional cartographers and students of cartography, and artists re-imagining depictions of the existing earth and creating “fantasy maps” of imaginary worlds. Hopefully, all that attended left with a renewed respect for the “art” of cartography.





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