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Artistic Evolution: A Look Back at my First Maps

It may surprise you to learn that I wasn't always as good at drawing illustrated maps as I am today. I know, I know. You thought I was just born with it, right? Well, let me debase you of this assumption by sharing with you the artistic evolution of my maps, starting with the very first maps I created: the maps for Julia Bradbury's Unforgettable Walks.

A map of Anglesey. It is drawn in black and white and shows the route Julia took across Anglesey. It is hand drawn in fineliner
My first illustrated map for Julia Bradbury's Unforgettable Walks

The First Map: My Journey Begins

This is actually the third map I created for that book, and the one I was most proud of at the time. I'd show you the others, but this is the only file that has survived my ruthless cleansing of my harddrive. Where is this place? You ask. It's Anglesey, and you ask that because I've forgotten one of the key components of a map: the title block. Yep, and the compass rose. This was originally drawn with a fineliner, and maaaan I had a hard time getting it ready for print. I had literally none of the skills I have today for digitising artwork and no formal training (thanks Fine Art degree, what were you foooorrrr?). What I did have was an ability to use Photoshop, gleaned after spending a lot of money on an expensive course in London whilst trying to get into publishing. To be fair to me, I think it has aged quite well, though there's a lot of blank space that's crying out for more detail.

An illustrated map of Brisbane shows the locations of the key areas in the book Vigil by Angela Slatter. It's hand drawn in fineliner
A map of Brisbane, for Angela Slatter's book Vigil

Mapping the Fantastic: My First Fantasy Map

Talking of blank space, here is a map that I wish I'd taken a lot further. I remember being so excited about doing this map, and I thought that I'd done a really good job of it at the time. Though looking at it now makes me wish I could have a re-do. You can see none of my classic details: the river/water detail I now include, the trees are mere blobs and there's no compass rose. But thankfully, this time, I remembered the title block. My problem in this map is that I have no references. I had not done much exploration of map illustrators; I didn't even realise this was much of a thing. I had not drawn a lot of buildings, so I could not create buildings that didn't exist. And everything is much too small. The layout is totally off. I had a lot to learn.

If you're interested, this map was for an excellent book by Angela Slatter called Vigil. I still remember it today.

An illustrated map of Maidstone also showing Leeds Castle. It is hand drawn with a fineliner and features text in Elvish
A map of Maidstone in the style of the Lord of the Rings map

Mapping A Love Story: Illustrated Wedding Maps

Also drawn in fineliner originally, was this map: a wedding map that was based on Tolkien's map of Middle-Earth. Hence the Elvish. One thing I am proud of in all of these early maps, is that I've really thought about the details that are there: the elvish, the border made up of rings, the title block echoing Tolkien's world. I've always liked to include things on my maps that are really personal to the commissioner, or really relevant to the book, and I think I've succeeded in that at least, even in my early work. So, for someone who is highly critical of themself, I'm glad I can say that.

On a side note, I think one of the things that really held me back in these early days, was not only a lack of knowledge, but a fear of drawing something wrong. As I did everything in fineliner, one wrong move could wreck the whole map. I think that's why everything is so small and unassuming with lots of blank space: I reduced the chances of getting something wrong.

An illustrated map depicts part if London, with the river running through the middle. It is drawn in fineliner and ink, and features hundreds of little skyscrapers
An illustrated map of London for Tom Pollock's book The City's Son

An Evolution: Fantastic London

Here's another map I created a little further down the line. As you can imagine, this took a very, very long time to make. So long, in fact, that I've been put off drawing any more cities since then. (Specifically, I remember the pain in my hand upon finishing!). This was drawn in fineliner and coloured in ink for a book called The City's Son, by Tom Pollock; set in a fantastical alternative London. Within this maze of mini tower blocks, I've drawn places pertinent to the story: Brixton, Carnaby Street, St Paul's Cathedral (can you spot them?). This map represents a massive leap forward: a willingness to experiment with different map forms and colour. It uses perspective and balance, and the unifying thread of the river to pull it all together. I was getting better.

A black and white map of ditchling, drawn with fineliner and ink, it features the strangely shaped and unique lamposts of the village. It also shows all the buildings and many, many trees.
An illustrated map of Ditchling, drawn on a course with artist Helen Cann

A Leap Forward: Mapping Ditchling with Helen Cann

A few years after the previous map, I found the artist Helen Cann by buying one of her books: Hand Drawn Maps: A Guide for Creatives. From there, I discovered she ran courses and promptly joined one going ahead in Ditchling, a small but beautiful village in East Sussex. And here's where I took my biggest leap forwards in mapmaking. With that book and Helen's presence guiding me through creating a map, I finally discovered the importance of detail. I discovered that you didn't have to have blank spaces in a map, that they could be full of details and still functional and beautiful. It gave me the courage to fill all the spaces of the map, to take up room. The map above was created in fineliner and ink and the only part of it I don't like is the compass rose. This taught me one of my bigger lessons: make sure that everything in the map flows together. For me, this compass rose was too harsh, it didn't fit the tone of the otherwise pretty and whimsical map. Well, lessons learned as they say.

You may also notice that I've started playing with the details: shadows on the trees, waves in the water. This all came as I started paying attention to other maps (mainly antique ones), where trees would have shadows and sea creatures emerged from the water. The water style I use today is a hybrid of these antique maps, specifically a copy of the Mappa Mundi I have on my wall, and antique Japanese maps, whose waves were shaped like scales.

Another Leap Into the Unknown: Buying an iPad

I took another leap forward in my mapmaking the year I bought an iPad. Above on the left is the map I drew for David Hair's World's Edge. It's drawn in fineliner, scanned in and edited via Photoshop. On the right is the same map updated in ProCreate just after I bought an iPad. Using Procreate suddenly opened up a whole new world for me: one where I didn't feel weighed down by mistakes - I could just click undo! The revelation. As you can see, I went crazy. I added waves, made the compass rose more powerful, coloured the trees and added a shading effect. I also rewrote the place names with a burgeoning understanding of lettering, gleaned from studying other maps and fonts, all without a sense of fear that one wrong move could ruin the whole commission. Yes, I can tell you that buying an iPad was well worth it.

A map of a part of Oxford University is drawn in black and white. It has seeds and birds eggs drawn in the border, and features the cloisters and associated buildings
An illustrated map for Simul by Andrew Caldecott

Here in the Now: My Illustrated Maps in the Present Day

And here's one of the latest maps I've completed for Andrew Caldecott's Simul. This one was created entirely in Procreate, and features Oxford College - or a part of it. (Because in this book, the rest has been subsumed.) I think in this map you can see a new found confidence in the lettering, and a better understanding of balance. Nothing seems out of place here. My trees, which I decided at some point to make a little bigger, more varied and with a bit more detail, inspired by Helen Cann's maps, look more interesting, and in the compass rose is a coat of arms, something which I am very much hoping to explore in the future. Little details from the book are fully realised, and further details inspired by antique maps have been added, giving the map a little more personality. There is more texture here, in the wall, in the fields, in the eggs. More bravery.

I've still got a lot to learn about mapmaking, and there are a lot of things I have yet to learn about and discover. And I'm sure in another 10 years I'll look back on some of the maps I'm making now and think what was I doing? But for right now, I'm happy.

Which map do you like the best here? Do you think I've improved? Would you like to start making your own maps? Let me know in the comments below.

And as always, thank you for reading.


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