When I first began making maps, I started with an innocuous Google search for 'hand-drawn maps'. Little did I know that the first artist to come up would also be one of the biggest and most lasting influences on my own work: Helen Cann. Helen's work is stunning, intricate, distinctive in its originality and bursting with colour and life. (If you have not seen her illustrations before, I highly recommend you have a look now.) So, I was really chuffed (understatement) when she agreed to do an interview for my blog. A massive thank you to Helen for taking the time to answer my questions, and I really hope you all enjoy getting a little insight into her story.
Your artwork is so beautiful and distinctive how did you arrive at your style and do you have a favourite project (or projects!) you’ve worked on so far?
In a way, I think I have many styles. I spent years as a children’s book illustrator, honing a distinct look that involved working by hand in paint, mixed media and collage. My initial exploration of mapmaking, at a time when I wanted to play a little, allowed me to break out of that style, be adventurous with different media and have fun with many ways of working. Although I’ve also played with digital processes, fundamentally I work by hand and that’s always at the core of what I do.
One of my favourite projects so far has been producing a hand painted map for the film ‘The Spy who Dumped me’ that was used as a prop in a comedy chase scene. The map is a mad mashup of the city of Prague and Prague Zoo with lots of lettering in Czech and tiny animals roaming through the streets.
Who or what (anything from books to other artists) has inspired or influenced the way you work?
I love looking at the work of other mapmakers, especially historic ones. I used to work in an antique print shop for a very short while and it was the maps that always intrigued me. Max Gill from the early 20th century is a special favourite. And if you ever doubt that mapmakers live a quiet and uneventful life, check out the history of 17th century English mapmaker John Ogilby.
Your illustrated maps are so incredibly detailed, what led you to start drawing maps, and how did you develop them into what they are today?
I hit a slow patch during the last recession and started drawing maps to entertain myself when I had no children’s book work. I became more and more absorbed in researching places and creating maps showing multilayers of history alongside the geography. It made me realise that there were many ways to understand a location and I started playing with different ideas to show that in map form.
You run courses on how to draw maps for others, and your book Hand Drawn Maps: A Guide for Creatives was out in 2017. What led you to start teaching?
When I was younger, I had a job teaching English to asylum seekers at a large further education college. I loved it and found it very satisfying so running map making courses seemed like an obvious thing for me to do. Hand drawn maps are infinitely interesting, satisfying to create and give you a totally different outlook on your environment. It’s a pleasure to show that to my students.
And finally: Have you got any top tips for any aspiring mapmakers out there?
Keep working by hand, even if you use digital tools to help you some of the way. Don’t be afraid to play with ideas and to make mistakes; It’s how you learn best . . . And lastly, walk around the place you are mapping if you can - you never know what you’ll see . . .
A massive thank you to Helen for taking the time to answer my questions. For anyone out there who is aspiring to be a mapmaker, or who wants to give it a go, I own Helen's book myself and it is not only useful, but incredibly pretty too. I highly recommend both that and going on one of her courses, if you happen to be anywhere around the Brighton area - or not, they're worth the trip!
Her website is helencann.co.uk.
Follow Helen on Instagram @helencann or @helencannmaps
Thanks for reading!