Making a Map: Q & A with the Artist

May 23, 2020

Making a Map: Q & A with the Artist

This year, Xplorer Maps celebrates its tenth year in business. Brothers Chris and Greg Robitaille launched the company in 2010 when they created their first two maps: the state of Montana and Yellowstone National Park. Since then, the brothers have created more than 50 unique, custom, hand-drawn maps of national parks, states, countries, and travel destinations around the world, as well as a number of private commissions.

Creating a hand-drawn map is a very detailed process, with every line, letter, and icon custom and original to each new map. Each map has anywhere between 30-50 unique drawings on it, including iconic wildlife, destination highlights, and famous landmarks. We work with National Park Service specialists, interpretive staff, and nonprofit partners to ensure that our maps are historically, geographically, and culturally accurate. Our aim is to highlight the story-telling through art and enhance the educational merit and interest for residents and visitors of these special places

People often ask about the artistic process of making a map. Following is a Q & A with our artist and co-founder, Chris, on the steps that go into creating the artwork.

Q: What is your first step in creating the map artwork?

A:  After weeks of preliminary research, numerous thumbnail sketches are created that we share with our collaborative partners to determine the desired design layout, scale, and scope of the map – zooming in and zooming out. The collaborative team then comes to a consensus that best represents the look and feel we’re trying to achieve. I then render a small 9-inch x 12-inch pencil sketch of the entire map, focusing primarily on the main illustrations and a handful of other key elements. This is the actual sketch rendering that we then enlarge to actual size (24 inches x 18 inches) and share with our partner for further review and decision-making.

Q:  What’s the next step?

A:  From an initial list that often climbs upward of 100 possible drawings, Greg and our partners begin to whittle away to prioritize which elements (communities, bodies of water, historic and/or cultural landmarks etc.) need to be included. Once we know exactly what lettering needs to be included and where it is to be located, the next phase is typically penciling in the proposed placements for all the illustrations.

Given the above, the most challenging and time-consuming part of the process is deciding what goes where. There are always things left on the chopping block. I like to work from a list of most prominent to least prominent to ensure we’re creating the most visually stunning artwork possible. We try to limit the number of illustrations to approximately 35-40, as experience has taught us that this seems to be our sweet spot with most maps. We’ve found that more illustrations than that can give the map a slightly confusing and crowded feel. Striking a balance between too much and not enough is key.

Q:  What references do you use for figuring out where the landmarks and features go on the map?

A: It depends on the specific project, but typically we will use the United States Geological Survey, Google Earth, National Park Service maps and guidebooks, and other materials provided to us by our collaborative partner. These include photo books, travel guides, and in many instances, personal photos.

Q: What is the next step after the decisions on content and placement are made?

A: I start penciling the map on my master watercolor paper stretched on the large drawing board, making sure to include all the contents in the pencil sketch. Oftentimes, it is at this stage where we may need to shift things around. Re-considering placements creates a sort of ripple effect that can become quite challenging. If I move one thing, I may need to move a couple of other things to maintain the balance.

When all the content and locations have been approved and signed off on, I then begin the meticulous (but very rewarding) task of inking in all approved names, places, and illustrations. No mistakes can be made here – but it does happen from time to time (there’s no spell-check) – as once something is inked there’s no going back.

The coloring process is next. I start with very broad washes of color to the main areas, which will establish the color scheme. And then moving from macro to micro until the map is super beautiful and ready for delivery.

Q:  How long does it take you to complete the artwork on each map?

A: Once I begin the actual drawing, each map typically takes four to five weeks. The conceptual sketching, content and placement phase typically can take up to 3 weeks.

Q: We are in an age where digital technology is transforming the artworld. Do you ever use a computer for creating the maps?

A: My style is low-tech and old-school – the further I am from anything computer is where I’m most comfortable. I feel my style pays homage to the world’s early cartographers, and that’s what I love most about rendering our antique/vintage style maps. My art supplies consist only of pencils, technical pens, watercolor brushes, and watercolor paints; there is no digital element whatsoever to anything I do.

To learn more about our artist, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, view the article, “Globetrotting Artist Illustrates Old-World Style Maps, Partners to Build Montana Business,” here.