Smithsonian Magazine: The Making of a Map

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Over the summer, I was asked to make a map for Smithsonian Magazine (one of my all-time favorites) to accompany an article that described Hannibal's route through the Alps. On elephants. With an army. To invade the Romans (again). Of course, I accepted the assignment immediately.

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The Smithsonian wanted to accurately reflect Hannibal's route and the geographic territories of the time. Rivers, mountain passes, bodies of water, and travel routes would all need to be basically correct. Fabulous art director Maria Keehan pulled together a team to review my work, including an editor, a fact-checker, and a researcher. 

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For maps, I like to whip up a quick first draft, just to make sure I'm in the right ballpark. (Fail faster, fail better.) In this case, I also wanted to confirm that I'd captured every necessary component. We had a three-week deadline.

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Once I had all the basic information down, Maria dropped the sketch into the article's layout so we could check proportions, placement, and overall composition. The large elements were in place, but several items needed finessing. This is one of my favorite parts of map-making, when the conversation becomes "move that river a little to the left" or "you forgot an island." It makes me think of how easily an actual cartographer can manipulate space and knowledge.

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Initially, the lettering I sketched for the title was a little carnival-esque. I knew it wasn't right, but couldn't pinpoint why. Then I landed on the word militant, which hit the exact right note, so I developed this upright lettering that would fit the space and reference old military manuals. For the rest of the lettering, I kept it as simple and consistent as possible for the sake of clarity. 

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Color is always tricky for me, since my natural inclination is to make everything black and white. For this piece, I wanted the composition to be bright but not overly playful, and eye-catching while having a slightly vintage feel. Plus, the map necessitated a minimum of five colors in order to convey basic information (who controlled what space, etc). I decided on a mixture of teal with pink and ochres because the colors are bright enough for clarity while also referencing earth tones appropriate to a map.

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The final file, all inked and scanned into Photoshop, had 36 layers and seven rounds of revision. Each revision took hours, but it was much less than the eleven or nineteen rounds of revisions I've done for other maps. All of this was made easy by Maria's endless encouragement and positivity (she replied to all of my emails within minutes), which makes a huge difference on an important project with a tight turn-around.

Maps are one of my favorite forms to work with. They involve both information and artistry and can range from precise to imaginary. They contain the real and are, by definition, an imagined space. Maps reveal perspective and affect how we see the world. I've always loved maps. In fact, I am currently having several very old (and inaccurate) maps framed to hang on my walls. In grad school, I studied the surveying of our country by the government and the closing of the frontier. I wrote a 50-page paper about the surveys and how they were used as propaganda and as a tool of conquer. (I'm not saying it was a good paper, but I had a lot to say.) Now, as an illustrator, I jump at any chance to make a map.

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