Returning to my Roots

Years ago, I began crafting a love song to my homeland. I worked on it for weeks in 2014, and again for a while in 2015. And then I laid it aside, very nearly finished, for several years.

I have trouble finishing big projects sometimes, as I get distracted by some new interesting thing. And the more time that passes, the more effortful it feels to return to the headspace I was in when I was deep in the creative process of that project. So, instead, I just let things sit for years, or maybe forever. But, despite the interval, this particular project has long been important to me, and so this week I finally overcame my inertia enough to finish it.

I present to you Landforms of Michigan.

Labels Draft Six

Click to view a pretty large JPG

I never knew much about the shape of my surroundings when growing up, and this project offered me a chance to learn the grammar of a place that is dear to me. I hope you will share it with the Michiganders you know; they will understand what it means.

Brief Notes

  • I’ve previously written and presented about this project, when it was in its mostly-finished state, so I don’t have too much to add here about its construction. Check out this old blog post to learn more about how it was made.
  • I spent many, many hours tracking down names for features from a variety of sources, and in some limited cases coining my own, when I thought it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I’ve documented my rationale and my specific sources here.
  • There is one other big challenge in resuming an old project, besides trying to remember how you were thinking years ago: resisting the urge to extensively revise. In the past five years I have gained new knowledge, skills, and tastes, and there are things I would do differently if I started this project over, though none of them would probably make as much of a difference as I think.
  • When I had completed a first draft of the map years ago, I circulated it to a few people for feedback, which proved quite valuable. I want to thank Randall Schaetzl, Leo Dillon, Liz Kwicinski, and Eric Doornbos for taking the time to look things over.

If you derive some value from projects like these, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

How to do Map Stuff: A Live Community Sharing Event

Friends, many of us are stuck at home during this pandemic, and will be for a while (and we’re the fortunate ones, vs. those whose jobs force them to regularly risk infection). It’s a stressful, anxious, and isolating time.

So here’s an idea I had at 1:00 AM, one random night:

“How to do Map Stuff”: A series of live online mapping workshops — Wednesday April 29th (or April 30th, if you’re in the Pacific), 2020

Many of you know that I do occasional map livestream events, in which I casually take people through some project of mine, or show off some technique. So, my thought is: let’s just have a bunch of people all do those on the same day. I imagine a daylong event consisting of 30–60 minute live tutorials. Each person hosts their own stream on YouTube, and the audience can move from presenter to presenter throughout the day. And then, once we’re done, those videos reside on YouTube for future folks to find and learn from.

The Event

When I first posted the call for volunteers in mid-March, I had no idea it would get so big. I’m very excited that over two dozen people offered to give presentations! Now that the event is over, you can catch the presentations here:

I’m so grateful to all of you who presented, and all of you who tuned in from around the world. Thanks for making a special day possible! And if you weren’t there for some or all of it, the videos remain a gold mine of information. Make sure to let the presenters know you enjoyed the knowledge that they had to share.

(This post was last updated May 8, 2020 to reflect the end of the event.)

Financial Transparency: 2019 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make.

As a freelancer, I often wonder how I am doing financially as compared to my colleagues. Not out of a sense of competition, but just to answer the persistent question: is this normal? Am I earning a “typical” living? Do I get an unusually small or large amount of money from selling prints? Things like that, born of curiosity. I can look at the great work of a colleague and think it’s valuable, but the big question is: does the rest of the world value their skills the way that I do?

I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you.

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010, but things didn’t really take off until 2012, so let’s start there. My gross earnings from freelance cartography have been:

2012: $12,016.34
2013: $20,352.75
2014: $8,508.58
2015: $10,881.25
2016: $22,795.00
2017: $48,775.38 [$45,000 from one big contract, so it’s a bit atypical].
2018: $17,795.60
2019: $34,310.65

I have also earned money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. This income isn’t terribly relevant to those who are wondering about the mapmaking business, but I’ll include it here for the sake of completeness:

2012: $1,128.08
2013: $1,528.00
2014: $7,014.00
2015: $10,194.00
2016: $2,000.00
2017: $9,925.00
2018: $7,505.00
2019: $2,325.00

These bits of side work, as well as my teaching (below), have been very helpful in leaner years.


I teach from time to time at UW–Madison, covering the Introductory Cartography course. Again, not too relevant to the subject of freelance earnings, but perhaps interesting if you’re curious about what adjunct teaching pays. My pre-tax pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $7,182.18 (formerly $6,954.39 from 2010–2015).  This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.


I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, Project Linework, and other resources that people seem to draw value from etc.

2012: $37.00
2018: $1,711.08
2019: $1,412.86

Speaking of donations, here are some handy buttons if you want to help empower me to keep sharing cartographic knowledge and resources.

Sales of Prints

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is sales of prints. Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up on Zazzle in case anyone wants to buy them. I’ve also occasionally printed maps locally and sold them through an art store or by word of mouth. But Zazzle is where almost all of my sales happen.

My earnings from sales of prints:

2012: $772.39
2013: $678.68
2014: $270.19
2015: $116.52
2016: $797.54
2017: $342.78
2018: $354.10
2019: $821.63

And, if you’re curious as to what sells and what doesn’t, here’s a breakdown of Zazzle sales:

Fame and exposure are generally free, and often much more plentiful than actual payment. It takes a lot of clicks before someone actually buys—I have also seen this behind the scenes with the Atlas of Design. I often see colleagues whose work gets a lot of attention, and who are offering cool prints, and wonder if they are receiving lots of praise with little money behind it.

Concluding Thoughts

I never really intended to be a freelancer, because I dislike instability, and the numbers above fluctuate wildly. But I fell into it accidentally anyway, and it’s been great, though it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents.

I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

Freelance Survey 2.0

You might recall that in 2018, Aly Ollivierre and I conducted a survey of freelance mapmakers. I’ve long tried to bring more transparency to carto-freelancing, and I think knowing more about what our colleagues are doing is empowering.

This year we’re doing it again, with some revised questions (thanks to feedback from a number of members of the mapping community). I hope you’ll take the time to answer by clicking here.

And please help spread the word! We’d like to reach as many people as possible, so that the results can better reflect what’s really going on in the field.

Maps in the Kitchen

I teach introductory cartography from time to time, and over the years I have developed an analogy that I share with students on the first day of class.

The Analogy: Cartography is like Cooking

In cooking, you use various tools (knives, pans, etc.) to transform ingredients into a finished dish. In mapping, you use various tools (usually software) to transform data into a finished representation.

You may well think “that’s cute and clever, but what’s the point?”

Why Use This?

In my pedagogical practice, I often worry about students feeling intimidated. I want to show them inspiring examples of beautiful maps made by my colleagues, because I think there’s value in seeing what cartography can achieve. But, I know from experience that it’s easy to look at something like Tom Patterson’s map of Kenai Fjords and think, “I have no idea how to do that and probably will never be able to.” Especially if you’re still only barely able to open a GIS program.



So, I want to inspire students while still making them feel like they can eventually get there. And I think this kitchen analogy goes a long way toward breaking down the mystery of cartography. Students who are new to the field likely haven’t thought much about what goes into mapping, and my hope is to put the cartographic process into familiar terms so that it seems more achievable.

To do well in the kitchen, you need to have technical skills (knife skills, knowing how to sauté something, etc.), and you need some ideas for recipes. You start out simple, just copying other people’s recipe ideas. As you go on, though, you start to feel more comfortable and creative, and can experiment more and more with greater success, developing your own recipes. And along the way you’ll develop the technical skills and knowledge of ingredients that will let you execute those recipes you have in mind.

It’s the same sort of process for cartography. As I tell the students, the only thing that separates them from someone like Tom Patterson, or any one of the other accomplished cartographers whose work I show them, is technical skills and recipe ideas. With enough step-by-step breakdown of what buttons to click in the software, anyone can learn the technical skills to imitate the Kenai Fjords map.

Then there’s the recipe: knowing when and why to click those buttons without someone telling you to do so. Just as you go to a restaurant and find foods you like and want to work with at home, you can look over other people’s maps and get ideas for things you want to create (and the internet is full of people sharing both map and food recipes to get you started). Experience and experimentation lead to eventually breaking away from formulaic, cookie-cutter work and developing your own ideas.

All of this takes time, of course; years. But, I use this analogy to emphasize to my students that it’s not magic. It’s not that some people are capable of mapping and some aren’t. It’s like learning anything else: someone tells you what to do, and eventually you get enough experience to iterate on what you learned and develop your own way. Cooking is something that at least some of my students are familiar with (and, if they haven’t cooked much, they hopefully still understand a little of what goes into it). Explaining cartography with this analogy, I hope, makes them feel more confident in their ability to eventually figure it out, if they are willing to invest the time.

Annual Report: 2019

Friends, I was very fortunate to receive support from a number of you in 2019. And, continuing what is becoming an annual tradition, I want to be transparent in reporting back on what your support has enabled me to do.

In no particular order, in 2019, I was able to:

  • Conduct a series of livestream events on YouTube (videos here). I wasn’t sure how this would go, but I was pleased to see a couple dozen people (in one case, over 50!) show up to talk about maps with me. I have hopes of doing more of these in 2020, though I need to work through some health issues first.
  • Give a free webinar to the Alaska Arc Users Group in January 2019
  • Oversee the reprints of the first three volumes of the Atlas of Design. This includes creating an all-new version of the first volume. I continue to manage reprint orders for NACIS, making sure they get passed to the distributor and that books get into the hands of people who have been waiting for them.
  • Serve on a few groups with my fellow cartographers, including
    • NACIS Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee
    • An advisory group for the CaGIS Map Competition
    • A working group that is proposing standard elevation models, to help research and development of new relief techniques.
  • Answer a lot of questions via email. People write to me a number of times each year asking for software help (especially Blender), career advice, interviews for high/middle school projects, or map critiques. I try to take the time to write back to everyone.
  • Do a lot of cyanotyping. I had a lot of fun exploring this printing technique, and some potential cartographic uses. The support of my patrons helped buy some of my supplies, and also enabled me to cover the expense of sending free prints to a number of people.
  • Organize MonoCarto 2019, a monochrome mapping competition. I wanted to honor the less-flashy work that gets done without color, and it accidentally turned into one of the larger mapping competitions in existence. It was a lot of fun, but also a fair bit of work. And, of course, a lot of people besides me volunteered their time to make it possible.
  • Attend NACIS2019 and talk about the lessons learned from the mapping competition, and organize a special gallery showing off the Final Selection (the winners).
  • Rebuild my popular Blender tutorial to reflect a new version of the software, with a new user interface and some updated procedures. This was done hurriedly, because it turns out that a few people were just about to present it to classes and conferences! But fortunately I got it done in time.
  • Continue helping NACIS with a few things. I served for several years as the Director of Operations; while that role has ended, I’ve been answering questions and aiding in the transition. I also continue to provide AV support at the Annual Meeting (I am the keeper of the projectors).
  • In the spirit of the old FixWikiMaps project, make a couple maps for Wikipedia of old radio broadcast networks in the United States:WEAF and WJZ Chains-01.jpg
    NBC Networks.jpg
  • Serve as a judge for the GeoHipster 2020 Calendar.
  • Make one-off mappy things that get shared on my Twitter account, such as this animation about map layers (which I might use sometime in teaching):

  • Keep a few ongoing efforts up-to-date, including some edits to the 1981 linework set for Project Linework, and upgrading my ongoing collection of hypsometric tinting schemes for Mars (which I hope will eventually be valuable to someone :) ).

In the end, all of the above efforts are owed to the support of many of you out there. Your patronage helps me buy materials, afford conferences, pay for websites, and most importantly, justify taking the time away from paid work in order to write, design, and help others. As we move into 2020, I hope to continue to merit the support you have shown me. I never know exactly how much I’ll be able to do so in a given year, but I do know that I fully intend to keep up my efforts to contribute to the cartographic community. You have all taught me so much, and I will continue repay the favor as best I may.

If you’d like to support my efforts, please click one of these handy buttons.


Something of Myself

When I started out my mapping career, I had a dream of eventually making my own atlas. And, in the following years, I was fortunate enough to get to work on a few, including the Atlas of Design, and the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Of these various atlases, my latest one is certainly the most “my own” of any of them. I’m pleased to share with you An Atlas of Great Lakes Islands.

While my earlier projects involved me producing some digital files, then handing them off to be printed, bound, and shipped, this one was a little different. Though I did design the maps digitally, I printed each one by hand using using the cyanotype process. I also manually trimmed each one down to size, and sewed my own binding. It may not be the most visually impressive, but it has much more of me in it than probably any other book I have worked on.

There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s go through the process in rough chronological order.

A Starting Point

Some months ago, I decided one evening to see how much information I could cram into a black and white map, with no shades of grey in between.

It was just a fun challenge, but I really liked the look that came out of it, and I ended up doing a couple more of Great Lakes islands. If you browse through my portfolio, you’ll already know that I make a lot of my maps about my Great Lakes homeland. I feel like it’s part of my cartographic mission to articulate, in my own way, the beauty of this part of the world. I’d already made one poster of Great Lakes islands before (in a black-and-white style, no less), so this was a sort of unintended continuation of my previous work. I think of them partly as an exploration of geographic forms: the interesting aesthetics of the shapes nature has laid down.

I also was definitely inspired by the work of Heather Smith, including her map of Iturup, though it took a little while before I realized it. I often absorb ideas from others and then, months later, they pop up again without me realizing that I’m drawing upon them.


Around this same time, I was getting into cyanotype printing, a nineteenth-century alternative photography technique. You can follow that link if you want to dive a bit into the chemistry, by the idea is straightforward: (1) coat some paper with chemicals; (2) put a photo negative or some other light-blocking stuff on the paper, and then expose the paper to sunlight or another UV source; (3) dip the paper in water; and (4) watch the paper turn blue in areas that were hit with sunlight, and stay white in the areas that were shaded.

Cyanotyping is cheap and easy to get into, so I started printing up some maps to try it out. I made negatives on transparency film, and copied a few maps I’d already made.

The strange admixture of cyanotype and typewriter cartography.

But I was looking for an original idea, and that’s when I thought to wind together two threads: black-and-white maps, and cyanotyping. I decided that I would produce a series of cyanotype maps of Great Lakes islands.

Map Design

First off, I needed to digitally design the maps that I would eventually be printing. The process here is pretty much my standard GIS-to-Adobe Illustrator workflow. A few highlights:

  • Gathering data was a challenge. I needed equivalent information for places in the US and Canada, and oftentimes had to mash stuff together from a lot of different sources. Here’s an example of one map’s sources:
  • My data sources were often in conflict, too. Streams would be shown running in different areas, for example. Given the size of these islands, that’s not surprising: many of these streams are probably small trickles that aren’t well-documented. Sometimes roads or trails would have spotty data, and I’d have to correct or supplement things by looking at satellite imagery.
  • There was also some disagreement over coastlines due to things like tides and whether wetlands counted as water or land. There’s definitely room to quibble with some of my choices.

    According to NOAA (left), Sand Island is surrounded by marshes (in green). According to the USGS (right), it’s surrounded by open water.

  • I tried to fit as many different data layers as I could, given the limitation of using only black and white (which would eventually print up as blue and white in the final book). To keep everything looking clean, there are a lot of knockouts. Roads knock out streams, streams knock out land cover, text knocks out everything, etc.
    This helps a great deal with legibility, I think. Without those buffers around every feature type, the map would be a mess:
  • To keep those buffers from hiding critical data, I often rerouted streams and roads to make sure that a coastal road didn’t hide the outlet of a stream.
  • I’m quite pleased with the forest texture. Instead of a repeating dot pattern, I gave it a little bit of randomness. The dots vary slightly in size and position. They’re almost regular, but not quite, which I think adds some organic-ness to the whole thing that ties the symbology into the idea of vegetation. (Edit from years later: I made a tutorial.)
  • Because I pay way too much attention to tiny projection details: each island is on its own Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection, with a center point at the centroid of the island.
  • I set all the type in Mostra Nuova, which is a typeface that will perhaps be familiar to longtime readers. It’s a favorite of mine, and based on Italian Art Deco posters. It is, admittedly, not really connected very well to the atlas subject matter. But I still liked how it looked with the stark monochrome cartographic design. Mostra Nuova is a geometric sans, and the cartography is all about highlighting interesting geometries, so they sort of work, I think. One limitation: it doesn’t come in italics, and most its various weights would be hard to tell apart in cyanotype. So, I didn’t develop different label styles for different feature types, for the most part (except settlements and airports, which are given in heavy type).

Add up everything above and these maps took a lot longer than you might expect just by looking at them. In a process that took dozens of hours, I made maps for the largest thirty islands in the Great Lakes system (including some of the rivers connecting the Great Lakes). I had planned to stop a little sooner, at maybe twenty maps. However, I wanted to include at least one island from every Great Lake, and Pelee Island, the largest in Lake Erie, was the thirtieth-largest in the system.


Once I had my maps designed, I printed off negatives on transparency film and set about cyanotyping.

First off, the paper is coated with sensitizer (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide). When I started learning this process, I used watercolor paper. Later on, I switched to kōzo, a Japanese mulberry paper. It’s handmade, thin yet strong, has no particular grain, and has a really nice natural, organic feeling to it. I got mine from the Awagami Factory.

Then the paper is dried in the dark for a while. When it’s ready (about a day, for the kōzo), I can put a negative on it, sandwich it between some glass, and put it out into the sun. In Wisconsin, sunny days are rare in the winter, and so I usually had to drop everything when one came around so I could get some prints done. While later on I got good enough that I could do exposures on cloudy and overcast days, it was nice to have an excuse to go out into the sun and get some Vitamin D.

Each print is made using only the purest rays of the Wisconsin sun.

Once the print is exposed (anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours, depending on conditions), a little water will cause the image to develop.

The prints vary quite a lot, as there are a myriad of tiny things that affect the outcome: the angle of the sun, how tightly the negative sits on the paper, the pH of the paper and the water used to wash it, how evenly and thickly I coated the paper, how long it was washed, how long and under what conditions the sensitizer dried before exposing to the sun, and more. Below you can see two very different-looking outcomes from the same negative. One is very dark and overexposed, and the other very light and underexposed (the more exposure to the sun, the more blue pigment develops).

Controlling all these variables is almost impossible, and each image is a little different. I picked up a lot of small tricks along the way to try and solve imperfections, but many remain: spots on the print, odd wrinkles or smudges, blurring, etc. I’m an extremely detail-oriented perfectionist who zooms in to 64,000% in Illustrator, so this project has been good for me to practice letting go. This whole process is very, very analog, and only some of it can be rigorously controlled. The imperfections also add to the charm, and express how the print was handmade.

Imperfections: blue splotches, text fading in and out, some minor blurring, and some places where the paper is a bit damaged, showing white fibers.

The first draft of the atlas was printed on heavy watercolor paper. To get 34 decent prints (thirty maps plus a few additional pieces of front & back matter), I had to go through over 100 sheets of paper, as I still had a lot to learn about how to get good prints out of the cyanotype process (and how to accept imperfections on the non-ideal prints that came out of the process). You can see in the image here how many different shades of blue there are; just another reflection of the variability of the process.

After I finished up the first draft (and bound it up into a book), I made a second draft of the maps, printed on kōzo. This time I was much more efficient, both at making good prints and at letting go of my perfectionism. I got 99 good prints out of 110 attempts, enough for three atlases of 33 pages (one less than the first draft; I dropped a filler page).


These books would have just been a bunch of loose pages without the guidance of my colleague Caroline Rose. She has experience in book repair and bookbinding, and was kind enough to teach me some basics and loan me a bunch of supplies. With her pointing me in the right direction, I bound up my maps into actual atlases.

The first draft of the atlas, printed on watercolor paper, was given a simple accordion binding. I simply attached the pages end-to-end with strips of kōzo glued on the back, acting as hinges. I dyed the kōzo blue first, using the cyanotype process, just to make it look a little nicer.

The first atlas was the culmination of dozens of hours of work (and dozens of dollars of supplies, mostly watercolor paper), but I found it only mildly satisfactory. Among other issues, the book had some warping problems. Despite trying many, many things, I could never get the pages to dry flat once they’d been soaked in water. But this was all fine, because I had planned it, from the beginning, as a first draft, with the understanding that I’d do better the second time around.

So wavy.

The book’s kōzo hinges were my first time working with (or hearing of) the material, which Caroline introduced me to, and I knew I wanted to work with it more. So, I decided that my second draft would be printed on kōzo, rather than just using it as a supporting material. After wrapping up the first book, I printed up the 99 maps on kōzo that I showed above, and then prepared them for binding. First, I hand-wrinkled each one. You see, during my test prints on kōzo, I accidentally made a print that was somewhat wrinkled (due to not handling it super-carefully: I wanted to try to see how strong it was). But I found that I liked the wrinkled look, so I decided to make sure that every print was sufficiently wrinkled. It’s sort of wavy, and organic, and aged. It gives the prints some suppleness.

After I spent a while wrinkling each print, I tore them all down to size. I thought about cutting them to give them a clean edge, but I liked the softness of the torn edge.

The whole stack of pages reminds me a bit of worn blue jeans, which makes sense. Blue jeans are often dyed with Prussian blue, which is the same pigment that the cyanotype process produces. And blue jeans are made from cotton, which is mostly just cellulose. Kōzo, like other paper fibers, is also mostly cellulose.

Once I had my soft, wrinkly organic sheets, I wanted to give them a better binding than I had the first atlas. Something more book-like, instead of a giant accordion fold. Caroline pointed me in the direction of Japanese stab bindings, which are simple to execute and designed for single sheets. So, I poked around some tutorials, bought some supplies, and got to work. I used an awl to poke holes in the pages, then sewed them up.

The thread is marbled: I used the cyanotype process to dye parts of it, but not others.

Unlike the first draft, I also gave the book a cover material. I used grey and black Japanese linen cardstock. I also gave it a string and button closure, using paper buttons I cut from the cover stock and leftover binding thread.

Kōzo is handmade and doesn’t have much of a grain, so there’s no particular warp direction this time around. It’s also much thinner than watercolor paper (while still having a lot of wet strength). These are two reasons I had wanted to switch to using it instead of watercolor paper. However, the book is very puffy, probably due at least in part to all those wrinkles I added.

I hadn’t planned on drawing so much from Japan when I started this project, but it just sort of happened that way. I just happened to learn about and come to enjoy working with kōzo; I found a good cover material that happened to have been made in Japan; and I needed to learn a simple style of binding that beginners like me could handle, which happens to have been Japanese. So, it’s a book about the Midwest, with an Italian typeface, made with Japanese materials and techniques.

Significance and Sharing

I produced one copy of the first draft (on watercolor paper), and three of the second draft (on kōzo), though I’ve still got to get around to binding the final copy of the second draft. It took a huge amount of time (and a fair bit of money), but I’m pretty satisfied with the results. As I said, there’s a lot of me in this work: it was hand-printed, hand-wrinkled, hand-torn, and hand-bound (using hand-dyed thread). There’s not much more possible influence I could have on a single book. And it’s of a subject that has deep personal significance to me: my Great Lakes homeland (even if I’ve never been to these particular islands — yet).

Despite its unassuming appearance, I count this book as one of the more significant accomplishments of my career, because it sort of serves as a microcosm of so much of the rest of my practice: it’s in monochrome, it’s about the Great Lakes, it hinges on a lot of obsessive detail work, it’s something nobody asked for, it required learning a bunch of new skills, and it’s a little off the beaten path. It may be the most Daniel P. Huffman-like of all of my works.

As I said, there are only three copies. But, maybe you’d like to see one? It so happens that I’m sending one copy on a world tour, where it will be shipped to whoever wants to borrow it for a few days. If you’re interested, you can read more here. Note that the tour is pretty full, so you could be in for a long wait.

A lot of my purchase of cyanotype materials was made possible by the generous support I receive from the map-loving community. If you want to support my future work, you’re welcome to use the links below.

Cyanotype World Tour

Friends, if you’ve been following along at all on Twitter, you might have seen that I’ve been big into cyanotyping these last few months. I’ve been making prints of maps using water and sunlight (and some chemicals).

As part of my explorations of this technique, I’ve spent some months creating a couple of versions of a 33-page Atlas of Great Lakes Islands. Here you can see the loose sheets of three copies, printed on heavy kozo.

Here’s a complete copy of the atlas, carefully torn by hand down to the final dimensions and with a Japanese stab binding.


And here’s the loose pages, pre-binding, so you can see them a little bit better.

I’d like to share this book with all of you, but due to the significant labor and expense, I’ve only printed three copies. So, here’s what I’d like to do: send the book on tour. I mail it to you, you look through it for a few days, then you mail it to the next person who wants to see it, and so on.

If you’re interested in helping this atlas travel, here are a few more details:

  • The book will go through a chain of people. Each person sends it to the next person on the list. I will keep the overall list private, but I will need to share your name and address with the person who will be sending the book to you.
  • A few weeks before it’s your turn to receive the book, I will contact you by email to confirm that your address hasn’t changed, and that you’re still available to participate. If you’re temporarily unavailable, we can shift your place in the queue. If you don’t answer in a timely fashion, you’ll be skipped.
  • There are a lot more people signed up than I expected; this means it may be that your turn on the tour does not come up for many months.
  • Once you receive the book, you can keep it for a week, and then you’ll need to send it to the next person. I will email you what address to ship it to.
  • You are responsible for the cost of shipping the book to the next person. This person may be in another country, but I will try to minimize the number of times this happens. I’ll collect names of potential hosts for a while, and then order them somewhat geographically, so that the book doesn’t spend a lot of time (and money) skipping back and forth around the world.
  • You’re welcome to show the atlas off to other people while you have it. Bring it to work, school, geo-events, etc.!
  • Signing up isn’t a guarantee. For various reasons, the tour may be cancelled before you get a chance to see the book.
  • Try not to spill anything on it.
  • In case you’re hesitant about the responsibility of hosting, don’t worry: it’s printed on durable paper, it’s pre-wrinkled, and it’s not something I absolutely must get back intact. I made an extra copy specifically to send around, and if misfortune befalls it, it’s not a huge problem.

If all of that sounds good to you, then sign up by clicking here! Note that sign-ups close on January 15th!

While the initial sign-up period has closed, I may occasionally add extra stops based on where the atlas is on its tour route. If that’s how you found this page, send me an email at to let me know you’re interested!

Revisiting the Colors of Mars

Note that this post has been superseded by a more complete, ongoing inventory: An Inventory of Martian Hypsometric Tints.

I have a peculiar and growing hobby of collecting Martian hypsometric tinting schemes: those sets of colors that cartographers use to depict elevations on the Red Planet.

Unfortunately, the great majority of Mars maps that I have seen use a rainbow scheme for their hypsometric tints, which make a mess of everything. They are garish and confusing, and also problematic for any readers who have color vision impairments.

A rainbow of colors on Mars, by NASA/JPL/USGS

However, there are a few cartographers that have taken the time to craft some more interesting and attractive alternatives. Below, I present all the Mars hypsometric tinting schemes that I know of (that aren’t rainbows or, with one exception, rehashes of Earth-style hypsometric tints).

Important note: I grabbed each of these schemes from the authors’ original maps (which you can visit by clicking each image), and then applied them to my own map so that they could be compared easily. There may be some slight variations based on how accurately I was able to sample colors. Most maps gave a legend with the colors used, but I often found that they didn’t quite match the colors on the map, usually due to modulation by shaded relief. So I instead reconstructed schemes based on the final appearance, not the map legend.



Before I get into these schemes in more detail, a question: why collect and look at these?

On Earth, elevation is generally shown with a color scheme that starts with green lowlands, and then proceeds through some combination of brown/yellow/orange/red until it reaches white in the highest areas. It’s a flawed visual proxy for land cover, though one that’s well-understood.

Typical Earth hypsometric tints, from the Patterson & Jenny Cartographic Perspectives article linked above.

But what we use for the Earth doesn’t make sense on Mars: its mountains are not snowy, nor are its valleys green (of course, we often tint desert valleys green on Earth maps). Setting aside the idea of these colors mimicking land cover, Mars is a vastly different place, and so it feels wrong to me if it doesn’t look different than Earth. So, I’m very interested in how mappers are approaching Martian elevations. Right now, it’s a sort of cartographic frontier, and I want to document it in its early stages. Centuries from now, we all may settle on a standard of some sort, as we have with Earth.

So, now that we’ve dispensed with the question of why, let’s meet our contestants! You can click on each image below to view a larger version.

The Schemes

Carl Churchill’s map, Mars, starts with a dark grey in the far depths of the Hellas Planitia, which then picks up some saturation to become a dark purple that covers much of the north. It moves from blood red through the oranges, before finishing with a pale yellow (which looks almost like an off-white) at the tops of the peaks of Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Montes. Of all the schemes featured here, this is one of the ones that uses the biggest chunk of the color space.


The scheme from Kenneth Field’s (Is There) Life on Mars? looks at first like a less saturated version of Churchill’s. It starts with deep purple in the Hellas Planitia, and then proceeds through some nice rusty oranges before settling on a sandy tan (though its context on the map makes it look more yellow). The upper half of the scheme is basically a single color. In Field’s original map, details at the high end are distinguished by contour lines and relief shading, so the clipping seen here isn’t a problem.


Henrik Hargitai’s Mars map for Country Movers takes an unusual approach, in that it is at its brightest in the low areas, starting with yellow and turning deep red as elevation increases, and finally finishing off with a little dark pink highlight on the tops of Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Montes.


My own scheme, which I made exclusively for this inventory, is inspired by the colors on the surface of Mars. Due to atmospheric effects, the Red Planet is actually mostly red only if you’re looking at it from space. It’s more brown & tan on the surface, at least if the photos from Curiosity are any indication. I did make the low areas a little reddish just to contrast with the yellow highlands.


Eleanor Lutz’s take on Mars leans heavily on the “Red” in Red Planet. Starting from a blood red in the depths of Hellas Planitia, she keeps things bold and saturated through the lowlands of the Northern Hemisphere, before moving to warm grey for the highlands. It really highlights the contrast of the planet’s two halves, and the upper half of the scheme recalls Earth-based hypsometric tints, in which grey is likewise reserved for the highest elevations.


Finally, Daniel Macháček’s Topographic Map of Mars takes things in another direction; avoiding the Red Planet stereotype, he opts for blue (and a bit of purple) in the lowlands, moving through grey into a cool brown for the higher elevations. It’s a diverging color scheme, starting dark, getting lighter near the middle elevations, and then getting dark again at the mountains (including an interesting band of greenish brown, just below the mountaintops). It highlights the extremes in this way.

Tanaka et al. include a map of Martian hypsometry in the lower right corner of their Geologic Map of Mars. Their color scheme appears to be a simplified version of one you might apply to the Earth, with vegetated green lowlands and barren brown uplands. I mostly want this site to focus on representations of Mars that don’t look back too much to the Earth, but I thought it was good to keep an example of one of these schemes. It’s certainly possible that, centuries from now, cartographers will decide to use the same green–brown scheme for all planets. Note that, like Field’s scheme above, the upper half of the range is all a single color, so that color transitions can be focused on the elevation range that covers 95% of the planet’s area.

Other Observations

  • All of these schemes do a good job of highlighting the Martian dichotomy — basically, the northern hemisphere is a few kilometers lower than the southern hemisphere.
  • One good thing about a typical Earth hypsometric scheme is that it includes a wide range of colors (greens, yellows, oranges, greys, etc.), which means it can show more detail. The schemes above all cover a narrower color range. But, if you’re going for a color scheme inspired by the actual appearance of Mars, you’re kind of limited. Mars is much more uniform in color than the Earth.
  • Much of the Martian elevation range is taken up by a few giant mountains. Notice in Kenneth Field’s scheme how little of the map area is tan, and yet that tan covers the entire upper half of the scheme. Each scheme is marked to show the elevations that cover 95% of the planet, which better reflects most of what’s actually seen in the final map.

These are the only non-rainbow Mars schemes I’ve found. I’m sure others are out there, and I encourage you to send my way any that you find that are: (A) not rainbows, (B) cover all or most of the planet (at least the highest and lowest point), and (C) not based on an Earth-style hypsometric scheme. By collecting them in one place, I hope to document this little mapping frontier, and perhaps give any future Mars mappers some inspiration for their efforts.

Monochrome Mapping Results

Gentle readers, I am very excited to announce that the Monochrome Mapping Competition has finally wrapped up! Over 150 entries were submitted from all over the world, which was far beyond my expectations. My thanks to everyone who made this possible, including the judges and the entrants. I was inspired to see so much beautiful work, and it was difficult to pare down such a great group of entrants into a final selection.

Also, I’m rebranding the competition as MonoCarto 2019, a name suggested by Arnaud Hannequin.

Finally, I hope you’ll join me this year at NACIS 2019 in Tacoma, Washington. There, I’ll be giving a talk about what it was like to run a (fairly large) mapping competition, some of the challenges that came up, and lessons learned. Printed copies of the maps will also be on display in the NACIS Map Gallery.

Ok, enough preamble. I suppose you want to see all these beautiful winning maps I’m talking about.