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Note that this post has been superseded by a more complete, ongoing inventory: An Inventory of Martian Hypsometric Tints.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

Monochrome Mapping Competition

There are a lot of map competitions out there. But to the best of my knowledge, none is devoted specifically to the appreciation of monochrome maps. And it’s time to remedy that. I love working in monochrome (and gave a talk about it at NACIS 2018). I think color is overused, and the challenges of a limited palette can be liberating. I want to draw more attention to the great work that mapmakers are doing in this medium, and encourage more people to experience the joy of composing with only one ink.

So, I’m hereby declaring a Monochrome Mapping Competition! Please help spread the word, so that we can reach mappers everywhere. It’s starting small, but I truly want this to grow into a respected competition that recognizes great work in an under-appreciated subset of the cartographic arts.

How to Enter

Option 1 (preferred): Fill out this form (requires Google login).

Option 2: Email your map (or, a link, if it’s a web map) to Include a title and list of contributors for each work.

Deadline: June 15th, 2019

Rules and Freedoms

  • Entries must be in monochrome. What counts as “monochrome”? Well, it can be a little complicated, depending on how creative you want to get. Here’s a quick explanation of what I’m looking for.
  • They don’t have to be greyscale. A green and white map is as welcome as a black and white map.
  • You may submit up to three entries.
  • All entries need to have been completed in the last five years or so (after January 1st, 2014). This is a competition honoring the fact that monochrome is a part of contemporary cartography.
  • Entries may be at any size and in any medium — hand-drawn, digital, static, interactive, etc. If you’re not sure if it counts, enter it and let me and the judges figure that out.
  • You can suggest a better name for the competition. “Monochrome Mapping Competition” is a bit of placeholder for now.

How you Win

I’ll collect a (digital) pile of map submissions from all of you folks. Then I’ll turn them over to a panel of judges, who will look over and score each one. The highest-scoring maps (mostly: see below) will end up being in the Final Selection — the winners. The exact number of selections is going to depend a bit on how many maps are submitted.

If this sounds familiar, it’s basically the process that Tim Wallace and I developed for the Atlas of Design. There is no one “winner,” and there are no hard categories — the process recognizes that many items can all be co-equally great, each quite different in appearance and pleasing to separate audiences.

The Final Selection of winners isn’t based 100% on the judges’ scores; there are a couple of adjustments I may make, as the Curator (a title I just now made up for the competition-runner). No one mapmaker can appear more than once in the Final Selection, so if they have several that are high-scoring, I will choose one of them. Likewise, if I see a particular map type really dominating (like shaded relief maps, for example), and it’s monopolizing all the top spots, I might put a cap on the number of places for that type in the Final Selection. So, in sum: the judges’ scores are the main factor in consideration, but I may make adjustments when choosing the final winners to ensure that no one person, company, or map type takes up a bunch of the spotlight.

What you Win

Honor and glory. There’s no money at stake here, and we’re not publishing a book of winners (maybe someday). But you’ll be touted by me and others, and all the maps in the Final Selection will be posted here on this very blog. Each selection will also be accompanied by a brief commentary, written by one of the judges, giving us all a better understanding of what makes each map great.


I’m very excited to say that a bunch of really awesome people have signed up to judge the maps. Click here to read the list, alongside a discussion of how the panel was chosen.

Note that judges can also enter the competition. They’ll simply step aside and recuse themselves from judging their own work, and it will be scored by the rest of the panel.

Those are all the details. Please enter your work and spread the word around the globe. I’m excited to see what everyone comes up with!

Upcoming Live Events


Since my first live stream went so well, I’m extending the experiment! I’ll be doing (at least) three more in the coming months, on the 1st Wednesday of each, at noon Central Time. So mark your calendars and join me as I try out a few different formats.

Videos will be streamed at

You can also subscribe to me on YouTube. If you do that and you click “set Reminder,” you’ll be notified when I go live, just in case you forget.

Hope to see you there!

A Live Experiment in Disassembling a Map

Earlier this week, I conducted an experiment in live broadcasting. I took a map that I’d previously made and spent nearly an hour going through it layer-by-layer, discussing my design rationale and techniques. If you’re interested, have a look at the recording.

Livestreaming is something I’ve wanted to do for a while — I’ve had conversations with colleagues on and off for months about it. There’s an appeal to me in creating an interactive environment for talking about maps. Doing things live also saves me time, because if I were to create something pre-recorded, I would spend a lot of time obsessing about small details. A ten minute video can take me hours to record, re-record, edit, etc. Instead, I can just start the stream and let it happen.

I’m hoping to keep doing things like this during the course of this year. I’ll still put text content up here from time to time, of course. For tutorials, I prefer to offer text, because it’s easily searchable and doesn’t require sound. But, in addition to those, I’m hoping to get a chance to be more off-the-cuff with all of you.

Whenever I figure out my next streaming event, I’ll be announcing it on Twitter.

Financial Transparency: 2018 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

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

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 (a number that completely floors me)

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

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 also haven’t been able to save for retirement very much these last few years, as I’ve been focused on more day-to-day expenses. But, things have been looking up lately, and I’ve started putting at least a little bit away again.

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.

What I did in 2018: An Annual Report

Friends, this last year I’ve been more bold about asking for donations. And I’ve been quite honestly amazed by the level of support that I’ve received. I love giving back to my fellow mapmakers, and their generosity in return has been humbling and gratifying. Thank you all so much; that includes not just those who have opened their wallets, but all of you who have offered advice, aid, and kind words.

Since the start of 2018, I’ve been keeping organized track of some of the ways I’ve tried to contribute to the cartographic community, aided by your support. I want to give you what will be, I hope, the first of an annual series of reports. So let’s jump in.

In no particular order, in 2018, I:

  • put up a detailed new tutorial on my blog (Smart Type Halos in Photoshop and Illustrator)
  • made a couple of updates to my Shaded Relief in Blender tutorial (thanks Dunstan Orchard and Anton van Tetering for pointing out improvements).
  • spent a while writing up a walkthrough of one of my mapping projects: On Airline Mapping
  • publishedThe Power of Appearances,” an adaptation/combination/rewrite of two of my earlier blog posts, in Cartographic Perspectives
  • publishedA Freelancer’s Approach to Teaching Cartography,” a reflection on how my mapmaking career informs my pedagogical approach, also in Cartographic Perspectives.
  • presented on monochrome mapping (a favorite of mine) at the 2018 NACIS Annual Meeting
  • contributed a new map of the Kingdom of Pergamon to Wikipedia, in the spirit of the old FixWikiMaps project
  • built a new low-fi polygon linework set for Project Linework called “1981,” which I hope you’ll make use of
  • conducted a mini survey of my fellow cartographers on the typefaces they like to use
  • conducted, along with my colleague Aly Olivierre, a sizeable survey to help bring transparency to how much freelance mapmakers get paid
  • completed my final year as Director of Operations for NACIS; I’ll still be helping out with the transition in the coming year as Nick Martinelli takes over for me
  • undertook an ongoing effort to reprint the first three volumes of the Atlas of Design, including creating an all-new layout for Volume 1.
  • made a bunch of maps on a typewriter and wrote a blog post on lessons learned
  • answered a variety of questions on Twitter and via email

As we move into 2019, 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.

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