Mapping the River Don.

One of the many projects that have come to me after Hand Drawn Maps hit the shops was a commission by The River Don Millowners’ Association. They needed a map of the River Don for a small publication about the history of the association and its philanthropic works. History and nature. Right up my street. Of course I said yes.

The River Don Millowners’ Association is a charitable organisation that was originally set up in the 19th century to protect the interests of local millowners. Although it closed in the mid ‘60s, its funds still existed. They were invested and the proceeds are now used for the benefit of the community, often for projects that celebrate industrial heritage.

So it was at the end of last year that I found myself poring over multiple OS maps of the River Don, stained by red brick industrial Sheffield, held at bay by the wilderness of the Peaks. Judging by the maps, it looked to be a beautiful place. Steep contours crossed the paper, occasionally interrupted by symbols for small woods and slashed by icy blue streams. Tiny villages clung to the windswept hillsides, their names hinting at the stories of the people who came before.

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I started by working out how my own map would fit on the page dimensions I’d been given, using the OS and Google satellite maps as a guide. Scale was an important issue. I used layout paper to roughly sketch the journey of the river, checking the features the client wanted were all included. There was a gutter going down the middle so I had to be careful that vital parts of the map didn’t disappear down the centrefold. A little creative mapping was called for because of this – some of the river tributaries became longer than they are in reality and allowed for the lettering to be read easily.

Eventually after a fair number of mis-tries, I had a workable map model and the drawing was transferred to my usual heavyweight watercolour paper.

Next came some research into the main features mentioned in the book; the mills and wheels, the bridges and smoking chimneys. I chose to show these in tiny oval vignettes – this format would pick them out against the background colour and allow for a variety of scales and viewpoints to look consistent. I loved reading about the history of the mills and looking at old photographs of both rural and industrial heritage.

More secondary features like the houses of Sheffield and the many trees were kept simple. I wanted there to be a hint of mid Victorian folk art about them so shapes are clear and perspective is flat.

One of the joys of hand drawn maps is being creative about the map ‘furniture’- the compass, the neatlines and the cartouche. I researched 19th century graphic design for some inspiration. Old metal signs found on industrial bridges gave me an idea for the shape of and lettering on the cartouche. Old printed pamphlets gave me ideas about the neatline corner decoration. These details were pared down from the usual Victorian decorative extravagance to match the simple feel of the rest of the map.

Once drawn out, the map was finally painted mainly using gouache. I like the blockiness that gouache gives me and hopefully it adds something to the flat, unnuanced naïve feel. Colours were chosen to reflect the greens, greys and blues of the Peaks combined with the reds, ochres and dusty tans of the settlements. The creamy paint was given free rein over the wide moors and details of windows, leaves and lettering were painted with a fine brush and a magnifying glass.

This was a very satisfying project to be involved in and gave me full-on permission to indulge my inner geek. I enjoyed learning something new about industrial history in Yorkshire and also how an association, built on the drive for commercial success and often battling with local communities over resources, slowly developed into a philanthropic organisation with the community at its heart. ‘Power and Philanthropy,  the story of the River Don Millowners’ Association’ by Anthony Swift is a fascinating read and is available to buy from Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

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TEDx, a Map of Brighton and more about Babies and Colour Science.

When I’m looking for some intellectual stimulation or inspiration, I often listen to TED Talks online, delving into subjects like Creativity or Motivation for example. TED was originally set up as a design and technology conference in 1984 but has now grown into an online media giant, freely flowing with talks on science, culture and any academic subject you can think of under the banner of ‘Ideas worth Spreading’. So it was with great honour to find one of my maps has made it to a TEDx talk.  TEDx helps independent organizers to create a TED-like event in their own community in order to ‘spread the ideas’ too. Smaller in scale but in an age of sharing, size doesn’t matter so much anymore.

This particular TEDx talk was held at the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, Lithuania this October.  The theme was “Question The Expected” and asked the 500 strong audience to be curious about their choices, beliefs and perceptions of the world.

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You may remember my involvement in September with the Baby Lab at the University of Sussex. In connection with that, the talk was given by Doctoral Researcher, Alice Skelton, who works there. Her research is particularly about colour perception in babies and how humans develop the use of language to talk about colour.
One of the largest projects Alice has taken part in is the Categories project, which looks at how infants below 6 months categorise colour. And by categories, I mean grouping colours into ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘yellow’, ‘brown’ or ‘pink’ etc. There is a huge difference between a rich dark wine red and a bright perky pillar box red but in our culture we still group them together or categorise them, as ‘red’. In the study, babies were tested to see if they could tell the difference between colours without having the words for them, if they were categorising them and how they did it. The results will ultimately tell us how we talk about colour as adults.

It turns out that pre-language babies in the study could naturally distinguish 5 different colour categories. The suggestion is that distinguishing any further subtleties or disregarding some subtleties must come after language is learnt. Different languages divide up the spectrum differently- so some languages only have 5 main categories they group colours in but others use 6 or 7 or 8… English has 11 and Greek and Russian for example both have 12 categories.  The environment you are born into (and therefore what your community labels as important) teaches you names for colours, in which groups they are categorised and the subtleties in colours you are most able to distinguish.

The ability to see in colour is a skill that humans enjoy very much. It’s what allows us to appreciate great art.  But it’s a practical tool in our box too. We can find things at a distance more easily;  distinguish between objects (are you about to eat a carrot or a parsnip?); or highlight important features in a simple way.  And this is where my map popped up as an example on the TEDx presentation screen…

This map of Brighton (from Hand Drawn Maps) is designed as a sensory map. Instead of focussing on physical features in the town, I have mapped the smells you might encounter using simple coloured icons. Brown for the beer smell wafting heavily outside the many bars, pale yellow-green for the lemongrass smell lingering outside the Thai Restaurants and a dirty lilac for the smell hovering over the rubbish bins in the less brightly lit corners. The intensity of the smell is shown by the intensity of the colour. Sometimes the smells combine, shown by the colours lapping over each other.

Without being able to distinguish the subtleties of the colours I’ve used and categorise them, (as a red or a brown, for example), the map would be much harder to understand. Being able to distinguish those subtleties relies on your language and culture. So although it’s a fairly decorative art-map, leaning more on illustrative aesthetics than pinpoint accurate geography, you can only read it easily if you have the right words and your culture has taught you how to.

And that, my friends, is not art but science.

‘You never know what will happen…’

In 2008, there was a devastating recession in the UK.  Money was tight and as a freelancer, work was very thin on the ground.  Contracts were cancelled and I took on second and third jobs to keep the wolf from the door.  I struggled to create sample work that I thought would be commercial, bring in money, give people what they wanted. All resulting in a big fat Nada…
I was worried but friends kept telling me not to give up because, ‘you never know what will happen….’

It was a difficult period but with hindsight, also creatively very productive.  Once I had relaxed into the acceptance of having no work and without the constrictions of deadlines and designer visions, there was time to make art that was entirely my own.  It was a surprise that my heart steered me towards fine art and what I wanted to make had very little to do with children’s picture books.

I was drawing regularly at life classes and at a weekly drawing-in-a-pub meetup group.  Paintings and portraits were created in biro, in acrylic – so little like my usual watercolour illustrations that they looked as if they had been done by someone else.  Only a few have been exhibited and looking back, seem a little clonky, but I learnt so much and was so excited by, I suppose, the idea of transformations, of new choices and other, future possibilities.

It was also the time I became interested in making maps as fine art objects.  I’d illustrated maps for children’s books before…

…but had come across the illustrative map work created by fine artists such as Grayson Perry, Adam Dant and Stephen Walter – for adults, shown in gallery contexts and with something different to say about how we perceive, or indeed map, the world in general.

Inspired, I made my own map of my home town, Brighton, annotated with stories both personal and historical.  Further maps of the history of coffee, the flightpath of a particular Barbestelle bat and the moon followed.  Always I mapped places that fascinated me.  There were no particular rules to follow and I mapped purely for the fun of it.

Out of the blue, a few gallery shows came afterwards; at Onca Gallery and for Correspondence. My most recent mapping adventure took me sailing across the North Atlantic as part of an artist residency tracking whales which also resulted in a gallery show – ‘The Whale Road‘.

It is from there that we come most up to date.  In 2015 I was approached by a fairly well known publisher to see if I was interested in writing a book about hand drawn maps.  I was asked to make a rough list of potential chapters and a few sample pages back in September and after a long, long, long wait (during which I had actually given up on the idea that it would be published), have finally been given the go ahead.  It will be the first book I have both written and illustrated, my first book for adults and my first book about maps.  My first meeting is tomorrow.

I suppose my point is (and also note to self…) that you never know where life will take you and even if it’s tough, good things can eventually (sometimes years later) come from the times when you think you are struggling.  It’s always worth opening yourself up to exploration and playfulness – doing something just for the heck of it even if you don’t expect to make any money from it.  And if another recession hits, or my book illustration work dries up for a while, I’ll try to continue to make new work which comes from the heart.

Perhaps I’ll go back to those paintings and drawings again…. You never know what will happen…