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Simplifying landscapes: art and cartography

I am both an artist and cartographer. What I do in both practices is very similar: I take complex landscapes and simplify them into highly stylized representations so I can capture and convey the essence of what I think and feel about a place. The results look different in art and cartography, but they serve the same goal.

Cartography is all about abstraction, simplification, and stylisation. The cartographer takes the world—or some part of it—and chooses specific details to show on the map. It’s impossible to show it all.

For example, this map shows all of Nova Scotia on an 11x17” page.

Map of Nova Scotia

At this scale I can label some towns, but not all. I can show some rivers and lakes and roads, but not all. I can depict general elevation trends, but not every hill and valley. Think of all the other things that exist in this landscape: beaches, parks, streets, houses, warehouses, railroads, wharves, farms, waterfalls, mines, landfills, power lines, cliffs, schools, trails…the list goes on and on, and that’s only physical features. I could also map county boundaries, demographic data, or weather forecasts.

The map can’t show it all. To try to show it all would result in an incomprehensible mess. I have to choose only the most essential and salient features that best communicate whatever it is I’m trying to say with my map. I have to convey the essence of the landscape through just a few shapes and lines and colours.

Map of Nova Scotia

Beginner cartographers really struggle with this task of choosing what to show and what not to show. And they should struggle with it—it is hard.

Making a woodcut print is a similar task. I might start with a photo like this:

Photo of forest

My job as the artist is to extract from that image only the essential shadows and edges. What details of this image will best capture its essence? How can I suggest all of its rich colours and textures without actually drawing them? My goal is to convey the essence of the scene, the way it makes me feel, with a palette of only black and white and a limited capacity for detail. I usually start by cropping the image. And if I succeed in my task of simplification, the image becomes something like this:

This kind of simplification is not easy, but it’s the heart of my art practice. I want to take something infinitely complex and express it simply. The woodcut medium forces me to do this, while with other mediums it’s too tempting to get carried away.

Practicing cartography has made me better at this task, and has taught me why it matters.

In writing, the weighty sentences, the ones that stick with you, are usually spare, not flowery. Similarly, I think that a simple image, when it's done just right, can cut to the heart of things. In maps and in art, you can try to draw everything, but then you run the risk of missing the point.

What I previously thought of as the limitations and challenges of the woodcut medium I now see as its advantage and power.


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