Michael Karpovage - Digital Map Designer

Michael Karpovage is president of Karpovage Creative, Inc. Michael is a designer, map illustrator, and novelist. This interview took place shortly after Michael released his beautiful Savannah Historic District Map. Please visit Michael‘s website to see his wonderful work. I thank Michael very much for taking the time to answer these questions.

Have you always been interested in maps? When did you decide to pursue map making?

No, actually. I did not really have an interest in maps from the get-go. And I‘m talking 2D flat maps here. Those types of maps were just a utilitarian part of life growing up. I don‘t remember saying to myself as a kid, as I viewed a 2D Rand McNally road map for instance, that I had a passion to create one.

What I did have a passion for was drawing and painting and creativity. I had always been interested in fine arts and illustration. Especially the birds-eye-view perspective paintings of large scenes of landscaping from say, the Hudson River Valley School of painters. Those magnificent paintings I remember vividly.

It was well into my graphic design career while working for an ad agency when I got the bug to create my first map though. But again, it wasn‘t a flat map, but rather creating the panoramic pictorial type map that I was most interested in. I believe it was when I was as an Art Director in western NY and I hired an illustrator to create a landscape representation of New York State from a birds-eye-view that I saw myself doing something similar. The seed was planted. But it needed to grow.

When I visited Niagara Falls I saw a 3D birds-eye-view watercolor, pen and ink panoramic map produced by Ontario, Canada-based Unique Media. That highly detailed, brightly colored map blew me away. I purchased a poster and stared at if for days wondering how I could recreate something similar – not in the traditional media style — but rather digitally in Photoshop. That was 1998.

Sketch map of the Erie Canal by Michael Karpovage

Michael‘s sketch of the Erie Canal. Lots of details from the buildings to the bridges that cross the canal.

Which map makers influenced you and in what way? Do you have a favorite time period or country of map origin?

Probably late 19th century panoramic map makers as a whole had the greatest historical influence on me. This genre of mapping was wildly popular because they captured a moment in time. Parson‘s and Atwater‘s birdseye map of Boston in 1873 is a fine example. If you look at their illustration of the Boston city landscape with the intense attention to detail on buildings, the harbor, rivers, docks, tall ships, people and even the shadows cast by clouds, this birds-eye-view map tells a story, not just a way to get around the city.

Another gorgeous example is Henderson‘s Birdseye Map of the Tennessee Exposition (1897). Look at the architecture, the terrain coloring, the variation in landscape design. Even the creative use of typography in the headline.

These types of maps not only give you a higher perspective to navigate by but they literally illustrate a way of life. It‘s that meshing of functionality with a beautiful drawing that has influenced me the most. And that combination has proven timeless.

Close up of compass rose on Erie Canal sketch map by Michael Karpovage

Here‘s a close up of the Erie Canal sketch by Michael Karpovage.

What led you to creating 3d and perspective maps?

Quite frankly I was sick and tired of seeing crappy cartoon maps out there. Specifically in the tourism industry. I‘m entrepreneurial at heart and was working at an advertising agency creating marketing publications for a multitude of clients, so when I saw that great Niagara Falls map I thought: how could I create a map of my own branding where I could then market and sell to the public?

The business model was already established, it was just a matter of creating the right product fit. I picked a very popular tourism attraction that was a key “superhighway” in the historical development of New York State and the expansion of the nation: the Erie Canal.Living in Rochester, NY at the time, a boom town city transformed by the expansion and trade offered by the Erie Canal, I had a story waiting for me to capture out my backdoor.

The challenge was how to portray a 30-mile wide section of the Canal while accurately showing navigation and storytelling at the same time. The 3D birds-eye-view perspective was the way to go. It‘s perfect for large landscaping tapestries. That was around the year 2000 when I set off on my map journey.

The Erie Canal Map by Michael Karpovage

The Erie Canal Map by Michael Karpovage. The colors add a whole new dimension to the details.

At that time, I conducted research on foot with a digital camera capturing every bridge or structure that crossed the Canal, right down to how many lights were on each bridge and their correct colors. I then pencil-sketched a large drawing about 40” wide on a desk and kept on drawing to fill in the map.

Once I felt comfortable with the base drawing I scanned the pencil sketch into a digital file and imported that into Photoshop to begin the illustration process. It was a long process. For example, in the landscape, dominated by apple orchards, I even put individual red apples in the trees. In the end I had a large section of the Canal illustrated and designed in a nice poster complete with a logo and historical call-outs.

But the piece never got off the ground, so to speak. It was a hobby you could say. Until I had an opportunity to fill in a blank on a page. That blank spot was on the official Rochester Visitor‘s Guide in an article talking about the Erie Canal. I was designing the publication and needed a filler graphic to go with some text. I showed the client a cropped portion of my main Canal illustration and he loved it. I offered him to use the illustration free-of-charge in return for putting my name and phone number on it for credit.

Knowing we‘d be printing over 400,000 copies I knew I was getting free advertising. I was published. My first illustration. Sure enough, several months later I received a phone call from SUNY Canton College wanting me to illustrate their campus in that same Photoshop raster style and 3D perspective. I didn‘t know what to charge, so I asked around and threw out a number at $4,200.

They never blinked. And that‘s what started my side freelance career illustrating commissioned maps for colleges and universities.

Close-up of the Erie Canal Map by Michael Karpovage

Close-up of the Erie Canal Map by Michael Karpovage. This map is rich in details, including the canal gates.

By 2005, I had joined Mapformation as an independent contractor. Derek Tonn, owner, started representing my work for even more projects. By 2008, I had gone full time with Mapformation making maps as a labor of love and my main source of income.

I soon branched out to 3D vector style maps in Illustrator as well as 2D flat maps. Lo and behold one of the artists on that Niagara Falls map I so loved joined our firm, Jean-Louis Rheault. Through conversations with him it rekindled my flame to create my very own retail map. It took me over three years to research, write, illustrate, and design resulting in the Savannah Historic District Illustrated Map.

I meshed functionality with art and then tossed in history wanting to raise the bar on these types of maps. I didn‘t illustrate the entire district though, only the major attractions, thus leaving negative space to see the street grid layout and for small text factoids to be easily readable. I launched the map in 2012 under my own brand name of Karpovage Creative, Inc. where it now sells in bricks and mortar stores in Savannah as well as online at Amazon.com.

Map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia, by Michael Karpovage

Michael‘s map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. Notice all the detailed work showing the history of the area.

What processes do you use for creating maps and how much is pre-planned?

With the advent of hi-resolution aerial photography now I don‘t even have to leave my computer screen to draw maps. At Mapformation we hire a photographer to do a shoot, he FTP transfers us a slew of aerial pictures, we choose the best marketing angle with the client‘s approval, and then get to work. If I need ground reference photos I request shots from the client and can receive them the same day in some cases. Also with Google maps, Bing maps and other free online resources I have additional aerial references to work from.

Using the base aerial image I then render the artwork on top in Photoshop or Illustrator creating separate layers for roads, grass, trees, buildings, sidewalks, etc., cleaning up the properties and landscape as I go. If there is a new building under construction I use artist renderings to incorporate that new structure in the same oblique angle perspective.

I have a library of trees I use and different texturing and shadowing techniques for detail work. I then import my artwork into InDesign for the final design layout and application of text and labels. I work on an iMac in Adobe Creative Suites.

Detailed view of river on map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia, by Michael Karpovage

A close-up view of Michael‘s map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. The details from the buildings to the wakes behind the boats really add to the interest of the map.

Are there works of your own that you are particularly proud of, and why?

The Village of Waterloo is one I like. This was my very first commissioned tourism map illustrated shortly after my first college map in 2003. I spent six months developing this map and tourism brochure design. I really had a hard time stopping from adding in details. I remember rubber stamping in the tree reflections on the water as one of the last elements.

Well, besides a hidden fox in the woods and a ghost in the cemetery!

It was the sheer amount of work and care that I put into the map knowing the piece would sell itself for years to come is why I‘m proud of it. It was an investment.Sure enough I received a call recently some ten years later from the Village administrators asking to update the map, reprint the brochure, and to also create an interactive map.

How long does it typically take you to complete a work?

It typically takes me a couple of months for a mid-sized college campus. For example, here‘s one of Life University in Marietta, GA close to where I live. I visited the campus and took my own ground photos. Coupled with an excellent aerial image I incorporated a lot of detail work beyond normal thus taking a bit longer.

Detailed view of the Hilton Savannah DeSoto on the map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia, by Michael Karpovage

A close-up view of Michael‘s map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. Detailed area surrounding the Hilton Savannah DeSoto.

Do you have any advice for new cartographers or map designers?

Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. And I‘m as impatient as they come!

But I‘ve learned with age you must be able to handle a long-term project and be patient throughout its process in order to create a beautiful, functional map. Get it right the first time. Don‘t cut corners. Sure there are tips and tricks in the production process, but if you get lazy people will notice.

Listen to your gut or that nagging voice in your head when something doesn‘t feel right with the design. Seek out resources. Add detail. We have a virtual encyclopedia at our fingertips. Educate yourself on the industry. Ask questions. Seek constructive criticism to better your work. Learn to speak the language of our industry and to communicate your ideas and directions.

And most importantly mesh your passionate interests into pursuing something you create on your very own to sell to the general public. Having people purchase a map that you‘ve created and hearing how much they loved using it is the greatest satisfaction of all.

Detailed view of Cathedral of St. John The Baptist and the Hilton Savannah DeSoto on the map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia, by Michael Karpovage

A close-up view of Michael‘s map of the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. Closer detail of the Hilton Savannah DeSoto and the Cathedral of St. John The Baptist.

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