Mike Reagan - Map Artist

Mike Reagan is an incredible map artist. Although he doesn't consider himself a cartographer, I consider him one in the tradition of the those who reached beyond facts of geography to capture the feeling of place through maps. He has created his very distinctive maps for the Smithsonian Institute and numerous magazines, books, and advertisements. He has been an illustrator and graphic designer since 1972 and has a MFA from the University of Arkansas. You can find more about Mike and his works at his website www.MapsByMikeReagan.com. I thank Mike very much for his time to answer these questions.

Were you an artist who developed an interest in maps, or were you interested in maps before becoming an artist?

I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember (I have drawn and painted since at least the age of five), but also I've loved maps from early childhood too. I would look for hours at National Geographic maps and dream of far away places. I have lived in many places in the world, Japan, Germany, Spain, Africa and traveled to many more countries, so I think my love of places inspires my love of maps. If I had to choose one, though, I would probably say I was an artist first, almost from birth I think.

Mike Reagan decorative map of Caravaggio's Italy

In Caravaggio's Italy, notice how the title cartouche both draws attention to set the theme of the map, and gives the eye a chance to rest after scanning the map by using green and red as contrast against the overall map's brownish color scheme. Notice also how the north arrow incorporates the theme of the map- Caravaggio the painter. 

The eye is drawn immediately to the main locations of the map, Tuscany and Lombardy, by the darker color contrast. The dark northern border functions to keep the eye from wondering off the map. Land forms in the south causes eye to wander down Italy, through Sicily, and back up the other islands to rest again on the key locations. This is very effective use of color contrast to focus on the map theme. Map by Mike Reagan www.MapsByMikeReagan.com.

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

The maps drawn on deer skin, bones and rocks by native peoples around the world are my strongest influence. I especially like the maps drawn by native Americans because show such a visceral feel for the land, the rivers, the wildlife. They are somewhat confusing to Euro-American eyes because these maps do not have the same Western sense of orientation to north-south, scale, direction and proportion. There is a spiritual element to these maps and a blending of the unknown with the known that produces a mystical feeling I relate to very strongly, as do the early cave paintings of Lascaux and very early maps of exploration to uncharted seas and lands.

As to more traditional maps I like the maps of the 1500s and 1600s. A favorite map is William PettyÕs line map of Ireland. I like all of the Dutch map artists, really, for their beautiful inking lines, color tints and washes. Mercator, of course, for his rich detail and illustrative qualities of terrain and cities and castles. Abraham Ortelius for the beautiful and detailed line work. And Antonio Lafreri for the same reason. I love the painted coastlines and nautical charts of Matthew Flinders. Probably my favorite of these all is the French naturalist and map maker Jules Dumont DÕUrville for his amazing paintings of fishes, flora, and people of his expeditions through the South Seas. His rendition of the islands of Vanikoro are simply stunning.

As for modern maps, the ones now done on computers have left the heart, soul and mystical feeling of maps behind. Spirits seem unable to live in computer generated maps.

When creating a map, what do you use for inspiration?

Since I create my maps primarily for magazine articles and books, my direction must necessarily come from the story or book itself. I try to capture more in my maps than just geographical accuracy and place labels. I try to paint the feeling of the place by using color and tone to represent weather and mood.

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

I start by referring to my collection of reference maps and atlases. I then do composite tracings of the area to be shown and transfer that to a Strathmore 500 illustration board. First I ink the hand-written labels and then I ink the coastline, country borders, compass rose (if there is one) or directional arrow, mileage scale, and the indication of terrain (mountains, rivers, cities too). Finally, I cover this is a light wash of coffee and then I paint with watercolors.

For my personal maps, those that are not commissioned assignments, I like to work in a large scale. But for magazines and books I usually work on a smaller scale, often same size or 125 to 150 % up maybe.

Mike Reagan's map of Pakistan

Here is an uncommon treatment of a usually bland subject. At first glance, the eye immediately rests on the inset map establishing the overall location of the map. The eye is drawn by color contrast, shape (bold square border against rest of map which is not the hard, straight edge), and detail. A similar contrast exists for the scale bar, but the scale bar is more monochromatic and thus doesn't create such a heavy presence. Next, the eye is naturally drawn up to the Afghanistan label and then to the very dark border. As the viewer's eye wonders across map, geographic features are encountered and registered, but attention is always drawn back to the Afghan/Pakistan border. Spatial relationships are well established without losing the importance of the map's theme. Map by Mike Reagan www.MapsByMikeReagan.com.

Why do you choose watercolor as the medium for your maps?

Watercolor has been a life long love. I love it for it translucency and its mystical power to get to the feeling of a place.

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

My maps, as well as, I think, all art in general, usually donÕt come out quite as I have envisioned them or as I have dreamed them. I think over the years I've been lucky enough to have reached a level of consistency and professional presentation with my maps, though. And sometimes I'll finish one that pleases me very much and reaches that place I look for in my art. For my commissioned maps, if my clients are happy then I'm happy. But I've tried over the years to push my talent as far as I can and do the best possible map I am capable of doing.

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

I work under tight deadlines with magazines (books have longer deadlines), so I usually turn a map around from beginning to end in maybe a week - 5 to 7 days at most on average. I do an average of 80 jobs a year. Some are small and quick maps. Others are larger and more time consuming projects that can take weeks to finish while I'm working on other smaller projects. I usually have multiple projects going at the same time in my studio.

Any advice for new cartographers or map artists?

I don't consider myself a cartographer (National Geographic has cartographers - although I do work for National Geograhic. You can see one of my maps in the Feb issue). I would not presume to offer those kind of cartographers any kind of advice. I think of myself as an watercolor artist who paints illustrated maps, but my advise to artists (map artists or otherwise), is to follow your truth, follow your heart, do what you love, get out on the rivers and out in the woods.

Mike Reagan's decorative map of Grand Teton National Park

Because of Mike's training in art, he is a master at using composition to support the theme of a map. In this map of Canyons and Lakes of Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Lake is immediately established as the focal point of the map by its contrasting blue and the closeness of the trout. Starting at the lake, the eye wanders down the network of other lakes and rivers. Notice that by not giving a hard border in the southwest, a feeling of the river continuing beyond the map is produced. This gives the map reader a sense of imaginative adventure of what lies further down the river. But by including the road intersection in the bottom left, the map feels bounded and balanced. A key to this map is the use of filler illustrations of trout, elk, and flowers.

The elk filler in the lower right stops the eye from wandering away from the theme of the map: the lakes and rivers. It also substitutes for the center of a compass rose by placing the north arrow atop it. The eye is kept from wandering off map in upper left by using the flowers as a visual stop. This map really shows Mike's ability to create adventure and place in his maps. Map by Mike Reagan www.MapsByMikeReagan.com.


From Katie:

I'm a huge fan of Mike's artwork - thanks for the article! I had the honor to work with him on a project and it was such a pleasure. And, the map turned out beautifully.

From Wood (http://www.climatecounts.org):

Mike is an extraordinary talent, and this is a wonderful interview. Mike and I also worked on a project together, an extraordinary custom map he created for my parents' 40th anniversary that mapped the landscape their life together. It's a treasure, as is Mike.

From Alison Whittington:

I am so glad to read this interview -- I have admired Mike Reagan's work for a long while, and looked up to him, but haven't seen much written about him (nor have I had the good fortune to meet or work with him).


What an Interview,terrific. i always love watching this artistic maps, i really feel a sort of involved when i see such maps.

Would you like to leave a comment about Mike's work? Contact me and let me know. I'd be happy to post it!

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