Exploring the Art of Science

The tools and techniques of science provide extraordinary opportunities to document and analyze the world around us. With each passing year, researchers among the various branches of science (astronomy, botany, physics, chemistry…) make new discoveries and unlock the mysteries of our planet and the universe beyond. In the process, they generate mountains of data.

In geospatial science, the branch of science that I studied in college, we work with spatial data. In other words, information about a particular location. Satellite imagery is an example of spatial data. It is a snapshot of a particular location on the surface of the Earth. Land ownership boundaries, such as parcel data and the boundaries of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) are another example. Stream locations and classifications are also spatial data.

In the US, most federal, state, and local government agencies utilize geospatial science to record and analyze events unfolding upon the lands they manage. The result is a wealth of publicly available spatial data.

The end product(s) of most geospatial projects is a map. And here is where the fun begins! Cartography, aka “map making,” provides endless opportunities to explore the art of science. Cartographers combine cartographic tools and techniques with principles of fine art to transform spatial data into fascinating depictions of moments in time. In this way, the cartographer bridges the gap between science and art and marries the instruments of the scientific process with those of the artistic. For example, while a GPS unit is a means of recording a position, it is also an initial step in the cartographic journey to a work of visual art. The record obtained via the push of a button in the field will be transformed by the click of mouse into a visual product that is “hopefully” perceived as something beautiful and informative.

I recently finished a project in which I had the opportunity to enjoy the full process of map production, from in-situ data collection to printing. And I was fortunate to be given considerable creative freedom.

The project objective was to develop a reference/operations map for a privately owned property. The client requested a final product that could be appreciated within the home as a work of art and utilized in the field as a tool for day-to-day operations.

The process integrated data collected via a desktop study with data collected on-sight with Garmin and Trimble products. Extensive digitizing was conducted on aerial images to record features both within and beyond the boundaries of the property. Data was processed and transformed using Trimble Pathfinder, DNR Garmin, ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap, Adobe Photoshop (for raster elements), Adobe Illustrator (for vector elements), and MS Excel.

In the end, several print maps were developed and either framed or laminated.

Here’s the end product. I can only provide low resolution images of the entire final map to ensure the client’s privacy, but I hope it conveys how spatial data can be transformed into functional artwork.

One of the challenges that I encountered was developing a color ramp and visually appealing hillshade for a relatively flat area. In my experience, it is much easier to develop an attractive color ramp for a mountainous area where the wider range of elevation values enables a more striking transition of color. Additionally, I wanted to use earthy colors to generate a somewhat natural looking backdrop for the content within the map. The use of a curvature layer, along with vertical exaggeration enhanced the character of the final shaded relief.

Another challenge involved labeling. With over 500 labels in the map, ensuring that all were legible, while not detracting from the visual appeal of the map was a little tricky. I initially used halos around each label to ensure that they were legible. However, matching halo colors to background colors is, not only time consuming, but inherently flawed in that background colors can vary considerably within the distance of label. The end result is a halo than blends well into the background for only part of the label. Ultimately, I used masking on all labels to create a halo-like effect, but without the color issue. Masking essentially hides all data within a specified distance of the label, revealing the background color, which in this case contrasts well with the label color. In the following image, the masking effect is most discernable where the lower arm of the letter “E” crosses the dirt road.

For the legend, I opted for a fairly simple structure. The layout resembles legends found in older maps. I find that a combination of considerable white space and perfectly aligned items create an aesthetically pleasing effect.

Thanks for reading!

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