In my previous blog post, I told you about the 5 main issues that seem to cause anguish for students entering Challenge A and trying to wrap their brains around drawing maps for the cartography strand. Now, I want to get more practical and give you 5 tools you can use when drawing in Challenge (or any other time). In this post, I will fully explain each one of these so you and your students can try them in your cartography work. Once you learn them, I bet you’ll find them useful for drawing just about anything! Here are the 5 methods I’ll cover today:

  • Tracing
  • Using a Blob Map
  • Grid drawing
  • Contour drawing
  • Negative space drawing

1. Tracing

I’ve said so much about tracing over the years that I’ve made a special page to consolidate it all. So, if you’re interested in learning more or answering common objections, refer to my “Tracing is Amazing” page. Today I want to give you the short version of how we like to use tracing with Cartography.

Trace a Professional Map

  • I find a map I like and trace a simpler version of it. The tracing helps me to notice the details and learn the curves of the map.
  • My son then takes my tracing and traces a copy of it. Tracing the simpler version is easier than tracing the more detailed version and he still learns from it!

We use a light pad for all our tracing. It’s lasted for many years. I keep an up-to-date recommendation of a light pad I like the looks of and the reviews for on our art supplies page.

You can read about other tracing methods that don’t involve a light pad here.

Trace to Create a Blob Map

  • I trace my day 1 drawing but drastically simplify the lines, so I create a blob map.
    • While the name “blob” sounds like there wouldn’t be any straight lines or sharp angles, I actually look for them and try to add them in when they make sense. This creates more distinctive lines that will help with memorization.
    • I also look for familiar shapes. For example, in my map of Canada, Baffin Island looks like a three-legged cat with a giant tail to me! LOL!

2. Using a Blob Map

When thinking of tools for drawing in Challenge, I think a blob map might be the most helpful! A blob map uses basic shapes and the elements of those shapes (like curved lines, angles, straight lines…) to make a rough sketch. It’s most helpful in capturing the overall proportions of whatever you’re trying to draw. You can create your own blob map as explained above, or use ones others have created.

If you’d like my simplified and blob maps you’ve seen in these photos, they’re available for purchase here. As I make them for my own son this year I’ll be adding more to the list of maps available. (Thank you for supporting me and helping to pay for the hosting of this website!)

  • When he’s ready for it, my son looks at the general proportions of the blob map to sketch a basic map of his own. He then fills in some details by referring to the original map in the book or my initial traced map.
  • My son likes to use graph paper so if he asks, I’ll photocopy my blob map onto graph paper for him.

Here’s a video I created for how to use a blob map to help you sketch a basic map. I try to fully explain each step in this video. However, in practice, once you’ve drawn something several times, you’ll never spend so much time comparing the size of everything!

https://youtu.be/4eANJYFA3NA

3. Grid Drawing

Outside of cartography, I find grid drawing is most helpful in the following senarios:

  • When my reference image is composed of a lot of lines instead of recognizable geometric shapes
  • If I’m struggling to get the proportions just right
  • If I’m struggling to get the perspective just right
  • If I’m significantly enlarging the image, like to paint a mural

it seems this scenario might happen in cartography, but probably not as often as when drawing something like a cityscape. Still, the principle is so helpful that once you know how to do it, you’ll find yourself incorporating bits and pieces of the concepts in all your drawing. Here’s how to use the Grid Drawing tool in cartography:

  1. Start with a photo or printout of your map. Draw a grid of squares onto the image by hand or using computer software. (I use an app named Grid# on my iPhone to do this.) I like to have around 3-6 rows and columns at first. Later I might double the number of lines by adding another line through the center of each square.
  2. Now draw a proportional grid of squares onto your drawing paper. The squares do not have to be the same size, but you will need the same configuration of squares. So, if you drew a grid of 3 rows and 4 columns of squares on your image, you’ll need to draw a grid of 3 rows and 4 columns of squares on your drawing paper. If you change the size of the squares, you’ll change the size of the finished drawing. (In fact, this method of drawing is a very common way for an artist to enlarge an image to create a mural!)
  3. Now draw what is in the upper left square, looking only at that square. Pay close attention to where a line enters or exits that square.
  4. Next, draw the square below it and so on, drawing one square at a time.

Here’s a photo of what that looked like when I was drawing a building while on vacation in Virgina several years ago. As soon as I had the sketch looking like I wanted, I drew over my sketch in ink and erased the grid pencil lines.


4. Contour Drawing

A contour drawing is a drawing of the outside edge of something. Think about drawing a detailed silhouette of something. You only see the outside edge but it in detail.

In cartography, this would be drawing a detailed version of the edge of a continent, country, or state.

Personally, when I start with contour drawing first, I find I usually loose the overall proportions. So, I will generally use basic shapes or a blob map to get some over all proportions and then go back in and contour draw the lines in with more detail. However, I have seen some people start with contour drawing and still manage to keep all the proportions in check. I’ve decided their brain works differently than mine! 😉


5. Negative Space Drawing

Our last tool for drawing in challenge is negative space drawing. Negative space is the space around the subject; it’s everything but the subject of the drawing.

In everyday life, we tend to look at the objects around us and not the negative space surrounding the objects. It’s perfectly normal but when we’re trying to draw that object, ignoring the negative space around it is like only gathering half the information. Practice seeing the negative space by looking at objects around you and then focusing on the shape of the background. This will feel strange at first, but your mind will adjust to seeing the negative space. Since your verbal-left brain does not have simplified icon-type images for these spaces, your right-visual brain will engage and you’ll more easily see the actual shapes. (You can read more about drawing and the battle of the two sides of your brain in my book, Anyone Can Teach Art.)

Below is a photo of a pinecone. Focusing mainly on the negative space, I’ve shaded in only the background.

In cartography, you might think of the negative space as the water around the land. We tend to focus on the shape of the land, so stopping to look for the shape of the water will give us more information.

This tool isn’t one I see us using independently in cartography, but I do find myself using it constantly in conjunction with the other tools. So, when something looks a little ‘off’ remember to check both the positive and negative space!


Those 5 tools will help you and your students to get going on your daily map drawing! If you’re interested in improving your drawing skills outside of cartography, I’d encourage you to use a daily drawing drill!

Again, if you’re interested in using my blob maps, you can find them right here:

Which tool works best for you? Do you find you combine elements of each tool when you draw maps? Do you have another method you prefer to use? Tell us about it!

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