Map Illustration Starter Kit


To go with my talk on “Hand-Rendered Map Illustration Techniques” at the 2016 North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference, I’ve put together a list of materials for those new to map illustration. I’ll be following this with blog posts that go deeper into materials and methods–turns out I have more to say than I can cover in a 20-minute talk! Meanwhile, here you go. Please be in touch with questions, comments, or to share results of your efforts.

Map Illustration starter kit

Options for art materials are many, and the combinations endless. Much depends on personal preference. You don’t need all of these–choose a few and find out what you like. Always test your combinations of paper/ink/paint to come up with a plan before you begin work on the final map.


For the pencil sketch stage, use any inexpensive tracing paper.

For pen and ink maps, Strathmore Bristol pads are great. The 300 series “smooth” sheets are an economical choice that I use a lot for lettering and for pen & ink maps without washes.

For watercolor maps, Arches sells fine watercolor papers in 22 x 30″ sheets. I use their 300 lb. “hot press” sheets, which are nice and heavy with a very smooth surface. They also sell pads of lighter paper. Lighter papers can be nice for pen with light washes–and are much easier to use on the light table–but can buckle and frustrate when used with much watercolor.


The light table is my favorite way to transfer from the pencil sketch onto final paper. You can set one up using a spare window (tempered glass is ideal) with a shaded light bulb underneath. Or look on Craigslist for light boxes or old printer’s “stripping tables”.

Another way to make the transfer is to use carbon paper or artist’s transfer paper. Saral makes one that comes in rolls and is erasable.

Pens and pen nibs

Micron disposable pens contain waterproof ink, come in different thicknesses, and are great for linework that doesn’t call for a lot of flair. (I can’t get much character out of them, but you might!) They come in handy for regular lines like county or state boundaries. Great for travel, too, or for sketching at the draft stage.

Speedball Hunt 107 is my go-to nib for line work. It has some flexibility but not too much. You’ll need a $2 Speedball crow quill nib holder.

Brause Bandzug nibs are my choice for most lettering. They come in various widths. Speedball Calligraphy nibs are good and easier to find. I like the C-series. These nibs work with standard pen holders (also < $2).


Higgins Black Magic is an inexpensive waterproof ink great for pen & ink maps, and for black inkwork that will get a wash over it. Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay series of colored inks are waterproof and often look good dipped straight from the bottle. (They can also be mixed.) They work well when you want color pen work beneath watercolor washes. Nice for colored lettering, too.

Watercolor paints

Paints & brushes are a part of this that can start getting expensive. Start with a basic watercolor set from the art store and follow me for a longer post about watercolor tubes, palettes, and favorite brushes. My travel set (pictured) is a Winsor & Newton Cotman (i.e., student-grade) Watercolor Pocket Box. A No. 6 and a No. 10 brush (student grade) will get you started just fine.

Additional Resources

Some favorite sources for copyright-free base maps follow. Check each map for its copyright status, but these sites have many that are in the public domain.

Library of Congress

University of Alabama Map Library

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin

USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection