PotBS Wiki

Treatise on the practices of Historic Cartography

By Johnathan White, “The Map Maker”

This is a general informational essay on the creation of "Portolan" charts. Following this segment will be notes on what is expected of the "Pirates of the Burning Sea" Chart and preliminary notes on its making.

Why Maps?

Maps are a combination of sciences, art, history, and mythology. The cartography of early mapmakers was a form of art practiced by few in times past, and even fewer now. Almost all maps created today are the products of computers; either enhanced or supplemented by computers in someway shape or form, but not truly hand made.

There are a number of aspects involved in this type of cartographer. Art, history, geography, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, use / practicality and personal involvement. All of these different aspects I will cover. But first, a question I am asked so often. Why maps?

The answer is quite simple. Personal accomplishment. I could be a tradition artist and paint whatever my heart desires, draw the world around me, or create statues and sculptures of metal and stone. These I have done and tend to prefer the depth and complexities involved in the ancient practice of Portolan creation. The personal rewards and since of accomplishment of creating a piece of work that requires so many different skills is unsurpassed.

Use / Practicality?

In terms of use and practicality of the charts and maps, they are a perfect blend of art and science. They have use as mountable art as well in publishing, and media. Some of the charts are used in the supplement of historical documentation or artifact display. These charts are created in such a way, that they relay a time in history that is long since vanished. Considering that there are a very limited number of the original charts from those periods still available today, there is a need for representation of periods in history whether geographically or historically that the charts that I create cater to.

In some cases with the charts that create, there is themeing involved. Some charts that I create, although created in a manner consistent with practices of the 17th century, are themed to portray a particular interest. This can be a modern idea or representation, produced in a way that reflects that art and styles of the appropriate period. Some charts can actually be for modern geography and be politically correct, however, created in authentic 17th century “Portolan” style.

Not all of the charts that I create are even historically accurate to our “real” world. Some of the charts that I create represent fictional places at fictional times. These would be maps like that for “Middle Earth” represented in “Lord of the Rings”, “Sosaria” for “Ultima Online”, and numerous fictitious books and publications that represent places of fiction and myth.

All of the charts that I create find use in as stated earlier, a “display” type capacity. This function can be a display of historical significance, movie set creation (“Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Horatio Hornblower”, “Cutthroat Island”), supplement to computer gaming (“Sosaria” for Origin Inc., “Pirates of the Burning Sea” for Flying Labs Software). Use in publishing media such as books and magazines that require a map that has a more authentic feel to it. In the end, most of the works that I create end up on the wall like any other tradition piece of art, yet, is much more. A glimpse into a different time and place that can be found and created nowhere else other than by the hands of a Portolan Artist.

These charts are not intended for use as functioning geographic charts. The information used in these charts is authentic and historically correct for the periods that they portray. This also means that errors that where repetitive in the research of the charts can follow through to the finished piece.

The History?

The history involved in this type of cartography is two fold. First there is the actual history of charts and how they where created by early cartographers, and then there is the history concerned in the research involved in creating the charts that I do.

Concerning the first; the term "Portolan". It is derived from an ancient term that describes charts (mainly of the coastal regions) that had certain parameters for the definition. Some of these features would include but not limited to; compass rose (actually known as a wind rose), rhumblines (the directional lines emerging from the wind rose(s)), a cartouche (contains information about the chart title, location, and author, etc.), scale, and borders that include navigational information. The charts where commonly elaborate in the artwork that was involved. This was more common in charts created by mapmakers for Admiralty or Royalty of a particular country. Charts that where commonly distributed for military use where generally less artistic and more functional. I am not going to go into great detail here on the actual "History of Cartography" as it would make a profound article.

On to the research. The charts that I create that involve historical context require massive amounts of research. The references that I use come mainly online archives, some public, some not. The documentation cited mainly comes from charts from the particular period (some translation involved) and documentation, surveys, and other miscellaneous sources. When it’s all said and done the information that appears on the charts when finished is repetitive in sources that are used in the final piece.

The Art?

The art that is used in the charts is very much determined by what is to be portrayed and the theme used. All artwork is created in a tradition style associated with these particular types of maps. For example, a chart representing "Piracy" would have more modern artwork done in tradition styles to that of early charts. The calligraphy used is also particular to the theme of the chart. The same chart representing "Piracy" would generally have a long script commonly associated to that of early 18th century, whereas charts of the Mediterranean would have styles of Greek or Old English influence of 13th through 15th centuries. Obviously, some charts require more artist involvement than others.

The amount of art is usually more determined by the size of map being made and the amount of the map that is covered by subject matter. The chart of "New England 1747" is a perfect example of this. The map subject encompasses the larger portion of the sheet so that leaves limited room for art matter other than the required compass, cartouche, scale and border. A very important factor in determining how much art and where it will be is that you want to create a good balance and not to "Overwhelm" a chart with unimportant art.

Where do we start?

For the creation of a chart, it will always start with the determination of the Geographic location, Theme, Time to be Portrayed, and Mandatory art requested. The later of which I’ve added as some clients that had initial needs concerning the art as to certain things that they wanted to see on the map. Research will follow after all subject matter is settled. When enough research material is compiled, sometimes it is necessary to again meet with the client to review that material and make decisions on inconsistencies and chart errors (often they will be included to maintain historical accuracies).

After all of that has been settled, on to layout. A basic border is made with marks for Lat and Lon. These are used for creating a grid over the main page to transfer the basic geography from the many geographic sources available. Once all of this is completed, all of the initial text would be included. This would be city and town names, any feature that required basic text. After all of the smaller text, then the larger sized text will follow until all text (not including the text that is made in with the artwork, which will be the next stage).

The artwork is all preplanned on sketchpads prior to putting them onto the main sheet. This helps to reduce the number of corrections on the actual chart.

Pirates of the Burning Sea Chart, Anno 1720

Here’s where we’re at today. We are going to create one of the finest Portolan charts ever created. To date, much of the initial artwork involved has been in development already. There is not too much research involved with a chart like this because the information used is supplied by Flying Labs Software Developers. The research that is undergoing is primarily for the artwork involved in the chart. One of the largest factors addressed in the decisions of the artwork will be the correct representation of so many different factors involved in this particular chart. You have a general “Pirate” theme as well as navies and merchants representing a number of countries. These along with the “normal” early 18th century styles create some interesting possibilities.

In addition to the normal Portolan art that will be present, there will be a cryptographic system imbedded in the artwork itself. This system will allow the developers of the game the option of creating scenarios where translation of this coding will be necessary to get exact information on navigational information.

Normally in a situation where I create a single chart for a client, I produce the chart on vellum, parchment, or hand made paper. Other projects are going to retail print are created in this same manner, scanner, and sent to the printer for a 4 color process that puts the chart and color background onto white paper. In this case, we are going to create the chart completely on white paper, scan, and send to the printer but to be printed onto parchment type paper. So the charts that you (players) receive will be like originals and very authentic quality.

This is the preliminary post of a journal that will be progressively be created and added to as the chart is created. I am going to try and have information available every few days when the map-making goes into full swing. That is estimated at 2 – 4 weeks when I start the main body of the chart and begin to lay in artwork and geography onto the main sheet. Starting later in the week I will be starting to release pictures of the artwork being developed for the chart. As the chart is created, all the way through printing, we will be updating the journal with descriptions, notes, pictures, and frustrations. I hope it will be informative and educational.

The images in this article are not from Pirates of the Burning Sea, these are just illustrations of previous projects of Johnathan White