Hannah Wilson Makes Art on Maps

Have you ever considered maps an art form? What about using maps as the canvas? We had the chance to speak to Hannah Wilson, a wilderness instructor and an artist that is dedicated to creating paintings on maps. As someone with a passion for the outdoors, she could never imagine herself working in front of a computer. So instead, she decided to go on a journey to connect with her inner creativity and became a full-time artist!

After completing her degree in landscape architecture in 2016 at Iowa State University, Hannah did a few internships but was restless and didn’t want to be sitting in front of a computer for fifty hours a week. She wanted to be out in the mountains as she was always drawn to the outdoors and painting, so she decided to do art full-time for one year. She originally went to Durango, Colorado to pursue a career as a wilderness guide and an outdoor educator; however, after seeing Durango’s beautiful and rugged landscapes, she immediately felt inspired and decided to stay there. And today, almost three years later, she is still a full-time artist, making and selling paintings and doing live paintings for events.

Hannah Wilson Triptic
“I had a burning feeling that I needed to give full time art a go, otherwise I would be laying on my deathbed wishing I would have followed my dreams when I was younger.”

When she was studying landscape architecture in school, she spent a lot of time learning how to create maps. The maps she created often included earthwork, contours, plants, and overall spacing and measurements. Similar to how you would create art, the maps she created can be as abstract as a specific point, or as close to reality with lots of real life elements and detail added on to the map. “Cartography is a true art form that translates to knowledge and understanding. It is truly a powerful tool.”

Hannah Wilson with map painting

Hannah’s love for the outdoors led her to also work in wilderness therapy and also as a climbing, hiking and mountaineering instructor for NOLS. As a wilderness instructor, Hannah spent hours teaching students how to read maps with Avenza Maps, typically USGS 7.5-minute maps as they are helpful because of the detail. “There is nothing on it that couldn’t help you figure out where you are. The scale is 1:40, and it is a wonderful way to really learn how to read landscape features on a map,” Hannah tells us. For following roads or well-marked trails, Hannah likes to use overview maps of a specific area, 1:100 scale – mainly because she loves being able to see the big picture. 

Hannah Wilson Map art

However, how she started painting on maps was not intentional. “Normally I bring watercolours with me on all my adventures, and I’d run out of watercolour paper, and all I had was my weathered map,” Hannah tells us. Once she began painting on it, she was immediately drawn to the texture, depth, and story the map brought to her painting, and since then, it's been one of her favourite surfaces to paint on. “Just like any adventure in the mountains, unexpected events happen due to uncontrollable elements – rain, wind, storms and blistering heat.”

Whenever she paints on a map, she uses the specific map for that area. “The more specific and relatable the artwork is to the map – the more connection one feels to the artwork,” Hannah says.  Since many people find maps by themselves a work of art, Hannah tries her best not to overdo it when painting. She makes sure to leave specific elements of the map alone so they stand out and tell their own story.

Now we also asked Hannah, what makes a good map? In her opinion, a good map provides the right amount of information. Not too cluttered and not too vague, and often, less is more. She loves vintage maps that do not have a ton of colour or contrast, where usually there is only a little bit of faded blue and green. Contour lines can add so much depth and movement to a map, and the features and contour lines tell the story.

Hannah Wilson with map art
“A good map provides the right amount of information. Not too cluttered, and not too vague. Often, less is more.”

Hannah reflects on her time and experiences in the mountains in the map paintings she creates, where she willingly lets go of control and lets the art speak for itself. “I let the paint drip. I freely apply expressive and messy paint strokes. I paint with awe-inspiring colours – the dreamlike colours you see right as the sun rises and sets.”

Hannah Wilson painting in the mountains

Interested in learning more about how Hannah uses maps for her paintings or seeing more of Hannah’s artwork? Check out her website here!