Map Is the Medium for Fly-Fisher Artist

Reggie Royston
National Geographic News
June 11, 2001

The summer sun hadn't set for days on the coast of Alaska, and recreational angler Alan James Robinson was tired of the brightness that made it difficult to rest even with a bandanna tied around his eyes. There wasn't much to do, and exploring was risky.

"There were a lot of bears around," Robinson recalled. "It wasn't as safe to be roaming around at midnight or one o'clock fishing."

So Robinson, a classical printmaker and sculptor by training, asked the owner of the lodge he was staying in whether there was any paper lying around. The owner pointed to a nautical map, and Robinson took up his pencil and began drawing.

Several hours later, after a bit of sleep and more fishing, Robinson had sketched five species of Pacific salmon native to Alaska—king, sockeye, chum, pink, and silver.

The lodge owner promised Robinson a return trip if he could finish off the sketches in full color. But when he attempted to render them in watercolors, the chart buckled and warped.

The trip would have to wait, but Robinson was on his way to becoming "the map guy."

Attention to Details

Maps are often produced from flimsy and easily collapsible paper. So Robinson, who lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts, set out to learn what kind of coating he could use to preserve the surface of a map while making it suitable for illustrations. This interest came not only from a desire for a proper canvas for his work but also from his concern about preserving the craftsmanship of the map itself.

For centuries people have adorned their records of travel with drawings of the nature and wildlife they encountered. Many map artists today, said Robinson, use oil and acrylic paints, which obscures the fine details and features of cartography.

"All maps started out originally as artwork," he said. "That was one of the things I wrestled with—compromising the beauty and the information quality that maps have."

Robinson discovered that a treatment of ox gall, lanolin, and other ingredients enabled him to paint watercolor illustrations on maps so that the underlying details could still be seen.

In the past 10 years, Robinson has produced hundreds of map-backed paintings of fish, birds, and other wildlife. Many of them have been displayed at conservation events and mapping conventions, where he has became known to his younger fans as "the map guy."

Admirers often praise Robinson for his ability to catch the subtle characteristics of wildlife, from the sparkly texture of a false albacore to the iridescent glint of striped bass. This level of detail is painstakingly acquired.

Continued on Next Page >>


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