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Making Terrain

Shaded Relief Narratives

In January 2015, Aaron Taveras and I curated an exhibit on cartographic terrain representation at the University of Kansas Art & Design Gallery.

Shaded relief is one of cartography’s indispensable tools. The best and most dramatic way to express the physical appearance of a place, to capture the shape of its terrain, is to show the interplay between surface, light, and shadow. Light and shadow breathe life and depth into a map.

Terrain representation is often not as straightforward as it sometimes looks: it is a complex process that involves the remote sensing of the Earth’s surface, various analytical calculations and models, and an artistic hand to create an attractive and understandable abstraction of the terrain.

Shaded relief is a mostly false representation of reality, which is something people have generally learned to accept or are unaware of. All of the science, art, and intentional falsity involved in shaded relief join to tell a unique story of shadow, light, color, texture, shape, and conception of place.

Although the tools and techniques of relief shading have evolved with time, their purpose remains the same: to craft an intuitive, faithful representation of earth’s surface that enhances earth’s natural beauty and informs the map user about earth’s natural forms.

The narratives presented in this exhibit were intended to engage the audience in multiple aspects of terrain representation. These are narratives best expressed visually. Our hope in creating this exhibition was to show people not what we think maps are, but what maps can be.