Islands of Discovery

By Gibbons, Eric | School Arts, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Islands of Discovery


Gibbons, Eric, School Arts


Cartography, the art of mapmaking, makes connections between art, math, geography, and history. Before beginning this lesson, I try to connect with a teacher in one of these departments to have them reinforce the art problem and what I am teaching.

We begin the unit with a discussion about Christopher Columbus and his real occupation as a cartographer. From the 1400s to the 1600s, cartographers were important in the exploration and mapping of new trade routes between Europe and Asia. What they mapped became the property of those who paid them, like a king or queen.

From the Imagination

I instruct students to imagine themselves going off into the unknown world to find a wonderful new and exotic island of their own. Whatever they find and map, they will own. They can name the island; its mountains, rivers, valleys, and secrets. I allow them one period to sketch an idea.

Map Details

At the next meeting we look at the maps and create a list of the things all maps should have, including decorative compass, longitude and latitude lines, a key, a decorative border, and a symbol for the unknown or dangerous areas. The laud should include at least five land features (river, mountain, desert, beach, delta, peninsula, swamp, grassland, forest, jungle, canyon, etc.). I also require one or two landmarks or unusual land features like a mountain in the shape of a skull, a volcano, a waterfall, a geyser, a cave, etc.

Students use this list to make sure their work is complete, and I use it to grade their projects. In addition to completeness, I also grade on neatness, originality, and following directions.

The Final Sketch

Once all this has been discussed we begin another sketch, using rulers if necessary. I allow two periods for this. I ask that this sketch be as detailed as possible and include all the map elements. You can double-check these sketches to see that everyone is on track.

For the final drawing we use 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) paper, about eighty pound or heavier for strength. Students use yardsticks and pencils to draw along with my example. We lightly trace the width of the ruler on the edge of all four sides of the paper. We do this again, laying the ruler along the lines we have just drawn, so the paper now has a double border.

Students create longitude and latitude lines by making a grid on the inside of the borders with the width of the two rulers. Working in pairs, one student holds the two rulers steady and the second will draw the lines. When one map is complete, students switch places and do the longitude and latitude lines on the other's paper.

Students mark the inside frame every inch so that when they create a decorative border, it will be even and regular. Whenever a student needs to draw a straight line, I insist that they use a ruler to do it. I have small 6" (15 cm) rulers for border designs and decorative compasses.

At this point I bring out a map and show students real islands. This is an opportunity to add to their list of possible land features, but my main intent is to show how complicated the edges of land can be.

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