The World’s “Last Master Mapmaker” Doesn’t Need Standard Coordinates

Michael Reagan uses one of the least controllable mediums (watercolor) to make absolutely accurate maps.
Portrait by Jack Sorokin

Over the past 30 years, Mike Reagan has illustrated more than 2,000 maps, published by magazines including Smithsonian, National Geographic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Audubon. Last year, the La Jolla Map Museum in California added 215 of Reagan’s original maps to its collection, and the museum’s director noted, “With the advent of computer maps, Mike Reagan will surely be the last mapmaker working in the hand-painted traditions of the old masters.”

Why maps?

I studied commercial art, worked as [the] art director at a TV station, and then opened my own freelance studio. Around 1990, an ad agency in Raleigh asked me to paint my first map, of the Bahamas. The state of North Carolina saw it, and asked me to do a series of travel brochures. So I sent samples of those to Audubon and some other magazines. They called me, and it all started from there. 

Antiques in the Northeast – The Jane Katcher Collection

Did you ever imagine this would be your life’s work?

I always got caught drawing in math class, and my math teacher said, “If you don’t stop and pay attention to algebra, you aren’t going to get anywhere.” But I’ve made a lifetime of maps, and never once have I used algebra.

Vietnam – Smithsonian

So what skills does a cartographer need?

No, I don’t have any training in [cartography]. I call myself a map artist. The maps I do are accurate; they have to be. So I do research with atlases and old maps. But there is a kind of an artistic license I can take. The heart of my maps to me is the watercolor and the art part, not the scientific part. I try to capture the emotion of the place in the colors and the mood. 

Does that demand cultural sensitivity?

Yes. I’ve traveled the world, was in the Navy, and joined the Peace Corps in West Africa, where I met my wife. We have a really deep respect for the other cultures of the world, and for the way those people conduct their lives.

Himalayas Mountain Bike Trip – Outside Magazine

How do you keep the topography accurate while using a flowing medium like watercolor?

So many artists ask me that, and I don’t really know. I have come to just think of it as magic. It always presents itself in different, subtle ways. You can help it move itself toward a certain look. But it’s going to say “Yeah, okay, Mike Reagan. You think you know all about me, but I’m going to go another way this time.”

Do you just embrace that unpredictability?

Yeah, because if you can relax and go with it, you might come up with something more beautiful than you imagined.

How do you get that aged sepia tone?

I paint with coffee. Tea works okay, but dark espresso is perfect.

Polar Dance – Born of the North Wind – Images of Nature Books

Michael Francis Reagan, Weaverville, mreaganmaps.com. The artist also does acrylic and watercolor paintings; see mreaganart.net. Reagan’s work is represented by Asheville’s Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, next to the Omni Grove Park Inn, 828-253-7651, grovewoodroad.com). He schedules home-studio visits by appointment: graewolf@charter.net, 828-490-5679.

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