Natural-color Shaded Relief Maps by Hal Shelton


Visitors to the Menlo Park USGS library will notice a painting entitled, “Cartographers in the Field”.  The painting depicts two cartographers out in the field.  The picture was painted by Hal Shelton in 1940 who was a fieldman at the time with the USGS.

A side plaque notes,

“The painting depicts mapping techniques in the early days of cartography, including an alidade and stadia rod for determining distances and elevations, and a plane-table for sketching contour lines.  Note the “U.S.” marking on the canteen: many of the field supplies where from Army surplus.”

Cartographers in the Field by Hal Shelton, 1940.

Cartographers in the Field by Hal Shelton, 1940.  At the USGS Library in Menlo Park, California.

Shelton’s career was most notable for his natural-color maps done for Jeppeson Map Company in the 1950s and 1960s.  A terrain artist, Shelton vastly improved the visual depiction of shaded relief on USGS topography maps.

Born in 1916, Shelton graduated from Pomona College in 1938 with a degree in scientific illustration.  During World War II, Shelton was employed by the USGS as a cartographer.  An article by Tom Kelso of US Park Service and Nathan Vaughn Kelso describes the challenge Shelton encountered with the existing USGS cartographic design standards:

Seeking place name information from the local residents, Shelton discovered that they could not read the contour map that he had just made. However, when he pointed across the valley to the rugged silhouette of the Jarbridge Mountains, the residents—there were seven in all—could readily identify Red Mountain, Old Scarface, and the other peaks. This experience convinced Shelton that the conventional symbology used on topographic maps was inadequate for depicting the landscape in a manner easily understandable by general audiences. The map symbology that he encountered was specialized and anachronistic even by 1940s standards. For example, the USGS manual at that time specified using a green tint for vegetation only for areas where you could hide a small detachment of troops or nine mules. Shelton—the artist, teacher, and by now a committed US government cartographer—was determined to find a better way.

After becoming the Chief Cartographic Engineer for the USGS Shaded Relief Map Program, Shelton set about improving the quality and quantity of the USGS’ shaded relief maps.  In the early 1950s Shelton teamed up with Elrey Borge Jeppesen to provide natural-color maps for the general public.

Section of a natural-color map showing Italy, painted by Hal Shelton around 1968.

Section of a natural-color map showing Italy, painted by Hal Shelton around 1968.

The open source Natural Earth database (which provides freely available global GIS data) was inspired by Shelton’s work:

Natural Earth is a raster map dataset of the world introduced in 2005. It features land cover data merged with shaded relief. The idea of “cartographic realism” developed for the design of US park maps influenced the making of Natural Earth. Hal Shelton’s handpainted natural color maps produced during the 1950s and 60s were also influential.

Palestine as portrayed by cartographer-artist Hal Shelton, illustrating his unique technique for depicting landforms. Starting with an offset blue-line lithographic image of a contour map etched on a zinc printing plate, the map image was then painted with acrylic paints using an oscillating-needle airbrush. Originally designed for use by airline passengers, Shelton's maps were widely adopted for aeronautical charts and educational purposes.(The H. M. Gousha Company Collection)

Natural-color map of Palestine by Hal Shelton from the H. M. Gousha Company Collection. From the Library of Congress: “Starting with an offset blue-line lithographic image of a contour map etched on a zinc printing plate, the map image was then painted with acrylic paints using an oscillating-needle airbrush.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Shelton was also active creating panoramic ski maps and is also known for being the first major ski map artist.

Ski map of Mammoth Mountain ski area by Hal Shelton.

Ski map of Mammoth Mountain ski area by Hal Shelton.

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