Introduction: 3D Topographic Map by Hand

About: I'm based in London - in my day job I make digital things and at night I tinker with art, maps and electronics.

I love maps and have done several drawings and collages based on maps. For this one I wanted to make a hyper realistic topographic colour image of the British Isles, as if viewed as a 3D satellite image. To do that I needed to get the shapes right, and make the colours look natural.

The texture was the key thing that sparked the idea. I originally did some just in white to focus on the texture and then for this project I added colour to see how close I could get it to an almost-real 3D satellite image.

I did an earlier small one before doing this larger one which is A1 (59 x 84 cm). The big one took a lot longer!

In terms of materials, it was pretty simple. It started with the map outline on board, and then I used a Liquitex modelling paste to add the topography to the map by hand before painting the land and sea.


  • A1 mount board
  • Liquitex modelling paste
  • Various palette knives, bits of wood for applying the paste in several layers
  • Acrylic paints
  • Matte varnish to finish
  • Wooden frame

Step 1: Adding the Texture

To start the process I printed an outline map onto the board to give me the outline of the coast. Then, based on topographic maps and where the mountains and valleys should be, I built up the 3D texture using modelling paste. I used various tools to apply it - mostly palette knives and a pointy stick.

Step 2: Then Came the Painting

As well as the shapes of the landscape, the colours were based on topographic maps and other references such as satellite images. I used a bit of artistic licence to make it look a prettier. For example, on a satellite map the sea at the outlets of big rivers can be a real muddy mess. But other than that there's something inherently beautiful about the shapes and colours of nature and I tried to stay faithful to that.

I did also take some small liberties with the coastline - exaggerating cliffs and beaches to add some interest. You can see for example the White Cliffs of Dover, and even the lines of some ships traversing the English Channel.

Working on the seashore, particularly around the Scottish coast, took a while! Trying to get the blues of the sea to be even was a challenge too.

Step 3: Finished

To finish I added a painted cream border around the map and framed it straight into a brown wooden frame without glass in front. Hung next to a window and having nothing in front of the map allows the changing light to cast shadows across the map as the light of the day changes.

Maps Challenge

First Prize in the
Maps Challenge