Then with colours and golde shall you garnyshe and beautifie the Cities, Compasses, Shyppes, and other parts of the Carde. Then shall you set forth the coastes with greene, . . . and make them fayre to syght with a Utile saffron . . . . Richard Eden, The Arte of Navigation (London, 1561)
Prior to the advent of printing, hand-drawn maps were intended for, and often commissioned by, monarchs, nobles, or prelates, and were elaborately colored in the tradition of illuminated manuscripts. Medieval cartographers introduced the use of color as an information-carrying convention by reserving certain colors for specific geographic features: blue for water, dark green for woods, brown for roads, and red for buildings and towns. This practice continued after printed woodcut maps came into use in the fifteenth century, when heavy wash colors were sometimes added for adornment.
During the middle of the sixteenth century, copperplate engraving was perfected by the Italians and became the preferred technique for map printing; maps were then appreciated for their fine engraving and were usually left uncolored. Leadership in map-making passed to the Low Countries in the late sixteenth century. The Flemish and Dutch, with their strong tradition of landscape painting, created elegantly engraved and highly decorative maps and embellished them with refined and delicate hand coloring. Most of the colors were water-based and composed of well-known ingredients; a few remain “trade secrets” to this day.
Map illumination, or limning, was developed to a high level of artistry and became a respected profession represented by artists’ guilds; the creator of the first modern atlas, Abraham Ortelius, started his career as a map colorist The skill of these artists is evident in the richness and vibrancy of their creations after more than three hundred years.