Art and Topography

by Danielle Spellman Art Consultant

When someone says “topography,” we tend to think about maps or the Earth’s surface. However, there are many interpretations of topography; Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the following:

Definition of topography

1: the configuration of a surface, including its relief and the position of its natural and man-made features
2: the physical or natural features of an object or entity and their structural relationships

The three main types of topographical art we will be exploring include the following:

  1. Landscape artwork (i.e. plein air/landscape paintings, aerial/nature photography, etc.) where the subject matter is clear. (Ansel Adams or Claude Monet)
  2. Abstract art or art that is non-representational. The surface or medium is topographical through texture. (Julie Mehretu or Amy Genser)
  3. Work that directly deals with topography as its concept. (Maya Lin or Leah Evans)


Landscape Artwork – where the subject matter is clear:

When thinking about landscape art, Monet’s water lilies for example, can be viewed through this topographic lens. He depicts an accurate representation of his viewed environment. Not only is the scene topographical, but the surface of the painting becomes so as well. He builds layers upon layers of paint which, in turn, creates texture on the surface. He forms hills with every brushstroke and valleys of relief in their absence. Ansel Adams is also a strong example of this first concept. Notorious for capturing the raw beauty of nature in his photographs, Adams draws the audience into his viewed space. His groundbreaking landscape photographs helped pave the way for natural conservation.

Claude Monet – Water Lilies Series – Oil on canvas

Ansel Adams – The Grand Tetons and the Snake River 1942 – Silver gelatin print


Medium/Surface as topography:

Julie Mehretu’s gestural paintings are a more abstract form of topography. Using a multitude of mediums, she builds up her canvas, conveying a sense of space and time. The texture or “surface quality” of any work of art provides a sense of topography. Line weights of charcoal on paper or a paintbrush on canvas create their own personal topography. It leaves an impression on a surface, like hands-on clay or marble sculptures, where the artist has interpreted their space and environment. Amy Genser uses natural elements like mulberry paper to build upon a surface which also speaks to this concept. Not only is she building an abstracted topographic scene but also incorporating raw materials to connect to her environment.

Julie Mehretu – Epigraph, Damascus, 2016 – Photogravure, sugar lift aquatint, spit bite aquatint, open bite


Amy Genser – Rock Pool I 2022 – Mulberry paper, mixed media


Topography as a concept or premise:

Environmental conservation has always been an important topic in art, and even more so now as climate change affects our world aggressively. Many artists use the physical changes to the Earth’s topography as the premise for their work. Just like the variety of Earth’s textures and mediums, artists find endless ways to capture their unique topography. Creating emotional and physical connections with their environment conveys a sense of place to the viewer. These environmental connections hope to bring communities together to understand their collective topographies. In Maya Lin’s environmental installations, for example, Lin “explores how we experience and relate to landscape, setting up a systematic ordering of the land that is tied to history, memory, time, and language. Her interest in landscapes has led to works influenced by topographies and geographic phenomena.” Leah Evans uses quilting and textiles to create her own landscapes where “pieces are influenced by aerial photography, maps, and satellite imagery, but are not always based on specific places. Mining, agriculture, water use and treatment, nuclear power, residential development, and oil extraction are frequent subjects of my work. They are meant as visual reminders of the changes we create in the land. Similarly, my work’s components demonstrate nature’s influence on our constructs, such as a river changing its course, thereby causing a shift in property divisions and shifting coastlines due to climate change.”

Leah Evans – Soil – Quilted Textile


With art, we can enjoy the full possibility of the definition of topography. It has come to mean anything from highly detailed cartographic maps to schematic drawings, classical landscape paintings, and more abstract or impressionistic works. Art created through cultural, political, or personal inspiration could be considered topographical art because it captures the natural elements of that specific time and place. Plein Air paintings, landscape, and aerial photography are more recognizable examples of capturing a moment in time by clearly describing space and place.



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