When we caught up with Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs, he was in an Indonesian rain forest doing orangutan conservation work for International Animal Rescue. Prior to that, he had spent two months in Alaska working with marine biologists studying humpback whales and three months with archaeologists in the Caribbean.

When he's not volunteering in Portugal or Borneo, he's at home in the U.K. working his "regular" job in geographic information systems, or GIS. It's those GIS skills that he volunteers to NGOs around the world. They're also what inspired his line of vibrant, colorful, textured river basin maps, elevation maps and heat maps of countries around the world, which look even more striking when set against a solid black background.

China's river basins
The tiny, colored river basins in Northern China stand in contrast to the solid blocks of color seen in the northeastern part of the county. (Photo: Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs)

"Rivers are amazing. I worked a lot with spatial data during my studies in geography and GIS, and you just see what nature can draw is incredible. Still, all the river maps you see look the same, boring, unspectacular. All lines blue, all the same width. It's quite amazing how you can make such bad maps from such great source material," he says.

River basins in Europe
The European Plain is identifiable in this map of Europe's river basins by the blocks of pink and peach on the right side of the map. (Photo: Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs)

To make his maps, he uses freely available data from government agencies and NGOs, along with open-source software. "Making one river basin map now, if I already have the data, can be less than an hour, but getting to this level of symbology and this design was definitely a few weeks, going through a lot of iterations and ideas," he says.

India's river basins
India's topography makes for a gorgeous river basin map with a wide swath of teal color. (Photo: Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs)

The river basin maps look best when the topography is varied. "Some countries are luckier than others. For example, my country, Hungary, is in the Danube's watershed, so if I make a map like this, it would just be one color. Also, it's a small country," Szucs says.

On the other hand, speaking about the U.S. map at the top of this page, he says, "Nature gave me a very good base to work with, and I think it's my best work so far. This is also the map which brought the most attention, so it has a special place in my heart. But there's a lot I really like."

Australia's river basins
A varied topography makes for an intricately colored river basin map, as is the case with Australia. (Photo: Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs)

Szucs says he has no formal art training and can't draw, though he's now starting to think of his maps as art. "I'm coming into the art world from a technical, scientific background, but with an artistic vein. At the beautiful crossroads of two worlds," he says.

California's river basins
Artist Robert Szucs says he can make one of his stunning river basin maps in an hour if he has the data, but getting to this level of design and detail took a few weeks and many iterations. (Photo: Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs)