Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fantasy Map Tutorial

There's a lot of talk these days about "World Building," which helps create a realistic and interesting story setting. But after you have carefully crafted your world of wonder with believable geographic and geopolitical details, you probably want a nice picture of it, right?

I'm going to show you how to make a cool looking fantasy map.

What you will need:
- a graphics editing program (I used Photoshop.) There is also a free program called GIMP.
- a public domain image of an old map.  Some good sources for public domain images are: Public Domain Sherpa and NOAA's Office of Coast Survey Historical Map & Chart Collection. The NOAA site is a gold mine. It takes some searching, but you can even find maps of old west towns, forts, and battles!

What we are going to do:
We are going to take an existing public domain map and modify it to look like the imaginary world we have in our head.

First, here is the public domain map we'll use for this tutorial:
Public Domain Map
I picked this one because it was pretty old, looks hand drawn, and has a cool textures and colors.

Next, we'll make an outline of our world:
Outline Guide
I just scribbled this out quickly. It won't be the exact final shape, but we'll use it as a guide.

Now we'll overlay the guide over the map and see if we can move and/or resize things a bit to match any of the coastlines with the outline guide:

The northwest coast matches up pretty well, so I'll leave that there. We're going to duplicate the map layer, and then copy a selection of the map so we can modify it to match the guide:
Select the Marquee Tool
Select the part of the map we want to modify.

Right (or Control) click and select "Layer via Copy." 
Move the new layer into position and rotate.
Next, we'll start erasing the background:
Use the erase tool with a big brush. 
Then use a much finer brush to erase the new layer along the coast.
Then just carefully continue erasing.
Merge the new layer with the background, and keep erasing.
Now we'll use the same "Layer via Copy" technique to modify the west coast:

Then erase, merge, and keep erasing.
Our world is starting to take shape!
Then we want to use the Clone Tool to get rid of the words and also fill in the interior:

Normally, we'd just rinse and repeat until we'd filled in all of our coast lines. (Remember to Select Layer via Copy from the original map layer to get new coast line material.) But for now, I'm just going to skip ahead to the background step:
I found the background from the NOAA web site above.
I add a semi transparent color layer between the map and the background.
Play around with layer composite settings and filters and effects. 
So here's what we have created so far.
I've used this technique for my own work in progress, the fantastical Land of Lor:

It is still very much a work in progress and needs to be broken up a bit (looks too rectangular right now,) but you can see how this technique can be used to create just about any map shape you want. Then it's just a matter of tweaking it and adding rivers, lakes, mountains etc. You can add sea monsters, "Here Be Dragons," mermaids, sailing ships etc. Karen's Whimsy has a lot of good public domain images for that kind of stuff.

Now what are you waiting for? Go create some worlds!

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Please find me on line to say hi, talk about SF & Fantasy, or whatever :)

Jon Mac on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Goodreads

Thanks for reading!


  1. I tweeted this out - great, easy to follow tutorial! Can't remember if you participated in our REN3 back in October? It would be fun to create a map to go with our shared world. Going to forward this link to one of the other co-hosts, Stuart, who created the town setting :-))

  2. Awesome! I'm going to tweet this one too. I'm actually having someone hand-draw maps for me (she does some great colored pencil art), but this definitely looks fun to play with too.

  3. Thanks for the tweets, Li & Lindsay!

    Li, I didn't participate, but I'll definitely check that out.

    Lindsay, I think custom hand drawn is the way to go, but this can be fun in the meantime :)

  4. Thanks for the info! This is pretty cool. I draw all my maps myself, but perhaps I can sketch a basic, generic map and use this method to jazz it up a bit . . . I shall have to experiment a little when I have some free time ;)

  5. Nice tutorial. I've not thought of doing this yet. Cool.

  6. I like your artwork, Jenna. That dragon is cool :)

    Thanks, M Pax!

  7. This is such a fantastic idea! I'm definitely sharing this with the world. What made you think to photoshop old maps?

  8. Hi James - umm, I don't know. I guess the idea just came to me one day. Must be magic ;)

  9. Haha, I suppose you think Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru, too ;)