Four Different Ways To Draw Hills On A Map

Drawing hills on a map can be a challenge. Unlike forests and mountains, there aren’t really any hard edges. On a line art map that causes some difficulty. Even when you add in light, shade, and colour, it’s not obvious how best to represent hills. Here’s four different styles that you can use as a basis to draw hills on your map. Continue reading “Four Different Ways To Draw Hills On A Map”

How To Draw Simple Trees On A Map

It’s really easy to draw trees on a map and make them look pretty. It’s also really easy to get close, decide they look rubbish, and stop. Here’s a quick method for drawing a Middle Earth style forest on a map.


Here I’m using Procreate on the iPad. The only piece that involves digital trickery is the blend modes – and they can be achieved in Gimp (free) or Photoshop (not free). If you’re using pen and paper, you can do the same by using a dark pen for the outline, and then a mid-grey or mid-brown pen for the shadows. Then age the paper in the oven (and don’t set it on fire).

Step 1: Draw the Basic Shapes (clouds on sticks)

1. Start by drawing clouds on sticks - here's three different types of trees on a map
1. Start by drawing clouds on sticks – here’s three different types of trees on a map

The first step here is to draw a simple outline. This can, and should, be incredibly simple. If you get too convoluted, you’ll hate yourself. You’ll be drawing a lot of these, so make sure it’s a simple shape, and don’t sweat it. Here I’ve gone with simple cloud shapes for the deciduous forest. I try to make the base (the lower edge) a little flatter. For the forest, I always start at the leading edge (the edge closest) and work up from there. For the trunks, I’ve used a simple line and a thicker line weight.

Adding different trees is easy. I’ve got a line of poplars, and a line of conifers. Now, if you look at any of these trees individually they look nothing like an actual tree. Don’t worry about it – you’re creating a pattern that a user will recognize – and that they will necessarily associate with the type of forest you want them to. These are caricatures of trees, and they all work.

I’ve added a road in here to show, simply, how these features could integrate into a broader map.

So are we done? We could be. If you draw a forest like this at scale on a map you’ll find out two things: (1) it’ll look pretty good and (2) you’ll have a sore wrist. But we can do better (not the wrist – that’s a given).

2. Use Blend Modes To Make It Pretty

Using the overlay layer to mak e your forest map look good.
Step 2: Switch your lines to an overlay layer over a paper texture. Instant prettiness

There’s a cheap trick to turning a simple map into something prettier. Get an old paper texture, lay it under the lines, and switch your layer blend mode to overlay. Here my background texture is pretty light, so I actually have three layers of my lines to get this effect: 1. normal blend mode at 4% opacity, 2. overlay at 100%, 3. overlay at 100%. The balance between the normal layer and the overlay layers determines how brown the lines are, rather than black.

We can certainly leave it here, but we’re missing some form. This last step is really really quick:

3. Add Simple Block Shadows

Step 3: Use a larger brush to lay in simple shadows
Step 3: Use a larger brush to lay in simple shadows

Add another overlay layer, take a larger round brush (ideally still with pressure sensitivity determining size) and lay in simple shadows. You’re just aiming to roughly fill in the side of the tree away from the light – here I’m taking the light source as top left. For the deciduous trees I fill in from around 1-2 o’clock, round to 7 o’clock. For the tall trees, I fill down the right hand side, and across the base of the foliage.

As a separate exercise, I fill in a cast shadow. Here I try to reference the shape of the tree. The poplars cast long shadows. The deciduous trees cast a bulbous cloudy shadows. The evergreens cast pointed shadows. Note that all the shadows start from the base of the tree trunk – and if you draw a line between the trunk, and the tip of the shadow the lines will all be parallel.

And there you have it! It’s simple enough – and when you fill a map with these you map will be full of beautiful forests.

I’ve uploaded the full .psd of this tutorial file here.

You can also check out the quick video version of this process below:


The Arcanist’s Mill – A Wizard’s Tower Map with a Twist

I wanted to map a wizard’s tower with a twist – somewhere a mage with a little bit of a steampunk leaning could hide out and experiment. What would such a mage need? A good cover story, and a source of power. Well, mills are the heavy industry of the medieval era – and if you’re milling flour you have power to spare.

So – the hook of the map was a wizard’s tower in a water powered mill. Continue reading “The Arcanist’s Mill – A Wizard’s Tower Map with a Twist”

How to Draw a Castle Wall

What would a fantasy world be without castles, turrets, and battlements? Sneaking over the walls in the dark, holding the crenellations from a horde of orcs, or landing on a turret on griffon-back – the castle wall is a staple of fantasy gaming. Here’s the steps I take when drawing a castle wall. Continue reading “How to Draw a Castle Wall”

Mapping Blackcliff Academy for An Ember in the Ashes

Sabaa Tahir had a good year. She released her debut novel An Ember in the Ashes, became a New York Times bestselling author, and got the Amazon best YA novel of the year. I had the great pleasure of creating the maps for the novel. I’ve written about the process behind creating the world map. In this article I’m going to cover the process behind illustrating Blackcliff Military Academy.

Blackcliff Academy lies at the crux of the story. It is the training ground of the Masks, a sinister force in the book, and one that must be infiltrated. I won’t go further (so no spoilers), but the different locations in the academy are quite important – as is the secret stairway. Continue reading “Mapping Blackcliff Academy for An Ember in the Ashes”

Turning a map into an aged paper handout

The key to a good map is the information it presents. As soon as you’ve done the line drawing on a map, it should be perfectly possible to pick it up and use it. Everything after that point is polish to make it pretty. But polish matters, especially when you’re trying to set the scene.

Here’s how to take a simple map on a white background and turn it into an aged paper handout. Continue reading “Turning a map into an aged paper handout”

How to Draw Top Down Mountains on a Map

Mountains are a defining piece of any world map. They are the largest features after the coastlines, they determine the borders of countries, and the obstacles adventurers must overcome. They are the home of lost treasures, dragons, and giants – as far from civilization as its possible to be.

It can be hard to convey the majesty and scale of mountains in a top down map. It’s a little easier if you can use shade, but even with lines alone, you can show the height of a mountain range. Continue reading “How to Draw Top Down Mountains on a Map”

An Illustrator’s Review of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

I’ve always wanted a tablet I could use for illustration. I bought the second generation iPad, hoping it would do the trick. I picked up all the art apps, and a range of styluses – from the Adonit Jot Touch Pro (my thoughts here), to 53’s Pencil – with 53’s Paper.

Paper was by far the best app for the iPad, because it threw precision out the window, and accepted what the iPad is – a sketchpad rather than a professional illustration tool. When I saw the iPad Pro come out, I was skeptical.

5 minute sketch with Pencil and an iPad Pro
A 15 minute sketch with Pencil and an iPad Pro, in the Apple Store, using Adobe Sketch

15 minutes trying it out in the store had me intrigued – so last weekend I picked it up. I was more than a little nervous. At $949 for the 128Gb iPad Pro, and $99 for the Apple Pencil – this could be a very expensive paper weight.

After a week I’m hooked. This, finally, is the device that makes drawing on a tablet painless.

Continue reading “An Illustrator’s Review of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil”

How to Draw Roads on a Map (with the Stroke Tool)

Parallel lines are a good way to indicate a road on a map. But drawing parallel lines is next to impossible. Photoshop to the rescue – there’s a simple trick to get this effect quickly and easily. Continue reading “How to Draw Roads on a Map (with the Stroke Tool)”