A walkthrough of my mapmaking process

The stormpunk world of Rhune

I was asked about the process that goes into making a map like the map of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight

This walkthrough uses Photoshop and a graphics tablet. It can almost all be done in Gimp with the same settings (I use PS because it handles large files better – and has more advanced brush dynamics). The tablet is more critical. The line art can be done by hand drawing and scanning and setting the layer to multiply. The colouring can be done with a PS brush with the opacity down low and then lust built up multiple times – but I’d recommend spending the $80 and picking up a cheap Wacom. It makes all the difference.

Okay, onto the workflow:

  • Draw in the coastlines and get a selection that includes all the water (usually magic wand and then expand selection by 2). I use a 5px hard round brush with pressure sensitivity for the size for all my line work.
  • Save the selection
  • Draw in the rivers
  • Line work on the mountains. First lay in the spiky top outline. Then go back and draw in the lines flowing down the sides. Make them a little jagged, and try to have one ridge line look like it connects to the next mountain in the chain to create a visual of a connected range of mountains
  • Line work on hills and forests. Try not to be too careful with forests. They’re an impression of burgeoning flora, not a load of individually drawn trees.
Line art for fantasy world map pf Rhune for Pathfinder
Lay in the line art

Next up is the colouring.

  • Add a parchment background at the base
  • Set up one set of layers for the sea, and another for the land – use the selection you saved to tell between them
Line art for the stormpunk fantasy pathfinder world of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight
Add a parchment background

I’m going to just talk about the land – the sea is mostly done with gradients and nice big brushes.

  • Set up a colour layer and block in the colours of your land. Your parchment is brown so that’s a good base. Take the tops of your mountains to grey. Tundra is a grey-blue. Plains are a yellow-green and forest a green -> blue green. Use a large fuzzy brush >100 px at least. This isn’t precise stuff – you don’t want hard edges on your colours.
Colour layer for the stormpunk fantasy pathfinder world of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight
Use a colour layer to set basic colours
  • Add an overlay layer. Pick a dark blue for shadow and a bright white with a touch of yellow for a highlight. Use a hard round brush with opacity set to pressure sensitivity and lay in your mountain light and shade. This just takes practice, but what you want here is the sharpest contrast at the peak, fading out towards the base. Darken your forest. Switch to a grungy brush with pressure sensitivity for opacity, and low opacity (maybe 20%) and add some texture to the rest of the regions. Use a bright white-blue to brighten up the tundra, snow and desert.
Light and shade for the stormpunk fantasy pathfinder world of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight
Use an overlay layer to place light and shade using a hard round brush
  • Add another overlay layer. Use a hard round with pressure sensitivity for size, and perhaps an opacity of 50-80% and pick out details on your mountains. Use a grunge brush with scatter, colour jitter and low opacity to add texture to your forests. Lay some shadow round the edge of the forests to give the illusion of some volume to them to stop them looking flat. Add texture to any area that feels it needs it.
Detail for the stormpunk fantasy pathfinder world of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight
Use a second overlay layer, and a smaller brush, to add detailed light and shade.

That should get you 90% of the way there. I hope that covers a lot of the questions you had, but feel free to give me a shout if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense.

Oh, and the most important thing is that the line work pulls the colours together. The colours can (and should) be quite messy. But the hard edges of the lines give the colour structure. It’s that interplay that gives the integrated hand drawn look and allows elements to flow into each other. Don’t colour inside the lines.

Here’s what this part of the map looks like at print resolution – see how the rough lines become the suggestion of detail when you zoom out:

Final for the stormpunk fantasy pathfinder world of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight
Zoom back out and view your handiwork at print resolution.

15 thoughts on “A walkthrough of my mapmaking process”

    1. CC has a very different map making process as you lay down whole elements rather than drawing them. I guess a similar process might apply when building a dungeon. First lay down the walls and elements. Then lay in the background texture on bottom sheet. Then apply the layer effects to the walls to give the map depth and texture.

  1. Hey Jon

    thanks for the comment on Google + I followed you here as I thought it would be simpler. Questions yes I probably have loads mate. But to start with, what resolution and size is this you’re working on?

    1. I create my maps for print at 300dpi. As the computer screen is around 100ppi it looks three times larger when I’m working on it than it will appear in print. Every now and again I get a request for work at 600dpi. but 300dpi is more common.

      As for size – that depends on the project. A lot of the work I do is at 8.5″ by 11″ for it to be used in US letter sized publications, but this one was a wall poster map and came in at 22″ by 17″.

      Good to run into you on G+ and ask away! Best,


  2. Good grief, you make it look so easy!…

    This may be an odd question, but do you have any particular tricks for creating/keeping the correct impression of scale? My game-setting-region-map covers a very large area, like basically all of Eurasia, and I each time I go back over it it still doesn’t look as massive as it ought to. Would you just work with a bigger image?

    1. The trick there is the mountains. Have a look at a satellite map of Eurasia – you’ll see that the mountain ranges look like wrinkles in paper rather than towering ranges. They’re suggested by lines of snow, rather than by the shadows they cast. Have a look at these two maps for comparison:

      Smaller scale map:

      Very big world map:

      Notice the difference in apparent scale? The mountains, and the detailing of the forests, sell the scale. I hope that helps!

      1. Thanks for your response 🙂 I can certainly see the difference! Your technique looks much different on the second one too; it looks like you used no lines at all, just the colouring technique. Is that correct?

        1. Yes, in the second one there are no lines. That was more a requirement of the map style from the client – but it worked out well.

  3. Hey Jon, any chance for that kind of workflow as video tutorial? I tried this one and “how to draw a map” many times but i still have problem laying shadows and color. It would be helpful to see your motion with a pen. Thanks

  4. Jon, your tutorials are really inspiring to us who want to start drawing our own maps. I am struggling with the basics on this one. Could you please clarify a bit more what do you mean you work the sea with gradients? Thank you again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *