How To Draw Forests

How to draw forests for fantasy maps

The dark and foreboding wood is a staple of fantasy literature and our own folklore. The Forest looms large in the Grimm Tales – an enemy in its own right. Mirkwood, Fangorn and the Old Forest all harbour ancient powers and perils for the characters of Middle Earth. Without Sherwood forest, Robin Hood would be just another outlaw. Forests are the Wild Other in many stories, acting as borders, sources of mystery and sources of resources and are key to any world map.

Here I’ve shown two types of forest, coniferous and deciduous, and I’m working in 3/4 view as before.

  1. Draw in the outlines of the forests. For deciduous forests, use rounded lines. For conifers, use sharp vertical strokes. Don’t worry about keeping the border complete. We’re just showing the edge, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Make sure the forest flows around hills and mountain edges. The forest’s movement will help to delineate the hills and mountains, making them easier to pick out.
  2. Add the details. Fill in the areas around the edges of the forest. Try to make sure that lines and features tend to join up horizontally rather than vertically. This will help to sell the 3/4 perspective. Also, make sure you detail forest along ridges and edges. This gives shape and form to your forests, and helps the viewer see the hills beneath the trees. As before, use curving lines for deciduous forest and sharp vertical lines for conifers. If you’re doing a black and white map, congratulations! You’re done. But if you want colour, read on.
  3. Base colours. Here I’ve shied away from my standard parchment background. Instead I’ve laid in the base colour on a new layer (under the lines) set to Normal blend, 100% opacity. I used some large grungy brushes with low opacity to build up the colours. You want to start with the lights and then build up to the darks. For the forest, I set colour jitter on the brush settings and added scatter to the brush. This gives a dappled spread of slightly varying greens, which is perfect for selling the varied colours of a forest. I use a yellower green for the deciduous and a bluer green for the conifers. I also take a low opacity dark blue and add a shadow around the base of the trees. It’s subtle – but it immediately nails down the forest as a 3/4 view forest with some bulk. It makes a big difference.
  4. Colour detail. Here I’ve added a new layer, with overlay blend mode and 100% opacity. First use dark blue and grungy brush to lay in shadow across the forest. Then I use a very light yellow to pick out the bright highlights on the deciduous forest, and a very light turquoise on the conifers. Again, use rounded shapes for the deciduous trees, and vertical spikes on the conifers.

And we’re done! You can find more tips and tricks on the tutorials page.

20 thoughts on “How To Draw Forests”

  1. Hi Jon!

    As always your how to lessons bring back memories of doodling maps during school day when I was a teenager, and make me sorry that I didn’t know then what you show us now because let me tell you my artistic map drawing skills were nil 🙂

    Have you ever drawn maps with an hex grid? Or any kind of grid? I mean overland maps not dungeon maps.

    1. I created a couple of hex based world maps for Traveller for Mongoose publishing, but I tend to steer clear of grids and hexes for overland maps. The outdoor features are so irregular that it works better to have them less regimented than a grid tends to require.

      There’s no reason not to overlay a hex grid on the map at the end of the day of course.

        1. You can just lay it in as a normal hex grid. It’ll work fine, or you can throw some isometric perspective in by shrinking the vertical dimension of the grid by 57.7%. If you rotate it a little then shrink it, that will really sell the isometric appearance, but that makes it less functional.

  2. Hey there John! Not sure where to post this, so here we go…

    I just stumbled upon your site while Googling around looking for technique tips. I appreciate your concise tutorials very much. I especially like the water-painterly quality of this particular tip here. It’s much of what I’ve been looking for. I have a gigantic project that I could use some advice on… if you have a few minutes.

    My basic scenario: I have been asked to digitally recreate a fully mapped campaign world (overland style) that was originally drawn 30 years ago, in pencil, on 70+ tiles of 8.5×11 hex paper (edge to edge). The scale is basically 3 miles per hex (1/4″ hex). It’s drawn in a very basic style from a top down view, similar to a topographic map without the topographic lines. There are only ridgelines for mountains, outer lines for forest boundaries, etc.

    The scope and diversity of the terrain is quite broad, as you can imagine. Because it was drawn decades ago by teenagers who don’t always understand geographic constraints, there are some anomalies with river flows, etc. But that isn’t my biggest concern.

    I’ve been wrestling with finding a “quick/simple” style so I can knock these out consistently without taking 15 hours on a tile. This will be my 7th or 8th time to redraw a handful of them to establish the look. I’ve tried numerous techniques, but they all end up taking many hours to complete – and even then, they are “too much”. The last few iterations I went for a realistic sort of satellite mapping look. However, the mountains are a real challenge because of the details in shading. I think I was trying to be too literal/realistic. Ultimately, I wasn’t happy with the look.

    Ultimately, these will be laminated and used by gaming groups on a regular basis. It’s a massive undertaking. I’ve already spent a couple hundred hours trying to find the right style; even using Campaign Cartographer and other similar apps. Hand drawn is about the only option that will work.

    Thus a few questions about your style and how I might incorporate some concepts into my project…

    1) How would you super-impose an isometric style over a top-down view map (as the source)? Will it work? Won’t the iso elements cover up rivers or other elements that you need to see? I need to retain all of the key, strategic elements in the original maps. The ridgelines are specifically placed which makes re-interpreted mountains that much more difficult to deal with.

    2) Do you have any sets of custom brushes that you can share for the inking and painterly effects? I’ve built a couple of my own, but I’m always looking improve my library of brushes – particularly for this project.

    3) Would you provide a tutorial for various water elements (lakes, rivers, ocean)?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this. I look forward to your reply. If you want to take this offline via email, you can reach me at kewlpack –@– gmail —- .com.


  3. Man, thanks a hell lot for commenting on your awesome job on the maps ! 6 of them hang in the walls of my tiny student bedroom and they bring so much life, exotism and lust for adventure on the otherwise plain blank walls !
    You created something awesome and you ought to know it !

  4. Hey Jon,
    Any chance you could make a video with this tutorial?. I have problems with laying down colors and then shading forests. I just can do it like you. It is not even close and looks awful :/.

  5. This was a nice tutorial, but I would love to see the image at higher resolution – it’s a bit hard to pick out individual strokes, which is useful when I think I’ve done what you said but it somehow doesn’t look quite right….

  6. Okay, I really have to leave this comment here: This isn’t just a neat little tutorial about forests, it also caused me to have an epiphany with regards to perspective, that is to always look at a map the way it is _supposed_ to appear when it’s done. I know this may sound stupid, but the simple fact that something may look vastly different when drawn closely at 200% zoom rather than the later print-size resolution is something so mundane it’s importance escaped me. Until I tried this tutorial. Because close-up the coniferous forests look nothing like forests. They look – and no disrespect intended, as it’s in fact rather ingenius – like chicken scratch. Only at the right distance does the method work it’s magic. So, thank you, Torstan!

  7. Hi, would it be possible to make a video tutorial for this? I am having a bit of problem with this, I seem to be doing something wrong.

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