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.
1. Draw in the main mountain ridge line
There are very few single mountains in the world, most are part of extensive mountain ranges. So you’re actually not drawing a mountain, you’re drawing a line of mountains. So, begin by laying out the line that runs from crest to crest of the mountains in the range. This can’t be a loop – if it fully encloses an area, the water wouldn’t escape and you’d have a stagnant lake. It would fill up, overflow, and wear down a route out of the mountains – opening a route out.
Mountains define the river heads of most major rivers. So, from every peak, there has to be a route to the sea that is all downhill. This is key to making your map believable. Water can flow up in a fantasy world, but it should only do so intentionally, rather than to help you out with accidental geography.
2. Draw in secondary ridge lines
The main mountain ridge isn’t a monolithic unbroken ridge. There will be spurs that broaden the mountains on either side. If one side of the mountain range is a dramatic escarpment, and the other is more broken and spreading – that can make for a very striking feature. Here I’ve gone for a couple of longer ridges breaking off from the main ridge.
at the same time, add in secondary spurs from the larger mountains in the ridge. This helps to define a bit of structure, and call out the dominant peaks.
3. Add in the details
At this stage, the mountain range is well defined, so you can add in detail lines to your heart’s content. The ridge line should remain unbroken, as that will clearly delineate the main feature. When adding detail lines, they shouldn’t cross – you’re effectively identifying the high points of the terrain – so water running downhill would flow between them. You can indicate a mountain peak by having lots of the detail lines radiating from a single point.
The key here is to add in variation. Don’t have all the lines be the same distance apart. Include some broken lines, especially as you get further from the ridge. The human eye is drawn to differences, so add clusters and variation around mountain tops to pull attention to them. You can indicate valleys by having ridge lines come towards each other, creating a focus – but don’t quite let them meet (yes, I know I’ve violated that a few times above). Lastly – don’t draw a smoothe line. Straight, or gently curving lines will stand out like a sore thumb. Mountains are craggy, so the lines you use should be a little jagged and uneven.
You can also add more detail to the shaded side of the mountain range, or use a thicker line weight, to add a little more dimensionality and height.
3b. Use tone to shade the mountains for extra credit
If you’re using tone to shade your maps, you can block in the shadows on your mountains. Here I’ve carefully added the deepest shadows to the peaks (where the mountains are steepest) and faded that out to a broad, light cast shadow further from the ridge. I’ve left the light ward side of the mountains with the plain paper tone.
If you want to see the process for the illustration above, here’s the very short movie of the process of illustrating these mountain ranges:
That’s all for this mini tutorial. If you’re creating a black and white top down map, you’re done. If you want to add these mountains to a colored map, you’d follow an identical set of steps for the line art, and then add in shading and color (see the video below). If, instead, you’re illustrating an isometric map, follow this tutorial on how to shade and color an isometric mountain range.