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:


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 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)”

After Earth – Mapping the Galaxy

It’s always fun to try something new, but in this case the something new was a sci fi galaxy map, and the client was Overbrook Entertainment, and Will Smith. The brief was to create 4 maps for the expanded universe around the movie After Earth. There are a bunch of books and graphic novels associated with the film. Those stories had been written in parallel with the movie development and each had added something to the geography of the universe.

One of the writers on the expanded universe material was an old RPG hand, and noticed that what the worldbuilding needed was reference maps – of the universe, solar system, world, and key city. And so I got a call.

Continue reading “After Earth – Mapping the Galaxy”