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:


How to Draw Forested Hills on a Top Down Map

Often hills are indicated on a map by drawing an outline, but when you have forest on top, that outline gets obscured. So how do you draw forested hills? The trick is to use the detail of the forest to indicate the hills, rather than obscure them.

Continue reading “How to Draw Forested Hills on a Top Down Map”

Beyond the Wall

I was wondering which map to post next, and then the weather made the decision for me. I can hardly see downtown Manhattan any more due to the snow outside my window. Winter has definitely come – in early March.

Beyond the Wall, © George RR Martin, used with permission
Beyond the Wall, © George RR Martin, used with permission

Continue reading “Beyond the Wall”

Gather round and hear Tales of the Old Margreve

Open Design has released their latest patronage project – the Tales of the Old Margreve. It’s set deep in an ancient forest of dark happenings and lingering curses.

Regional fantasy map from Open Design's world of Zobeck
The Old Margreve

As the cartographer for the project I’ve just received the final pdf and it’s a beauty. The layout work is fantastic and really reinforces the feel of old eastern European legends and horror. The anthology draws on fairy stories of the old school. Anyone who read the Brother’s Grimm wouldn’t go gaily into the forest looking for elves. This forest is one of ancient power and you disrespect it at your peril. Continue reading “Gather round and hear Tales of the Old Margreve”