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Introduction to Mapmaking[edit]

This detailed map of Lorica is a premium-quality work of art.

I've seen quite a few maps for constructed worlds, including some images made with unusual software, and I can say that based on my observations, using Adobe Photoshop is the best way to go for making maps. If you're serious about making a quality image, it's a must-have. I wouldn't be cheap and use MS Paint, KidPix or MS Office for this task, although the GIMP or Inkscape work nearly as well. And now, for a guide to using Photoshop to map-making:

Photoshop Basics[edit]

Okay, so you got Photoshop, and you want to create a map out of thin air. Regardless of how you want your map to turn out, follow these general principles:

  • Use multiple layers. That's what they're for. Assuming you have the default windows open, the one that has "background layer" as a tile on it is the one that will also show the other layers, in order, with the ones at the top going over the ones at the bottom. There is a button near the bottom of this pane that allows you to quickly add new layers. You can also duplicate or delete layers by right-clicking on them and choosing "duplicate" or "delete".
  • Save often. Save before making a copy (ie. png), otherwise you'll have trouble saving the photoshop file.
  • Use undo often. This is Ctrl+Z. Doing it twice is an undo-redo, basically it undoes your undo. You can undo further into history all the way up to around 30 past actions by choosing the correct tile in the history pane.
  • Use a larger zoom that allows you to see the whole picture if you're trying to determine where to place something such as a continent. Use a smaller zoom for finer work.

Map Size[edit]

First, you have to choose the size of your map. I really like the 1280x800 pixel image, and I happen to have a computer with those settings in place. For starters, you can choose to have an image of that exact same size, since it'll display on your computer very well at 100% size. You can also choose to make smaller maps if your subject has a small land mass or doesn't have many geographical features, or it can be multiples larger if you ever hope to magnify out your map. Remember, the larger your starting map, the more detail you can cram into it, but the larger the file. Uploading PNG files bigger than 1920x1200 is discouraged for those with slower internet connections.

Note that if you are creating a map of an entire globe like the one of Lorica at the top, which might be used for reprojections or used in computer graphics software as a "texture" to wrap around a sphere and be rendered into a planetscape or as an image of the globe hanging in a starry background, you will need an image with a width exactly equal to twice its height. So, for example, an image that is 1280 pixels wide should be 640 pixels tall and an image that is 1920 pixels in width should be 960 pixels high. If, on the other hand, you're creating a global map that doesn't need to conform to those use cases, or a map that is not global in scale, the more "ergonomic" ratios (i.e. ratios closer to the Golden Ratio) mentioned above are more appropriate.

Map Outline[edit]

Let's move on to making a map. Before you begin, it may help to first sketch out what you want the map to look like on paper; this is because doing it on paper is particularly fast and easy. A general outline will do; just get the basic appearance down. If you're artistically inclined, you may want to do it in more detail on paper first, just to make sure it's good, or you could do it directly on the computer.

At any rate you'll want to create some sort of outline on the computer because it's easy to lose the map proportions you want when drawing wiggly lines on a blank image. Create a blank layer and use the paintbrush tool to create the general outline on the computer. If you've done the paper step, just transfer that map to the image on the computer. The first time doesn't have to be too accurate.

The next step is to elaborate on that map. Create a new layer. Set the paintbrush to a small size (round 1-5 px) without blurring on the edges, and change its setting from "Normal" to "Dissolve" or else remove anti-aliasing. and using the same color, draw the coastline borders of your map on that layer. This layer shouldn't have anything else on it. Also, it is important that you don't end up with half-colored pixels and such. If you let go of the mouse often, you must be especially careful to cover holes in the boundary. You definitely don't want holes in boundaries. You should especially take care to cover the edges of the map. Take this opportunity to decide if you like your map as it is. You'll want to have the map pretty much complete before you move on, and it'll be a pain to change it later, so try to fix any problems now.

Deciding on Map Appearance[edit]

For those who aren't artistically inclined, you'll have to settle for whatever image you get. For those few artists out there, take a moment to, after creating the first, brief outline, step back and see if that's actually the shape and size you want that landmass to be. Is it appealing? Does it have a memorable shape? A natural shape? Does it match too closely with the USA's boundaries? That of a stocking? A good map doesn't look too much like any one thing, and as we can see from the map of the real world, no part of the world's natural boundaries really look like anything in particular. A good map doesn't have a viewer focusing constantly at the object that the map ends up portraying, but instead can give suggestions of different parts of all sorts of different things, much like clouds in the sky. You'd be freaked out if you saw a cloud formation that looked exactly like a mountain lion. Same with landmasses.

Golden proportions can be very useful. Imagine them being overlaid on the map, and use them as guiding points or guiding lines for geographical borders and corners. Use this technique over and over until you totally get the hang of it. Then again, don't use it in the same way too often, or that too will come across looking unnatural. Don't use the "rule of three", or else you'll end up with a map that looks a lot like a game of tic-tac-toe.

There are certain things that world maps ought to take into consideration. Planets like the Earth could be expected to have oceans and continents, large islands and seas, small islands and large lakes, peninsulas and bays, archipelagos and straits. Look at the world map up close and absorb what those geographical features ought to look like. Continents don't look like ovals, and peninsulas don't look like Oklahoma. Oceans aren't entirely surrounded by land, but have rivers flowing into them. Lakes and islands aren't placed at regular intervals; you have regions with typically more land, and regions with a lot of water. Don't end up making your map looking too much like a grid.

If any of these problems arises, take as much time as you need to fix them. Consciously locate all the over-regular, over-obvious, over-artificial portions of the map and erase them (using 100% opacity). Redraw over them with a different shape. Try your best not to end up with a similar shape. Too round? Add a peninsula. Too square? Make a gash down near the middle and rotate half the image.

You would also want to add plenty of zigzags and other jagged shapes to the boundary to give it a semblance of realism. Almost the entire boundary has to be made in this way, drawn from one side to the other and back again using a paintbrush and zigzagging the entire time. But you don't want to end up doing the same shapes or same line patterns over and over again, because that too will cause the map to look too regular and hence unbelievable.

The ultimate check is to squint at the map and ask yourself,

  1. Is this natural?
  2. Can I imagine the landmasses as if they had been pulled out from under the sea, into this shape?

Understanding the Underlying Geography[edit]

There are other geographical features to take into consideration. Being aware of the most commonly accepted practices will allow you to craft more believable worlds.

Most likely you'll feature mountains on islands and mountain ranges and plateaus on continents. The locations of these mountain ranges, and the locations of bodies of water, should determine the climates of the world without your direct intervention - at least for the most realistic ones.

If you want to get mountain ranges accurately, you must also consider tectonic plates. Draw these plates however you like them. However, once you've drawn them you must stay consistent. Decide in which direction these plates have moved in the past and have been moving in the near past. Plates running into each other buckle and cause mountain ranges and are good for separating a massive continent into pieces (think Indian subcontinent); plates moving away from each other cause sudden, noticeable breaks in the landmass and are good for severing a continent from an adjacent ocean. Along the tectonic borders are regions of intense volcanic or seismic (earthquake) activity. There are also hot spots, which can be located anywhere but if located in ocean can be responsible for archipelagos (such as Hawaii).

Trade winds generally flow east to west or west to east, alternating in direction at different longitudes. These winds continuously take moisture that had evaporated into the air above bodies of water - generally oceans and seas - and take them in the direction of the winds. The brunt of the rainfall will occur right along the windward side of mountain ranges (the side from which the winds approach). This leaves the land on the other side highly lacking in rainfall. Places with considerable precipitation tend to become rain forests, while those with very little often become desert or tundra. So if you have a body of water and then a mountain range immediately to its east and then open plains and then more water at the far east, then if trade winds are west to east, that plains region will be desert, but if the trade winds are east to west, that plains region will be a more "typical" prairie climate.

Swamps form where the ground is level and there is a large influx of water, such as at a river delta, that drains off slowly.

Understanding Climates[edit]

In places where there isn't a major geographical feature (mountain range), you'll want to gradually adjust climate. Don't go from prairie to desert immediately; there should be an intermediate savanna region. Don't go from prairie to tundra all of a sudden; there should be a taiga (coniferous forest) region, or at least a considerable amount of territory with cold but not terribly cold weather.

If you're using Earth-based life forms, you should know that the deep deciduous trees of rain forests are very different from light deciduous trees of ordinary woodlands, which in turn differ from the coniferous forests of the taiga.

Seasons matter if your planet is going to have a significant axial tilt of at least 15 degrees. Seasons are always summer in one hemisphere and winter in another, or spring in one and fall in the other - unless they are caused by the planet following an elliptical orbit, in which case they coincide across hemispheres and the winters last longer than the summers - and only differ across the equator, not between western and eastern ones. The more pronounced the tilt, the more pronounced the change in seasons is.

Climates are generally hotter along the equator and become progressively colder as one moves away. Temperature is a heavy determinant of climate; hot deserts along the equator are very different from cold deserts further removed, and likewise, you don't get rain forests far from the equator.

Filling in the Map[edit]

After you've done planning where to place your land masses, and after you've finished with the outline, switch to using the bucket fill tool and flood all the landmasses one color, and the waters another color, as long as the color you used to outline is one of these two colors. Change colors afterward at will. Now your entire map should be either green for land or blue for water, and maybe white for ice caps.

Use the magic selector tool, turn off the "continuous" option, and click on the land (green). This will select all landmasses and only landmasses. Copy and paste; this will create a second later comprised of just the green landmass layer. Right click on the tile for that layer in the tile pane, and click on "blending options". This is a set of tools that can give a certain "spin" to the appearance of that layer. In this case, let's say we want the landmass to cast a shadow over the water. Select "outer shadow" and adjust the settings accordingly. Or we may want to outline the landmass in yellow-grey-white to represent beach. Select "stroke" and choose the color and thickness. And there you go. Alternatively, instead of creating a new layer you can click on the selection tool, right-click anywhere on the image, and choose "stroke", for a similar effect.

You can do the same thing with water. For example, if you want to create the waves style on old-style maps in the water around the landmasses, select all the water, click on the selection tool, and repeatedly add inner strokes at varying distances and opacities. This will allow you to get the same effect on the map regardless of where it is, and do it near-perfectly.


Now, it's time to place forests on your landscapes. Select the brush tool, but this time, instead of using circle styles, switch to the starry or sporadic styles. I would generally choose a dark green color to represent forests. Create a new layer. On this forest layer, use the brush to create woods. You may also want to experiment with different size brushstrokes and different opacities to find out what works best. An important part of making forests is to not make it ubiquitous.

The problem with just using brushstrokes is that if you're doing coastal forests, it'll inevitably spill over into the water regions, which is unacceptable. Fortunately this problem is easily resolvable; before you start adding the forests with the paintbrush, use the magic selection tool on your landmass, thereby selecting it. Now the program will ignore all parts of all brushstrokes that go out of bounds. You can remove the dotted lines (and deselect) at any time by clicking on the selection tool and clicking anywhere on the image.

If you want to add a bit more shape to forests, you can alter its blending options. Try using drop shadow for casting a shadow and texture/emboss/bevel to add that outgrowth appearance to the forests. Play around with the techniques - who knows what you'll find, and there's an infinity of possible combinations of blending options at your disposal with Photoshop. I promise you it'll take a while, so don't be in too big a rush to master it all.

Furthermore, it may be a good idea to diversify the color of your forests. Forests don't all look the same from one region to another, depending on climate; coniferous forests could be expected to appear a bit more teal-colored than deciduous forests.

Oceans and Seas[edit]

Water is quite simple. However, in certain map types you'll want to include a bit of undersea terrain, such as in the physical world maps. Remember your tectonic plate lines? If a plate line cuts straight through an ocean, you'll get a trench down the middle of the ocean if the plates are moving apart, or you'll get an undersea mountain range if the plates are moving together. These will generally be large entities spanning a significant portion of the ocean. Other plate lines occur along one or more sides of continents or oceans, ie. along the geographical borders. These generally will appear more squished together, with more pronounced effects. Randomly you'll also be able to find isolated undersea mountains, including all your archipelagos. There are also patches of the underground areas that are typically flat like plateaus, while other regions have countless mountains.

Typically, continents have a continental shelf which extends for some significant distance beyond the coastline. This distance is variable, but if you plan to incorporate continental shelfs, make sure that they are extensive, the shelf zone is flat and light blue (as in it's close to the water surface).

Generally, I use a lighter blue for undersea mountains and darker blue for trenches. Use a paintbrush with a rather larger size (round 5-20 pts) and blurry edges, switch to using Normal mode (or even play around with Multiply for dark blue and Luminosity/Overlay/Soft Light/Screen for light blue. Use larger brushes for geographical features that span a considerable amount of territory, and use smaller brushes for isolated mountains.


Remember your trade winds chart? From that you should know where the moist winds will hit rising elevations. Those are the places where the most rainfall will occur. Not only are these regions the "greenest", they are also the places where the most streams form. Streams almost always start at major hills and mountain ranges, and almost never in a desert. They then combine to form ever-larger rivers, typically shown by them getting wider. Ultimately, all rivers flow into a lake, sea, or ocean. The largest ones can form a delta at the mouth of the river.

Before you draw any rivers, first create a new layer. Using a round paintbrush tool with 100% opacity and a small size (2-6 pixel), choose a bluish watery color (I suggest light blue), start drawing the rivers. After this, on the same layer switch to smaller brush sizes and perhaps use less than 100% opacity to create smaller rivers and ultimately streams. You'll need to spend a considerable amount of time if you want to create a good, reasonable amount of rivers. Rivers are just about everywhere, and streams even more so. You shouldn't have a lush part of the map have more than 20 miles or so without a river or stream. This is another reason why your map needs to have a high degree of detail, aka. use a big map.

Make sure you don't draw your rivers too straight. If you've ever been on an airplane with a window seat, you'll notice that rivers can curve every which way and double back endlessly. This characteristic is especially true in plains and plateaus. Rivers don't have to always flow toward the sea; they can curve around for considerable lengths and even double back. They are almost never straight. Streams follow the paths of mountain valleys; there are generally so many streams that just about every mountain valley on the windward side of a mountain range will have a stream down the middle. Generally, a large continent will have a couple of major rivers with tributaries coming from a wide watershed region, each of which are also substantial-sized rivers in their own right.

When you're done with the rivers, right click on the layer's tile on the layer pane. Select "blending options", then select "stroke" and choose a dark-greenish color and stroke-outside. This will give all your rivers and streams certain surrounding regions of lush greenery derived from the water itself, adding to its level of realism.


If you're doing a typical human-settled region or world, you'll want to have cottages, villages, towns, forts, cities, capitals, and sites of interest. Cottages and villages generally are too many and too small to be added to any map, so you'll often want to exclude these from your map. Sites of interest should be added to the map at your discretion; generally, if they overlap in location with a settlement, don't display them separately on your map. You'd want to include towns, cities, and capitals, however.

People generally want to settle in the following locations:

  • Along coastlines, especially ones located at river mouths or along good beaches.
  • Along rivers, especially along large rivers and at forks in the river.
  • In strategic choke points, such as major trade routes, straits/islets, and certain islands.
  • NOT in deserts, tundra, taiga, steppe, plateau, swamp or marsh territory.

According to these general guidelines, develop your concept of where the major population centers will be, as well as where settlements would be.

You should create a new layer just to place settlements. Generally this is done using squares or circles; Photoshop doesn't support square-shaped brushes so I just stick with differing-size, black, 100%, sharp-edges brush dots. If you misplace, simply erase (using a similar eraser size). If you want to, you can manually give your capitals a star shape, but it's a pain and you will not be able to change it later on a whim. Once you've put dots where your settlements will be, you can add text layers using the text tool to name them. I suggest using a small font, for example, Tahoma 3 pt. for towns and Tahoma 4 pt. for cities. If your map is spacious, keep your settlement names flat and place them directly below, to the left of or right of the dot, consistently. If your map is cramped for space, in heavily populated regions such as coastlines, you'll have to tilt your texts (rotating them) in order to fit them clearly. In this case you'll have to have all the text for coastal settlements being placed over the water, especially since you could have a string of settlements further inland.

If you're doing feudal, city-state, state, national or imperial borders, use the line tool (right click on the shape tool and choose "line", then choose 1 or 2 pt width, no arrows). You can either use these lines to fully outline borders or you can use them sparingly, at just the locations where important territory between settlements can be disputed. You can then use larger-size, different font (I use Monotype Corsiva) text to give names to nations. In this case, you'd want to use less than 60% opacity, maybe a different color, and also move the text away from areas of crammed settlement-name text.

Map projection[edit]

This is a special topic in relation to the creation of maps designed to portray the entire surface of a spherical planet. In the map of Lorica above, see the single, snowy continent at the north end of the map, which is stretch out to cover the entire top? You probably realize that this is not a long continent shaped like a line as it appears on the map but is rather representing an approximately circular region that appears this way because it is located in the polar region of the planet.

The same depiction of Antarctica is made in maps of Earth. This is all due to the mathematical problems related to displaying the curved surface of a sphere in a flat, two-dimensional form as a map. The surface features of the globe need to be stretched and morphed and formed to change them into a flat surface. There are many different ways of doing this stretching an morphing, resulting in slightly different-looking flat maps of the globe. You would call one particular method of doing the stretching and morphing a projection.

Imagine you were going to take the sphere of the planet and stretch it out to be a cylinder. The axis of rotation of the planet is going to become the axis of the cylinder, the axis which at each end is perpendicular to the flat ends of the cylinder itself. One other trick of the way it's stretched: every detail on the surface stays at the same latitude as it is stretched out to become the curved sides of the cylinder.

The process described in the preceding paragraph makes a cylindrical projection of the planet. Can you see that if we took the cylinder and cut it lengthwise we could unroll it into a flat map of the world, like the map of Lorica above? There are many other projections as well; from school you may be familiar with the Mercator projection, which is quite similar to the cylindrical projection but squishes things near the poles so that they're slightly less distorted. Or there are projections that cause the map to look like an oval, and ones that cut up the surface into pieces and display each piece with as much fidelity as possible.

The point of knowing all this is that if you're going to do a map of your entire world, you probably want to do it as a cylindrical projection so that it can easily be transformed into other formats, and because any computer graphics approach to portraying your planet as a sphere using the map would need a cylindrical projection as its input.

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