How I make my maps 🗺️

I’ve never been great at maps. Until recently, apparently. I did a lot of research and finagling until I came up with a style for maps that suits me and looks lovely without taking a lot of artistic talent. Many people asked me how I did it, so I spent most of a night making up a detailed guide. Enjoy!

1) To share, because I’m proud of this, and to show you all that if I can do this, so can you! Feel free to use as little or as much of this guide to help you in your cartography.

I use several programs to create this, including Fractal Terrains 3, Wonderdraft, Filterforge, and Photoshop. You can certainly create your own maps using just Wonderdraft (wonderful program) or Photoshop, but I wanted to show the specific top-down style I managed to somehow end up with. I source and link as much as I can, and provide images too 🙂

2) The first thing I did was create my world using Fractal Terrains 3 – https://secure.profantasy.com/products/ft.asp#&panel1-1

I’ve since lost the original FT3 file, all I have left are the PNGs that I downloaded and saved, but that’s all we need. I exported my map as a single 7500 x 3750 image (I think that’s the largest you can make it), and as 256 separate 7500 x 3750 images: 16 across and 16 tall.

These 256 files are the base for my 256 magical realms on my world of Noctuina.

But you can, of course, just create one country or island.

3) Fractal Terrains 3 time- let’s make the base image. Play around with the program, make the island or country or entire world how you want it.

Make sure under Map (between Edit and Tools) to select ‘Show Gaia’ – that will give you the color scheme we want (important).

And under World Settings (the icon that’s been pressed up top) tweak your world. You can usually have a more 3D look, rougher or smoother, but my preference when I made my world years ago was to keep it flat.

Overall the colors will still tell you, vaguely, the height of certain areas.

4) (See, flat. If I was making my map now I might keep the crevasses and roughness that FT3 lets you make, but again, sadly, I’ve lost the original file. And I love my world too much to make a new one).

Ok, now we have the ‘base’ map through FT3. The above is another realm of mine, Astrarctia, and we’ll be turning it into the style that we saw above- more 3D, with a top-down roughness, rivers, trees, and mountains, all in a light color and more watercolor/paper feel too.

5) Next we change the colors up. It’s not that evident in this realm, but the large swatches of brown and tan ends up looking like desert or dead land when, overall, I think we should want more green. This is the color choices I made, you can further tweak them, or alter them at a later time.

First we go to Hue/Saturation in Photoshop.

6) We go to Reds and change:

Hue to +180
Saturation to +75
Lightness to – 100

And hit Ok

7) Open up Hue/Saturation again and scroll down to Yellows

Hue to +50
Saturation can stay at 0
Lightness to -20

Yay, now we’re nice and green!

Let’s save this as a separate PNG file (backup, backup, backup!)

8) Here’s a better comparison of how much brown/tan there can be, and how greenifying it makes it look a lot more alive.

9) Make sure the ‘Green’ version of your map is saved separately. We have to tweak the colors again to move the landscape over to Wonderdraft.

Wonderdraft lets you import heightmaps and recreate your world in their program. The easiest way is to make all of the ocean/water black, and all of the ground white.

So select Color Range and grab all the varying blues. I don’t have a lot here in this map, but your map may have lighter and darker blues- grab them all so that they’re selected. Now grab a large brush and paint all that black.

10) After that’s black, hit the marquee tool and right click- you’ll see an option that says Select Inverse. Since you selected all of your water, selecting the inverse will grab all of the land.

11) And with the land selected you can paint that all white.

12) We open a new Wonderdraft Map the same size are our map, and we Import the BW Image

13) Tada! Now we have our map up in wonderdraft. I keep the Water Texture to ‘Worn’ and the Ground Texture to ‘Paper.’

14) Now let’s import that green image. We go to Overlay and then Trace Took (those papers stacked next to each other, the top button on the side right under ‘overlay’). Select the Trace Image and grab your Green version.

15) Have the Scale as 1, and the Opacity as .45

Now we’re starting to see how it’s all coming together!

16) I did a few more color tweaks in Wonderdraft too. I go to Water and make the

Hue .16
Saturation .1
Value .5
Stain Amount 1

17) Next is going to Water and Color. I made a custom dark color for myself, and you can use that one, or another blue. Hit the Fill button and that’ll make all of the water dark, even that beneath the land. If you hit the Fill button a few times it’ll keep getting darker.

18) Then I did the same thing with Land, Filling it and painting it a light green that makes the background pop more even through the filtered opacity.

Now we have our map looking like a lovely paper/watercolor drawing.

19) Now, close every layer except for Water, so all we see is the lovely dark sea. Export that image and save it.

20) Let’s so the same thing with the land- open the Land and Overlay layer (close Water), and export that. Make sure Export Trace Image is there too.

21) Back to Photoshop! Open up the old Base model, the Ocean, and the Land as separate layers.

22) Then just on the Land layer let’s erase the thin overlay that stayed behind where the oceans/water is. Same as last time- select Color Range, click all that grey-blue, and erase it.

23) On the Land layer add a layer style – Bevel and Emboss, and Stroke. It’ll have the land stand out a touch and help with rivers too.

(I think I found that out in this youtube video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpSIOuHV3Wg

24) Back to the base map for a minute. The colors are a lot more crisp and they’ll work better with the Magic Wand tool to select the right area. Go ahead and choose a part of the land that you want to be above others- a bit higher, hilly.

26) Change the layer style to just Bevel and Emboss and use these measurements (it may have the layer style we made earlier for the land and that’ll look weird, but don’t worry, just change it to this.)

Now you have an area that’s higher than the rest. You can keep doing this with as many areas as you want- I like using the magic wand to select areas because the colors already give us a vague heightmap.

27) Make sure you keep the ‘highest’ layer above the others, just keep them in descending order as layers in photoshop. You can make several layers this way that ‘stack.’ If you want a bumpier/hilly area, use the magic wand on the paper version of the land. It’ll get into nooks and crannies and your layer won’t be as ‘smooth’ this way.

You don’t have to keep remaking the layer settings each time, you can right click and ‘copy layer style’ and then ‘paste layer style’ onto each layer.

28) Mountain time!

I got most of this from this imgur thread: https://imgur.com/a/oLYzI So if you’re not sick of reading about photoshop and cartography, give that a peak.

I made a new layer and called it Mountains. I then tweaked the Layer Style again, adding in Bevel and Emboss. I also gave it a grey/green color overlay and added in a drop shadow, but those aren’t necessary.

29) I like this brush for it, but any brush that has sort of look will do. Just click around, drag your brush a bit, and you’ll start to draw these mountains. Move the brush into ‘Clear’ Mode if you want to erase with the same brush, and make some of the mountains smaller, or refine how it looks. Again, the imgurian above me made a much better overview of mountains.

30) And trees. Make another layer for that with the layers styles as follows. I use the same brush as I did for the mountains, but again, anything that is sort of ‘spoty’ will work. Make the Spacing about 80% too. Then pick which color green you like and start drawing. I change up the green here and there to show more diversity in the leaves. You can also use white, or red, for snowy or autumn leaves.

31) Rivers are next. I got this concept from a redditor and a post from six years ago: https://www.reddit.com/r/photoshop/comments/218wlh/tapered_brush_techniques/cgarsmz/

Make yourself a new brush and tweak the shape dynamics up. It’ll give you a rough looking line that works well for rivers. The ‘Fade’ setting is important- you’ll be changing that up. The longer it takes to fade, the longer your river will be until it narrows and disappear. Remember that rivers go from high ground to lower ground and eventually find the ocean. They converge, they usually do not split.

32) Back to our paper version of the land layer. Here that nice bevel and stroke effect will make the rivers seem to physically below the paper. We use the ‘Clear’ mode and just erase the land where we want our rivers, and show off the Water layer below. You can also select small areas with the magic wand and just erase those to make lakes (or freehand it).

You’ll want to draw towards your higher area since the river will go from wide to narrow. Change up the fade to make branches.

33) (Moving back to my other map since I don’t know what I want yet with Astrarctia)

Eventually you’ll have something lovely like this! A map with texture that looks like you could touch it.

Go ahead and save this (you should have been saving as you go!). Keep it as a photoshop file and go ahead and make a separate png of this too. There’s still a few more steps left.

34) Back to Wonderdraft! Open up your file and Clear the Trace Image you had before, and add in the new lovely map at about 60 opacity. This will let you see everything you’ve made, and then let you use Wonderdraft’s great Labels feature to name everything, and also add symbols and paths and all the technical things.

There’s also an overlay feature where you can make the map into a grid or a hex-grid, that’s helpful too.

You can make borders in Wonderdraft if you want, I made my borders in photoshop, but a lot of people don’t use political borders at all really in maps like this. That’s up to you.

35) After you have everything labeled where you want it go ahead and close all the layers except for Labels (and paths, and symbols, if you used those too).

(If you made a hex-grid with the overlay, go ahead and clear the Trace Image and keep Overlay checked too).

Go ahead and export it as a PNG

36) Now you can add in that png as another layer in photoshop and have everything labeled and pretty.

37) The last step to getting that watercolor look and tying it all together is done with Filter Forge.

I use the Paint HDRtist effect, with custom settings (all pictured). And I import the png of my complete photoshop picture above, labels and all. And I save the new image. The filter forge rendering might take a while, especially if you have a huge map like I do.

38) Now it’s nice and watercolor-y and the mountains in particular look stunning.

39) It’s a bit too bright for me, so I go ahead and throw that back into photoshop, go to Hue/Saturation, and make the Greens, and then Blues darker.

Hue 0
Saturation +30
Lightness -70

For Greens, and then Blues, same numbers!

40) There you have it folks! How I made that map from the old PNG files I had laying around from Fractal Terrains 3, with the help of the internet and a number of lovely art programs. I hope this helps many of you!

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