I am not writing a tutorial on how to use your image editing program; I assume you already know that, or at least can figure it out yourself. Note that these are not easy programs to learn or use. However they have a ton of capabilities, and if you want a cool map, well, you're going to have to get your hands dirty.
I imagine that I'll be editing this a bit, adding to it, and organizing it better, but here goes:
Googling & Links
Googling definitely helped me figure out a lot of the techniques. There is a ton of information on fantasy mapmaking and cartography online. There are also lots of example maps and images, which I found very helpful when trying to determine how I wanted a geographic feature to look. GIMP's online tutorials aren't bad, once you figure out what tool you're trying to use.
One site that seemed to come up a lot was www.cartographersguild.com, which is a community for fantasy mapmakers. Their forums have all sorts of information.
Online maps, such as Google Maps, Mapquest, and Bing, are useful to help you see how geographic features look. Want to make your fjords look realistic? Well, zip over to Norway and see how they look.
I'm using GIMP. I don't have a copy of PhotoShop, and decided that the $250 or whatever it costs would be better spent on LEGO! GIMP is fine, and it's free. Not sure if there's a version for Windows, but there is one for Mac and Linux. I'm sure PhotoShop is better than GIMP, and I've heard that PhotoShop is definitely easier to use. I used to use it many years ago, and liked it a lot, so I wouldn't switch from it if you have it. Seashore is dumbed down version of GIMP for the Mac. I think it's great for simple photo editing. I tried to use it for mapmaking, but quickly discovered that it is too dumbed-down for what I wanted to do. If you wanted to make a really quick and simple map, it's probably OK.
Here are some of my key learnings on mapmaking:
- Keeping everything in separate layers is key - it helps organize and manage everything, and allows you to create and edit features without messing up other features. More on this later.
- You gotta get the right brush for the job. See Brushes below.
- Don't use too many colors. Keep it simple.
- Keep it fairly clean -- don't clutter up the map too much. I've tried that and it doesn't look good, and I had to wipe out a bunch of stuff.
- It has to make sense geographically.
- Zoom in a bit for working on details, but make sure you zoom out to 100% / actual size every now and then to make sure it looks good. Check each feature to see how it looks. Redo it if it's doesn't look right. Yes, it takes more time, but it really makes the map look much better.
- Do things in order. What order is a bit up to you, but in general, do the larger features first. See below.
- Learn how to select parts of the image properly. Learn how to select using the polygonal or lasso select tools. Learn how to use the 'magic' (or similar color) selection tool. Learn how to add to or subtract from a selection, and how to take the intersection of two selections.
- Small touches and details help - the compass rose, a few sea monsters, the "shore gradients" (see below)
- Learn a few keyboard shortcuts, such as for the Undo, Paintbrush tool, Eraser tool, etc. Then you can use one hand to hit the keys while your primary hand draws with the mouse. Otherwise you'll forever be moving the mouse from the image over to the menus and toolbox palettes and back again.
- Undo is your friend. You're going to use the Undo feature. A lot. It's OK. Feel free to try things and experiment. You can always undo and try again.
Order of Work
I generally work in this order: shoreline, rivers, mountains, hills, forests, swamps & deserts, cities, roads, shore gradients and ocean tinting, and finally text labels. You want to lay down the big stuff first, and work down to the details later. I could also see doing the mountains first, then putting in the rivers, and then the shoreline, if that makes sense to you. Or shoreline first, then mountains and hills, then rivers.
Making Sense Geographically
Well this seems obvious, but I've seen a lot of example maps with just wacky stuff on them. If your map doesn't look real, in a geographic sense, it won't look right to the viewer. Here are some examples:
- Rivers that flow uphill, like into the mountains. You might find this hard to believe, but rivers actually flow downhill, from the mountains to the sea. In rare cases, they end up in a salt lake in the desert with no outlet. Otherwise, they all end up in the sea.
- Mountains that completely surround a flat space in the middle. So where does all the rainfall go? If the mountains truly surrounded the flat space, there'd be a lake there because the rainfall couldn't get out. I know you want a nice valley protected on all sides by impassable mountains, but there has to be river flowing out of it somewhere. It's ok; it can flow through an impassable gorge or something.
- Rivers that separate and rejoin too much, or crossing over each other. In general, rivers fork going upstream only, and merge going downstream. When a river separates and rejoins, that's an island in the river; and they're usually fairly small. Rivers certainly don't join and separate into a web of interconnected rivers (exception: some bayous and deltas are like this, but they are very, very interconnected, and it's going to take a lot of work to map that).
- Climatic issues, e.g., swamps in the middle of deserts, jungles right next to deserts, palm forests next to coniferous forests, snow in the tropics, jungles in the arctic, etc. Sometimes these may work, but usually it just looks wrong.
Working in Layers
I think working in image editors is all about Layers. I put everything into separate layers, so that they don't interfere with each other. So the land outline in one layer, rivers and lakes in another, roads and cities in another, mountains in another, etc. Make sure you have the Layers dialog visible on your screen so you can easily pick which layer you're working on. At first, this is a bit confusing, as I was forgetting which layer I was on, and put a river on the mountains layer or something. But after a while it becomes second nature to check and switch layers before doing something. You can hide and show layers as necessary to reduce clutter while working. You can also move layers up and down; stuff in the upper layers will hide the lower layers below them.
In my maps, the layers are as follows, starting at the bottom: a white background layer, the land outline / shoreline, the 'shore gradients', mountains and hills, forests, deserts, rivers & lakes, ocean tinting, 'other', cities & roads, decorations, and then all the text labels are on top. 'Other' includes features that don't fit anywhere else, like swamps, cliffs, etc.
Brushes are specialized, (usually) small image files that tell the image editor what texture to use to apply the color you're painting with. For the shorelines, I've been using 5 pixel wide fuzzy circle brush, shrunk down to about 75-80% of normal size. I tried the Pencil brush, but it was too hard-edged; I wanted a mostly solid, dark line, but with little bit of fuzziness on the sides. Similar for rivers, but slightly narrower. For forests, swamps, and mountains I used custom brushes.
Your image editor comes with some standard painting brushes already, in a bunch of sizes, such as normal brushes, pencil brushes, airbrushes, etc. These are good for lines, like rivers and shorelines. However, for a lot of other things, custom brushes are your friend for mapmaking. I created some brushes myself, such as for various trees and the swamps, which isn't too hard once you figure out what you're doing. GIMP's online tutorial for creating brushes wasn't too bad, as long you're just doing simple ones. I imagine creating PS brushes can't be too hard either once you figure it out. I also found a set of brushes that someone had done based on the symbols on Tolkien maps. I think the guy had done both GIMP and PS versions; I believe this is the link (http://calthyechild....ushes-138796530) but if not you can probably google them. I ended up modifying the mountain brushes from this set a bit and using them, and also used the hills brushes and a few others.
Creating or modifying a brush is really pretty simple; it's basically a grayscale image file itself. Couple of learnings here: 1) make the brush bigger than you think you need; you can always shrink it if necessary, but enlarging it will not look good; and 2) usually less detail is better in a brush, the simpler ones tend to look better. GIMP also allows you to create "brush pipes"; these are brushes that have multiple images in them. I've created these for forests and mountains, so that it will randomly pick from several different images each time it uses the brush. That way the forest doesn't have all the exact same type of tree.
I'd be happy to send my GIMP brush files to anyone who wants them. There are plenty of brush files online too, and (in GIMP at least) it's easy to convert images and icons found online to brushes. Try googling "<xyz> map symbol" or "<xyz> map icon", where <xyz> is whatever geographical feature you're trying to produce.
When creating an image, make sure you've enabled transparency, so that each layers starts off as transparent. In GIMP, under Advanced Options in the New image dialog, your Color Space is RGB and Fill With is set to Transparency. Then you'll start off with a blank, transparent image, and each new layer will be transparent by default. Plus when you erase, the erased area in the active layer will be made transparent.
Various Geographic Features
At a very high level, here's how I do each piece:
Paintbrush tool, freehand, black, 5 pixel wide fuzzy-circle brush scaled down to about 75-80%. Do it in short segments, probably no more than an inch or two on the monitor at a time, so that if you mess up you can easily hit Undo and won't lose too much. Do the main shoreline first and then go put in islands.
Paintbrush tool, freehand, dark blue, 5 pixel wide fuzzy-circle brush scaled down to about 65% or so. Remember that rivers tend to curve a lot. It's important to get the right scale of curves, which depends on the gradient of the river. Look at real world maps to get a feel for it. Flatlands have big, loopy curves. Steeper land has shorter, more jagged curves. I think that realistic rivers are hard, and I tend to hit Undo a zillion times when doing them until I finally get it right. Remember that rivers will somewhat define where your hills and mountains go, and vice versa.
Paintbrush tool, custom mountains brushes, dark brown. Start with the northernmost mountains in a range first, so that you can lay more southernly ones slightly over them if you want them closely packed. Remember that big mountains dwindle into smaller mountains which dwindle into hills. Check out this tutorial.
Paintbrush tool, custom hills brushes, dark brown. These are pretty easy if you have a good brush. Topmost/northernmost ones first, like mountains, so you can overlay if necessary.
Paintbrush tool, custom forest brushes, dark green for coniferous, medium green for broadleaf, and lighter green for palms. Recently I've created two sets of brushes: one with the full tree, and one with just the tops (the leaves). I use the just-leaves brush for the entire forest except for the southern edges, and then use the full tree brush for the southern/bottom edges. That gives it a bit of a looking-down-from-on-high look, where you would mostly see just the tree tops but not the trunks, except for those closest to you.
Paintbrush tool, custom swamp brush, olive green. Fairly simple to do. Swamp brushes are easy to construct, and there are tons of examples on the Internet.
Fill tool, light brown. For deserts, I used the pencil tool to put a bunch of random dots down, then created a Pattern from those dots, and then when I need a desert, I select the desert area, and fill it with the Pattern I created.
Paintbrush tool, regular circle brush (11 or 13 pixels), magenta. Just plop a circle of color down.
Paintbrush tool, 3 pixel regular circle brush (or fuzzy-circle brush), magenta. In GIMP set the brush spacing to 180-200%. This will only apply the brush every 180-200% of the brush width, thus leaving nearly a full brush width's gap of empty space in between two applications of the brush. So you end up with a nice dotted line of magenta circles.
Text tool, very dark red. Not too hard to do. Pick good, readable fonts. Try out various sizes to make sure they're still readable. If you're putting a label in the middle of a forest or mountains or something, you may need to create a layer under it and paint with your background color around the text a bit, so that the text is on your background color and stands out from the forest or mountains or whatever.
GIMP has a Path tool that allows you to build a curved path out of B-Splines and then fit the text to it. I've used it a bit, but it's a bit of a pain. Usually I find it just easier to rotate the text a bit to parallel a river or shoreline or something.
Regarding "shore gradients" -- these are the faint blue lines that look like depth lines in your oceans. They look really cool, and are very easy to make. Here's how you do it:
- Figure out what color you're going to use -- a medium greyish blue seems to work well, and determine the right brush -- I use a 3 pixel wide airbrush (I think)
- Make your Shoreline layer active and use the 'magic selection' tool (or whatever it's called in your image editor; it selects all contiguous area with similar colors) to select all the ocean outside the shoreline
- Change your active layer to the Shore Gradients layer (but make sure the selection doesn't change)
- Shrink the selection by about 8-10 pixels (in GIMP there's a menu option for this). See what looks good for the first gradient. I've been using 10 pixels recently, but if your shore had a lot of crannies and islands you might want to only shrink in 8 pixels. Don't let it shrink from the image border, only from the selected shoreline.
- Stroke the selection with the color and brush identified in the first step. At least that's what GIMP calls it; I imagine PhotoShop has a similar capability. It paints the border of the selection with a selected brush and color
- Check it out to make sure it looks good. If it doesn't, undo it, modify, and do it again. The first time, you might have to do this a bunch to get the right brush, color, distance from the shoreline, etc.
- Shrink the selection again, by 5 pixels
- Stroke the selection again
- Shrink the selection again, by 8 pixels, and stroke again
- Keep doing this until you decide it looks good or you run out of room. Each time add the previous shrinkage to the last shrinkage, so it should go 5, 8, 13, 21, ... (recognize that? It's the Fibonacci sequence, and for some reason it looks right here)
If you're starting from a scanned image (for instance of a hand-drawn map), you'll have some special issues if you want to trace it or merge it into a new background. Paste this image into your map image as a new layer, just above the background layer. You've got a couple of options then: 1) you can erase this layer's background, making those areas transparent and letting the background layer show through, or 2) you can add new layers on top, and trace the scanned image's features in the new layer by hand (or in a more advanced way, by using selections and paths).
If you're taking a scanned image and just erasing a background and making a few minor modifications, I might use option #1. Otherwise, for anything more serious, you're probably better off using option #2, and just using the scanned image layer as a guide for tracing its features into your new map layers. In this case, I'd duplicate the scanned image layer, and make the duplicate layer much lighter and lower contrast using Colors > Brightness - Contrast option. This will make it easier to trace; otherwise it will be hard to see your tracing over the scanned image layer. Make the original scanned image layer non-visible, so only the lighter, low contrast version is visible. Now you're ready to trace it into your new map layers above it. Then when you're done you just make this low contract image layer non-visible.
Custom Brushes Revisted
You may want to use some of the brushes that I use. Some of them I created; others I downloaded; there are tons on the Internet. They should work with both GIMP and PhotoShop (I think). You may have to rename their extensions for them to work in PS; don't really know. The .gbr files are the brushes. The .gih files are "brush pipes." Brush pipes are collections of brushes that GIMP will then apply in some sort of order or randomly. Mine are all random. I use them to produce forests and mountains with randomly selected brushes for a varied look. (The forest one works better than the mountains one.) Search for "GIMP brush pipe" if you want to know more; there are lots of tutorials out there, and you can use brush pipes to do some pretty cool stuff, but it can get complex.
Here's fairly comprehensive tutorial on brushes. I haven't read the whole thing, but it looks more detailed than anything else I've seen out there.
Note that in GIMP there are two different types of brushes, and it's not easy to tell which is which without opening up the brush as if you were going to edit it.
- If the brush image is a grayscale image, then the white parts of the brush act as transparent (nothing is painted), and the grey or black parts of the brush image are the brush and will paint in whatever your foreground color is currently (in varying shades according to the darkness of each pixel in the brush).
- If the brush is an RGB image, it will paint exactly as it appears in the brush editor, including any background you may have in it. It will not paint using your current foreground color. Many of the brushes you might download from the Internet are saved as RGB images. You can edit them in GIMP and convert them to greyscale images if you want. I believe that image pipes are only available using this RGB mode, but can't remember exactly.
To install the brushes, unzip them and put them into whatever directory the photo editor expects them. On my Mac, GIMP looks under my home directory, in the subdirectory Library/Application Support/Gimp/brushes. Then in GIMP, you need to open the brushes dialog or palette and click the refresh button.
Whew! Well, that's a lot. I'll add more later. Hope that helps, and let me know if you have other questions,
Edited by NiceMarmot, 26 June 2012 - 10:17 PM.