Colour! Part 1

This is something that a ton of people ask me about: How do I colour my maps?

Well today I'm going to sit down and write a long form article/tutorial on how exactly you can start that process, turning a blank map into something shiny and pretty!

Colour Theory

When researching how to colour things, something that comes up quite a lot (or at least it did for me back in the day) is colour theory. This is a pretty established look at the way different colours interact with one another and may be useful in order to create interesting colour combinations.

There is, however, a limiting factor to colour theory; Its practical implementation. Specifically for creating maps. It won't tell you how to pick the colours for your mountains, forests or oceans for example. So while I do want to start out with some basics, I will move away from colour theory quite quickly and only touch upon some of the major aspects just in case you're not familiar with them.

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel has been around for a long time, and is normally based on the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue. There are then secondary and tertiary colours and lighter and darker tones. I personally do not find the colour wheel to be especially helpful for creating good colour combinations but it does have a few basic uses.

Just so that we are clear, the three primary colours are red, yellow and blue and by mixing and combining these colours you can create pretty much every other hue. White and black are not considered in the colour wheel per say but do help darken and lighten hues, by doing this you then create tones. Secondary colours are green, orange and purple and are made by directly combining two primary colours. Tertiary colours: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green are created by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. That's why the tertiary hues have a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.

For the most part, you will not be creating maps with just primary, secondary or even tertiary colours. Even a large ocean on a map should have a combination of colour, hues and tones to make it look a little interesting, BUT, flat colours are a great way to start off the process!

Colour Harmony

Now, if there is anything that you will take away from this article, the idea of colour harmony should be it.

While harmony itself is hard to express, a good way of thinking about it, is the idea of bringing balance and order to your artwork and colours so that they make sense and flow across a canvas. If colours are applied in a straightforward way then they might look flat and boring, if you use too many colours and don't use them in the right way then it becomes chaotic and messy

Formulas for Colour Harmony?

There are a few formulas for colour harmony that you might find, such as, complementary colours or analogous colours in guides and so forth but honestly they are not very helpful in practice. If anything they can be quite limiting and prevent you from finding unique and interesting combinations just because they don't fit within a formula.

The best advice for finding harmony with colours is to think about some of the things you find in nature and looking at photos. I’m putting some emphasis on photos and not artwork because while other artists might help springboard your inspiration, the artist has already learnt how to combine colours and produce some kind of artistic harmony and if you are starting out, you need to start at the beginning.

Below we have two photos, which you can use to create really good looking green forests. However one has more harmony and one has less. Now remember we are talking about colour and not composition. So before scrolling down, have a little think and pick the one you think has more harmony and why.

Photo A:

Photo B:

On the surface these two pictures are not that different, they are both images of green forests, they are both really nice to look at and you can easily use either to create an interesting colour palette for a map or piece of artwork but Photo B is a little better. But why is that?

Simply put the range of colours and the harmony is stronger and more pronounced with Photo B. Below you can see the extent of a colour palette you might create using both images and Photo B has a deeper range of colours, from dark blue to yellow. While photo A has a nice range of colour, the black and brown colours make the photo appear muddy and dull. This is more important than you might think because having a good range of colours with darker tones in different hues that work well together creates a much more visually pleasing image.

Getting this right is not easy however and every time you draw, you need to experiment with images, colours and palettes and see what works and what doesn't. If you want to practice, go to the same site I used for this article at and look through the images there and take a good look at each one. Most will make excellent colour palettes but a few will look a little flat or chaotic.

Remember that colour harmony is not just a range of one or two basic colours across different tones and hues from darker to lighter. You can experiment with other kinds of combinations, that on paper, shouldn't work but end up looking great. This process might take a very long time and even today I still find some combinations just don't work out and find new ones that do!

As an example, this kind of image below is very nice but would not make a particular good choice for a colour palette under normal circumstances. While you could use it, if you were going for a dark and dull map to fit a theme, for the most part, the colours on this map are very muted and the range is very limited.

Photo C

Meanwhile, in the image below, the colours have the opposite problem. They are bright and varied but there is a very limited range of darker and lighter tones, and far too many basic hues. This would result in a very messy looking map or artwork, with pinks and yellows, whites, greens and blues thrown all over the place.

Photo D

As a little challenge for myself, I decided to colour the same asset using different images as a base for a palette. I would definitely recommend doing the same thing as well! Start off with a photo that you think has a great harmony of colour and then pick a large asset that you can just play with.

If you are using Photoshop then just pick a nice rough brush or even a simple round brush without any hardness in the settings, and turn the opacity down to about 10%. This will allow you to blend colours together quickly and that is exactly what we want for experimenting. I started out by putting down a base of the darker tones and hues, and then gradually adding lighter colours using the colour picker until the left side of the mountain has a nice range, and leaving the right side in shadow.

Practical Map Colours.

Finally for this article I want to talk a little about practical implementation. Taking the kinds of things I've talked about here and using it to colour an entire map. Because of course colouring a single asset is very nice but really, colouring an entire map is the goal.