Updated: Jul 12
This is the master guide (with multiple links to related reading and guides for each step) for creating your own map from scratch, this can also be applied to anyone working in a program but If you are looking to get into the art of cartography then look no further, this guide is going to answer one simple question: How do I create a fantasy world or region map from scratch?
Currently, I have decided (after a little poll on discord) to release each guide one at a time, any names in RED will be a future guide on a subject!
I get asked this question all of the time and it’s a really simple question! I know tons of people that want to make their own maps and so this guide/article is going to be an in-depth look at the steps you can take from the beginning of conceptually thinking about mapmaking to drawing the mountains and rivers and finally finishing the map itself!
Firstly, before we start getting into any details, you need to understand that creating a map from scratch can be both extremely simple and very complicated at the same time. Sure, you can throw some beans on a bit of paper to make a basic map, with some nice random lines for the coastlines and draw some mountains and forests in random places. But that’s surface-level mapmaking lacking any true understanding of the process. Making a map from scratch is a little bit like making an entire fictional world from nothing and that is of course a daunting and challenging concept. If you want to make a map with more details, interesting concepts and more accuracy, there are a ton of subjects to consider, think carefully about and then act upon in deliberate ways. Below are just a few of the subjects you should read about before continuing.
Thankfully, I’ve written out separate little guides for all of them, each one has further links to other articles and information as well, so just click on each and have a read-through to bring yourself up to speed. Remember, you don’t need to be an expert in any of these subjects! Making Things Up
The information in the above links will help guide you through some steps and makes things much easier but you are of course more than welcome to break the rules and make things up, or change things around so that they match your imagination. It’s perfectly okay to make something up and say “it’s magic!” (That is all part of making a fantasy/fictional world) but understanding what rules and systems you have broken can make your maps more believable and easier for people to grasp. This idea is actually called “fictional consistency” when instead of just making everything up, you pick bits and pieces and apply your own rules and systems to them. If you decide that your map is going to have wacky and weird geography, maybe some awesome gigantic crystals mountains you then need to come up with a reason for that. They might have been created by a magical cataclysm, or as a result of natural processes that infused them with magic. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s say for example that you have come up with a world setting and a magic system that only affects the humans in your world, giving them the ability to move objects with their minds with great effort (like the force from Star Wars). Then, when drawing a map you decide it would be cool to have floating islands that hang in the sky. Now that’s fine, except it breaks your setting and magic system rules. You can easily fix this by going back and rewriting your magic system to say that the “force” is capable of being generated by planets as well, which can cause gravity to change dramatically in places.
Be careful when going back and rewriting things or changing things in fictional settings and maps and try to do such these very early on if you do decide to change things around. Otherwise, you will start creating retcons and issues with your fictional consistency that becomes unmanageable and your worlds be far less believable and relatable.
It’s also important to remember that just because something happens on earth doesn’t mean it will happen in a fantasy world. You don't need to add realistic ocean currents or tectonic plates to every fantasy map that you make. Knowing exactly how a system works and using that in a map might not necessarily make the map better and being aware of every little detail in the above subjects might not necessarily make you a better mapmaker. But it can help you break things on purpose to make better maps.
Historical Mapmaking Before we go any further we also need to talk about maps from a historical standpoint and how they were typically made. A cartographer was not necessarily somebody that created a functional chart or map for navigation (although of course, some were!) and many maps in history were made for artistic purposes to show the general landmass or area. These maps were also horrifically biased, making supposedly important places larger and less important or unknown areas smaller. Many ancient cartographers would also make things up about the areas that the barbarians or enemies came from, inputting made-up monsters, making the areas look more barren or dull and it would often be used as a form of propaganda.
Historical cartographers would also very rarely travel and map out areas themselves, they would in most cases take data and information from ship captains, traders and travelers, analyze that data and then draw out a map based on what they thought the world or region looked like. This would of course make very inaccurate maps and ancient maps didn’t really look anything like the satellite maps we have today.
You should always try to think about this when creating a map for a fantasy or fictional world as well, as you could easily draw the map, not from a satellite viewpoint (perfect accuracy everywhere) but from the perspective of someone living in your world. That means you can add a ton of missing parts or blank areas, exaggerated details, made-up phrases and symbols. This is a purposeful twisting of the worlds knowledge, that can make your world uniquely special and yours. If you want a waterfall going up a cliff, go for it, or a river flowing from the sea into a lake (which pretty much never happens on earth) go for it, but understanding these decisions and working out that they are fictional, made just for your world is a very important step towards making good maps.
So let's talk about a few of the practical things that you can do if you want to start making from scratch the first thing you can obviously do and you really should do is do some research you should look at the map makers you should study the styles that you want to try and emulate. There are tons of styles out there that you can try to copy and make your own, from top-down to perspective, old school line is drawn, fully coloured and conceptual but the purpose of this guide is not to go over all of them in detail.
Just make sure you find yourself comfortable and inspired to draw in that style, put together a folder/save somewhere the artwork you have found to look at later for reference and ideas.
Now that you have some references and knowledge behind your mapmaking we are going to talk about actually sitting down with the tools in front of you to start drawing your map. There are two major ways of looking at mapmaking these days, and the tools that you use to create your maps will either be Digital or Physical.
I’ve written up another two guides that you can click on in order to learn a little more about each, what specific tools you might need and the pros and cons of each approach in more detail in each guide. Drawing Maps Digitally
Which one you choose really does depend on your own personal preference, I started out drawing things on paper with a pen and made the jump to fully digital mapmaking after a few years so you don’t have to lock yourself down either!
Once you have your tools and the knowledge and concepts in hand you need an idea, a spark to get going in the first place. This tends to be overlooked by the majority of people talking about mapmaking and it’s somewhat assumed you already have the concept in your head already.
While you might have this grand plan and you may be raring to go, sometimes you might look at a blank canvas and wonder, what do I do now?
In my experience, one of the best things to do is a combination of two things one after another. First, think of a theme. Second, find some music and listen to that music while drawing your sketch.
While this seems simple, the human brain will find it very easy to handle and you will find that your brain starts to settle into a direction that enables you to create with those things at the forefront of your mind. Let’s say, that your sitting at your desk and the first theme that comes into your mind is a desert-themed map. Okay great, that’s a good start, now you find some desert ambient music or music from a film or game that fits a desert theme.
Now when you stare at that blank canvas, you know that a desert map will have sand dunes, great rivers, barren wastelands and desolate shorelines. These common desert ideas will help fuel your brush strokes, you KNOW what some of these things look like and can more easily pull them from your brain to put something onto the canvas.
I often repeat this over and over to new mapmakers, if you are starting out, make smaller maps.
Many people have grand ideas of drawing entire worlds, and this is a worthy goal to try and achieve but honestly, in the process of drawing massive maps, you will learn so much that you will probably start over at least a few times. This can be very draining and kill off your motivation.
Instead, draw smaller maps. Draw little regions of your world, draw the coastlines, learn how you like to draw them over and over, the same with mountains, and forests, colour things, and see what you could do differently. Each map is an experiment on where you want to go next. And after a while you can then say to yourself, I’m going to draw that world map now!
I’ve spoken a few times about the canvas, which is the space in which you will be actually drawing your map a few times previously. But what exactly is the canvas, and more importantly for many people, how big should this canvas be exactly?
I covered a few of these points in the guides for the tools you can use, but I will touch upon them here as well.
From my own experience, you always want to use either 300ppi (pixels per inch) or 150ppi to create maps digitally, the actual size of the canvas, therefore, is not that important, but in many programs, you can set it to replicate a piece of A4 paper, which I think is a good size to draw on for everyone. If you are drawing with a pen and paper, then a bit of A4 paper works just fine as well. We all tend to be quite familiar with how big a standard piece of paper is, and it gives us some nice room to draw without being too massive and unwieldy.
Finally, after all this fluff, we can actually start putting something onto the canvas. This is the exciting bit, full of potential. You want to spend a bit of time on the sketch phase of mapmaking in order to really think about how things fit together.
Drawing the sketch follows the exact same process of drawing each element that is listed below, you almost always want to start with coastlines with a rough brush, or light lines onto paper. Then the Mountains, followed by forests and then cities and other elements, but the key here is to be light, rough, and not to focus on detail. The goal with a sketch is to try and see if the composition and the feel of the map are coming together.
Drawing a sketch digitally is far easier than on paper, as you can simply sketch things onto layers and then hide them when you start to draw the actual map itself. If you are working on paper, you will need to practice drawing very lightly with a pencil in order to erase the sketch afterward.
A few things to look out for when sketching a map:
Square Canvas - Square Map. It’s very easy when drawing a map to fall into the trap of filling up space just a little too neatly. This can lead your hand when drawing into making square shapes, that follow the canvas and can end up making your map look confined. This is a tough one to crack and might take you a few tries to get it right.
Draw with different coloured blobs, green for forests, blue for oceans and rivers, grey for mountains etc in order to see at a glance where things will go. This is far better than drawing everything with a single colour. Admittedly this is one of the downsides of drawing on paper as you can do this with a light pencil.
Don’t be afraid to name things during the sketching phase, this can be very helpful when you come to draw things. If you name a mountain range the towering heights or the crumbling mounts, one will need to be drawn taller and larger, while the other might be shorter with large chunks of stones and rocks around the bottom.
The Map Itself
Creating a map from scratch, at least for me, is a very step-by-step process one that you can follow with few exceptions in order to get the final result and a finished map. You don’t have to follow these steps if you feel like you want to something in a certain way and sometimes the order can change but generally, this is how I do it.
Each of the below steps has its own guides, I felt that each step deserved more attention as these are the things you will need to do when actually putting the pen to the canvas. But when sitting down and drawing it’s a good idea to have these steps in mind, maybe even a post-it note with the order to follow near your canvas.
1. Coastlines & Landmasses
This is the big one the one that defines how your map is going to look overall, and it could be as small as a region or as massive as an entire world. Either way, this is going to be something you will spend a huge amount of time on!
2. Special features
These are the big things that will be setting or map specific that absolutely need to be on the map from the start, things like giant holes dropping down into the underworld, giant world trees, or cracked landmasses.