Mapmaking Tools: Digital Cartography

If you want to start making maps with a tablet on your computer, create amazingly vibrant and colourful cartography, or even if your just curious and want to test it out, then this is the guide for you!


Now I should preface this article with a bit of backstory as my own experiences as a cartographer has shaped my methods of drawing over the years.


As I mentioned in my other article on pen and paper tools, I started out making maps on paper and made the transition to purely digital cartography about halfway through my professional career. (Which has only been about 4 years at this point so it’s not a huge amount of time) I would draw the line art with pens onto some nice thick paper and then scan them onto the computer and colour them digitally. However, after two years of doing this, I took on a single commission that changed my perspective entirely. This extra-large commission was drawn onto paper only partially, drawing the coastlines and mountains and rivers. But then I scanned it and started to draw some assets. The trees, locations, and details such as grass tufts and rocks could all be drawn, etc were drawn in Photoshop for the first time and I realized I could speed up the process by drawing these details as assets that I could copy and paste and use over and over.


There were other advantages as well such as being able to draw cleaner, more professional-looking lines, and my maps started to really come together style-wise. Perhaps the biggest reason quickly became apparent as well, drawing digitally means you can zoom into areas without straining your eyes and you can draw detail with increased precision. This has become something I simply cannot live without, as my maps have become increasingly detailed due to an increase in my own skills levels and the ability to do so with the zoom functions in Photoshop.


So with that all said and done, what kind of tools do you need in order to start drawing maps digitally using a computer?


Tablets

Firstly and perhaps most importantly for drawing you need to get hold of a graphics tablet. I won’t talk much about eh pens that come with these tablets as the vast majority are the same but you will need one of those as well. If you have a computer, you no doubt have a mouse, and laptops have a touchpad but I simply do not think these tools will cut it for creating maps. You can not achieve precise lines and it would be a very slow process if you tried to draw with a mouse or touchpad, therefore a relatively cheap graphics tablet will do wonders. Now it’s worth mentioning that there are two main types of graphics tablets out there. The first is what I would call a drawing tablet and the second is a screen tablet and there are key differences between them.


Drawing Tablets

Drawing tablets are typically the cheaper & smaller tablets, designed to sit in front of the main computer screen and while your hand moves across the surface of the tablet to draw, your eyes are looking at the result on the separate screen.


Below are a few that I would recommend.


Wacom Intuos Small: This is awesome, and the tablet I currently use. I’ve used Wacom pretty much since I started Mapmaking and not only is this tablet a wonderfully cheap option but it’s also small, easy to use, and set up. You just connect it via USB and start drawing. I would highly recommend this one to start with for these reasons and that the support for Wacom is very high.

https://amzn.to/2Vlkx8C




Huion Inspiroy: Huion is a very well know company for graphics tablets and they make a very large range of products, generally they are cheaper but not quite as well supported as Wacom tablets. This one is at about the same level as the Wacom Intuos Small but the surface is larger which can sometimes be a little nicer depending on the size of your hands!


https://amzn.to/3CaaqUU


Screen Tablets

Screen tablets are exactly what they sound like, they are typically very expensive tools that allow you to look down at a screen itself and watch where your hand and pen are making the strokes, just like you would if you were drawing on a piece of paper.


This little guide is not supposed to tell you which of the two types of Grapcis tablets are superior however, personally, I have used both and currently use a small Wacom tablet as this is simply something I have practiced with and feel comfortable using! But most professionals use screen tablets as it’s a more natural way of drawing.



Wacom Cintiq: Generally speaking the Wacom Cintiq is the most well-known graphics tablet in the world and is used by professional artists in a variety of industries. It’s a pretty expensive option but like all Wacom tablets it has a great deal of support is very well made and you won’t find any problems with it. There are different versions of a Cintiq out there but the only major difference is the screen size which affects the price.


16: https://amzn.to/2VfqeFh


22: https://amzn.to/3CaPvRY


If you want to look through other Wacom products, series and ranges you can find their website here https://www.wacom.com/en-gb/products/pen-displays and you can order directly from them instead of Amazon.



Huion New Kamvas: Huion once again produces a full range of screen tablets, that are mostly differentiated by the screen size. Unlike with Wacom tablets, however, Huion has a numbered series that they change year after year. A lower number typically means an older product. Without going into too many details, things like refresh rate on the screen and vibrancy are the things to compare across products but these aspects of screen tablets are quite minor when you’re starting out.


Kamvas 13: A cheaper more affordable product, with a smaller screen.


https://amzn.to/3CgPOe3


Kamvas Pro 24: The latest model as of writing this guide and also comes with a 4k model for extra crispness. I’ve heard Huion get better with every new model so if you want something fancy this might be a good choice!


https://amzn.to/3lnI1oK


There are other models out there but Wacom and Huion are the two big players, other graphics tablets might be cheaper but that doesn’t mean they are very good, as graphics tablets need to be well supported to work correctly with modern updating operating systems.


I will also mention that if you work with Apple products then IPads can be turned into pretty decent graphics tablets. There are also even more custom models out there some made by Wacom, something like the Surface Pro which are more like self-contained computers and graphics tablets all in one that might be better in some situations, especially for those that travel.


Programs

Once you have your tablet, the next thing you need to think about is what program should you use in order to make your maps. You may be slightly annoyed to discover once you buy a tablet that it doesn’t come with anything that will actually allow you to create something as most tablets are simply tools but if you are working digitally you typically need a program to start making those strokes on a digital canvas.


Thankfully there is a large range of programs to choose from in recent years, all with different price points, with positive and negative points to consider. I’m going to list the ones I’m most familiar with here in this guide but there are more if you want to look around and really delve into this area on your own.


Each of these programs will allow you to make maps, you will be able to draw line art using a pen tool and colour them. All of them have similar-ish workflows and tools that will be familiar across the board. When talking about a program below I’m not going to list features or try and sell them per se, instead, I will talk about the positives and negative aspects associated with each program as I’ve experienced them and you can then follow each link and see what you think yourself.



Photoshop

This is the program I currently use to make my maps, though I would also not recommend it. I’ve used it for years and have grown used to its features and workflow but honestly the fact that you have to pay nearly £50 a month to use it is ridiculous. It is, however, considered the most professional and well built of any of the programs I’ll talk about in this guide. It is made for professional artists and has many great features, it also works very well and does exactly what you want it to do most of the time.


https://www.photoshop.com/en



Affinity Photo This is a new one for me and I’ve been experimenting with it recently to see if it could replace photoshop, the big positives for me is that it was a one-time purchase and this keeps costs down. It seems to have many similar features to Photoshop but it does not seem to be built as well, (I’ts crashed two times since I started using it a month ago) Never the less it might be because I’m trying to use in like PSD and I may need to give it more time and get used to it.


https://affinity.serif.com/en-gb/photo/



Clip Studio Paint

This is the program that my partner uses to create art, and once again it is a one-time purchase that makes it superior for anyone starting out in my opinion. Now CSP is primarily made for anime and comic artists so it has a wide range of tools that will help with these aspects of creating artwork but it also has all the normal tools you need and would make an excellent program to learn!


https://www.clipstudio.net/en/



Gimp

Gimp is free, which makes it very assessable to anyone starting out, looking for a program to learn mapping in. However, GIMP does have some issues that I dislike and think that it’s generally the cheaper option for a reason, it doesn’t have as many features as the other programs and does not tend to work as well.


https://www.gimp.org/



Procreate

Procreate is software that I’ve not used but I heard very good things about it. Procreate is a raster graphics editor app for digital painting developed by Apple iOS and iPad. Designed in response to iPad which can be turned into a graphics tablet with a bit of tweaking.


https://procreate.art/


Computers

Finally, I’m going to spend some time talking about computers, this could be a PC or a laptop of course. You do need one if you want to start drawing digitally, and you might be thinking that’s a given but there are a few points to think about if you want to buy a computer just for this purpose. I’ve found that graphics programs, such as the ones discussed above and not the tools themselves are very RAM heavy, this is due in part (as much as I understand such things) to the number of layers, strokes and saves the programs is continually creating every time you place the pen onto the tablet and make a stroke. This makes a big difference when you’re making larger maps as you are working with more pixels. Each layer compounds this increase in pixels and you can quickly make something extremely unwieldy, slow to load, or finish. Simply put always try and upgrade your RAM as much as possible when buying a new computer for drawing purposes, to the extent of other hardware even. Of course, it goes without saying, that getting the best computer you can with the best overall memory, graphics card and processor will also be a great help but I wanted to point out what I’ve found makes the most difference.


Pros & Cons

There are pros and cons to working with digital maps, and you may prefer to work with pens and paper instead but I’ve found that the pros really do outweigh the cons as a professional mapmaker. That might be different for you if you just want to doddle or make just a few maps for a roleplaying game, but even so, it’s a wonderful thing to learn, and being able to draw digitally opens up a bunch of pathways for you to delve into.



Pros

  • Faster Production: You can create assets and copy and paste them to speed things up so much! I’d say this is one of the best things about making maps digitally for anyone trying to make lots of maps or at a professional level.


  • Cleaner: The line art and quality of digital art are generally cleaner, crisper, and more accurate than drawing things by hand.


  • Pen Tips: Tablets use software to make the pen whatever tool you want it to be: paintbrush, marker, pencil, chalk, or eraser. Having digital versions of all these tools and colours means you won’t have to buy physical items.


  • Space Saving: Everying is saved onto a hard drive and thus saves you a great deal of space. You don’t need to store pens and paper, things won’t get lost as easily and you can keep working.


  • Detail: Zooming into the maps to draw grass, small rocks, windows and other tiny details are so much easier and this is another highly desirable aspect of working digitally that I love and prefer over working with pens and paper.


  • Erase Tool: Being able to erase mistakes without leaving smears and doing it for any part of your maps is wonderful and makes things much less stressful.


Cons

  • Expensive: Even with a cheap graphics tablet, you still need a pretty nice computer or laptop and this can be very expensive. If you add a higher range tablet you are looking at thousands not hundreds and that can be a big stopping block.


  • Bulky: Even sleek tablets are solid heavy things that are tough to move around or transport, they are also delicate and if dropped, they will break easily.


  • Harder to replicate a traditional look: Despite being able to play around with simulated textures and pen tips, it’s quite hard to replicate the same feel with digital mapmaking compare to pens and paper.


  • Complicated: Learning how to hold the pen and draw with it, plus all the tools, options and shortcuts in these programs can take some time, years to master in fact and while it comes part and parcel with learning new skills and drawing techniques, in general, its another layer of complexity to an already complicated area.


And that’s that, everything you might need when starting out drawing maps digitally!


Drawing maps this way is seen more and more as a professional thing to be doing, as you can make absolutely stunning artwork, full of vibrancy and with clean beautiful lines!


This guide has been written after many years of making maps but I still feel like I have much to learn, if you feel like this guide needs updating or you would like anything added or expanded please let me know!


Thank you so much for reading!


Caeora




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