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?
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.