Mapmaking Tools: Pens & Paper

If you are starting your mapmaking journey and want to start drawing using pens and paper to make those maps then this is the guide for you! I'll cover what paper to use, the pencils pens and other tools you might want to consider getting hold of in order to make the process of creating maps faster and look better!


Now I should preface this article with a bit of backstory as my own experiences as a cartographer has shaped my drawing methods over the years. This won't be a guide on how to use these tools per se, but it should help you choose the tools themselves!


I started out making maps a long time ago, from around 10 years old, I would sit in the back of the class at school drawing swords, castles and fantasy maps. I didn’t learn how to play TTRPG games until I was 24 so there were many years of not really knowing what I was doing, just drawing in a way that looked good to me. These were mostly doodles and I wouldn’t call my maps back then very good but they were a starting point.


When I did learn how to play Pathfinder and later on, D&D 5th edition when I went back to university, I was still drawing my maps with a pencil. At some point, I started upgrading my pencils to pens, which made the line art clearer and cleaner. Eventually, when I started my mapmaking Patreon a few years later I drew my maps with pens as well, drawing all the line art onto bits of paper before scanning them into my computer and colouring them in Photoshop.


These days, I draw the entire process in PSD instead, which is faster and even cleaner than before but I still look back on my hand-drawn maps with great fondness. I think the process of making maps from pens and paper to fully digital mapmaking was very slow, I certainly could have switched to drawing everything digitally sooner, but I was stubborn and I liked the old school look to my maps!

Still, I think there are great merits to drawing maps with pens & paper so I will talk about the best kinds of tools to use and the pros and cons of this method of mapmaking at the end.


Paper

The paper you choose for your maps becomes your canvas, and there is a huge variety to choose from, simple A4 printer paper to more expensive art paper and which one you should pick can be confusing at first. But there are really only two things to pay attention to when deciding what kind of paper to draw on, weight & size.


Paper Weight.

The first important thing about the paper you draw with is weight. It is a crucial aspect of the drawing process because higher weight paper can handle pens strokes without smudging or blurring. There are situations where you might want thinner paper or seriously thick paper to draw your maps on but we will discuss those below. The weight of paper is measured in GSM (grams per square metre). Effectively, this is the thickness of the paper: the higher the GSM, the thicker the paper.


Printer Paper

This is pretty much the standard kind of paper we are all familiar with. It’s a cheap, easy to acquire option that most people will start drawing with. Most printing paper has a GSM between 60 and 120. 80gsm is about standard. Printing paper like this is great to start with and if you are drawing with pencils then you might not even need thicker paper. However, one of the major downsides to printing paper is its fragility and it's very easy to tear and damage accidentally. Printer paper can also smudge pen work and because it is lighter and thinner you might experience blurring or bleeding which is when ink from your pen soaks into the paper gives you messy, imprecise pen work.

Below are some affiliate links on Amazon for you to look at, these are examples of paper you could use or buy!


A4 80 GSM https://amzn.to/3k7lnQS £6.99

A5 100 GSM https://amzn.to/2UBJEne £4.95













Art Paper

What I’m going to refer to as Art Paper in this article is merely a rather medium run of the mill kind of thick paper that is much better for pen work than light printer paper. Typically this kind of paper is more expensive but it’s perfect for mapmaking. You can draw with pens without worrying too much about smudging, blurring or bleeding. I would typically use 180 GSM paper for my maps as I found the extra weight compared to 160 rather nice for thicker and thinner pen work. It also has a nice feel to it and is much more durable to store and move around!

Below are some affiliate links on Amazon for you to look at, these are examples of paper you could use or buy!


A4 160 GSM: https://amzn.to/3k8l6gm £7.06

A4 180 GSM: https://amzn.to/3hT2vlI £5.15

A3 140 GSM: https://amzn.to/36roVFk £16.70

A4 170 GSM: https://amzn.to/3yMZUkc £4.95










Watercolour/Acrylic Paper

Thicker paper like this is typically referred to as Watercolour paper and is normally used by painters instead of mapmakers. I would not recommend this kind of paper as although it’s very durable and takes pen strokes wonderfully, it has a very noticeable bumpy texture that can make pen work difficult and it is very expensive. You could use this kind of paper if you are planning to colour your maps by hand after you have done the pen work, however, so it does have some uses if you want to experiment with it!

Below are some affiliate links on Amazon for you to look at, these are examples of paper you could use or buy!


A3 400 GSM: https://amzn.to/3yMDEXK £25.99

A4 300 GSM: https://amzn.to/3wzBIQP £21.99





Sizes

The other very important thing to understand about paper is that size is something that absolutely affects the kind of map you make. A larger piece of paper can give you more space to work on to draw more detailed maps. For clarity The ISO/DIN standard A paper system is a system for classifying paper sizes where each size is half that of the last, starting from the A0 master sheet size. Alternatively, you can look at it as each sheet doubling in size as you go up each size, so A4 is double A5, A3 is in turn double A4 and so on.


For the most part, I would recommend A4 standard-sized paper or A3 paper when drawing maps, as this gives you enough space to work with while not being too much. You can rotate and move around these sizes while not damaging edges and you can store them easily in cheap enough folders.


A5 sized paper is good for practising and is lovely for small areas, while A2 can be used for large world maps that will take a long time to make.


Larger Sizes.

I would never seriously consider making maps on anything larger than size A2 paper but you can if you feel you can get around the issues I’m about to outline. This is because the paper would become extremely difficult to work with and you wouldn’t be able to turn it without damaging the edges or storing it without ruining parts of the detail. Additionally, it might be harder to reach the centre of the map to draw. If you want to make larger maps than A2 consider drawing onto two pieces of A2 joined together instead.


Pencils

Now I’m going to talk a little bit about pencils, as this can be something many people gloss over when drawing and starting for the first time. The grading system for pencils is often called the “HB” scale. Using the letter “H” to indicate a hard pencil while the letter “B” designates the blackness of the pencil’s mark, indicating a softer lead. The letter “F” can also be used to indicate that the pencil sharpens to a fine point.


Combinations of letters tell us about the graphite inside the pencil and “HB” is hard and black indicating a standard middle of the road type of pencil. A pencil marked “HH” is very hard, and a pencil marked “BBB” is very black! Most pencils using the HB system are designated by a number such as 2B, 4B or 2H to indicate the degree of hardness and blackness.


A good set of art pencils typically has a nice range between hard and black, and the only other factor to consider is whether you would like to use a normal wooden pencil or a mechanical pencil, For the most part, the only difference is the sharpness and consistency with the lines that you can draw. I used to use mechanical pencils to draw very fine lines as I was only even using pencils to sketch my maps. It can be harder to get a good range of hard and black pencil refills for mechanical pencils however so bear that in mind.


Remember, when drawing maps on paper you will probably be using pencils to sketch out your line work first and then using pen afterwards, so you will mostly be using hard grade pencils, I would switch between using normal HB and 2H grades most of the time.

Below are some affiliate links on Amazon for you to look at, these pencils you could use as examples or buy!


12 Art Pencils: https://amzn.to/3xAh8Rt £6.99

Mechanical Pencils: https://amzn.to/3r0DJ7k £9.99







Pens

Now we move onto the pens, the thing you will be using to actually draw the pen work onto the paper with and perhaps the most important thing to consider when drawing maps with pens and paper.


First up, I always used black ink, as it works best when scanning on the computer to colour, but you can experiment with different colours if you like.