Maps can be one of the most beautiful forms of visual worldbuilding and just like more traditional art they can be appreciated purely for their beauty alone or emotional resonance. To me, this makes maps art, although some people may disagree. After all maps can be “used” to work out scale and distance, and the fact that you can use a map makes the maps as art idea a little less defined. However instead of arguing this in this article I want to focus on a more basic question.
When creating a fantasy map, how do I make it look as beautiful and artistic as possible?
The first thing you may want to do, is study other maps. This may sound simple at first but you can only really get a sense of what you want to create by drawing from a wealth of styles and pieces of inspiration you have found yourself.
You can look up the process of mapmaking from tutorials on youtube or pictures, or read about the history of maps and the way they used to be created and used in the real world to sense a sense of the reasoning and why old maps were made in the first place.
Most importantly though you need to understand at least some of the underlying mechanics, like how mountains, rivers, deserts and forests form and exist in the real world. I have another article that you can view here that covers some basic geography and map making but there are plenty of other examples and also a ton of wonderful cartographers that you can draw inspiration from.
I would also highly recommend saving these maps that you have found in a folder of inspiration for this very purpose. You can then go over and look and all the pieces that inspire you when you need a boost of creativity and motivation!
The next big thing to think about is what style of map you want to draw and how you can use that style to create something amazing. There are a ton of different ways to draw just mountains on a map, so working things out on your own might take some time. However you could also find another cartographers style that you really like and try to and mimic them instead, which is the most common way to start making maps. Even continuing to change elements based on something you've seen after years of working on maps is very common and allows you to grow and learn how to make things look better over time.
Below are a few examples of different fantasy world maps in different styles with a quick overview of each.
Deven Rue, is one of the most wonderful cartographers in the world. With a style that is breathtaking beautiful and personally my own major source of inspiration for world maps. Her style is the most common side view perspective kind of fantasy map with an incredible amount of time hand drawing details into the map. Every tree and every rock is shaded individually with lines and brings a wonderful sense of hand crafted care and love.
Anna B Meyer, makes some of the most detailed top down satellite kind style of maps that you can find, her map for the Kobold Press setting of Midgard is a stunning to explore and mind blowingly accurate.
Nate - WASD20, create maps in the same side view perspective style that Deven Rue does, but this is probably the best example of the classical D&D map with a huge emphasis on visible details and features that are immediately understand and recognisable.
Mike Schley, creates maps from a purely top down viewpoint, enabling features to occupy things in spaces accurately like a satellite view but drawn in an artistic way. His maps are commonly used for official D&D products and there is a reason for that! They are some of the most amazing maps made by anyone in the industry to date and work increadly well for the game.
Tips & Tricks
Now that we've had a look at some different styles and talked about how maps are art, let's get to some practical tips and tricks that can really help turn a map into something special.
It's worth bearing in mind that these tips are a little nebulous and might not work in every single situation but they are definitely worth bearing in mind!
This can primarily be used on maps when you're drawing continents but also is worth bearing in mind when you are drawing or creating other things as well. You want to try and stay away from basic simple shapes and try other more unusual shapes instead. Maps are supposed to represent the natural world and shapes with right angles, like squares and simple triangles and even circles are increadly rare in nature.
Making more complex shapes is somewhat easy to start but can take a little time to get it looking just right. The best way to start with continents is by taking something from earth and changing it to make it your own. This can give you a good sense of the kinds of shapes you need to make yourself and saves you a great deal of time.
Straight lines are another very rare occurrence in nature and this applies to many aspects of maps, most notably with mountains ranges. Drawing a straight lines and then filling that line with mountains will mean the range itself will look man made. This might be something that you want to include on purpose on the odd occasion but 99% of the time mountain ranges in particular are wavy and wiggly. Another thing to look up is the golden ratio, which is a line in nature that gives a very aesthetically pleasing look to something and is actually very common, you can use this in many different places on a map, from roads to rivers!
This can be very hard to judge, even for someone that has been making maps for a long time. Generally though, you need to think about the blank spaces on your map and how you are going to fill them. You can have mountains and forests next to one another but most of the time, these things blend together and start to connect. Leaving gaps of white space can make everything look artificial. You can also blend things into a map a lot more by taking mountains, trees, rocks etc and spreading those features out by extending the lines from the base. This fills in blank spaces and can connect things even more. Finally if you do have white spaces on a map, there will always be something that you can add in order to include detail and depth. Things like grass and rocks, sands dunes and ever faint horizontal sketchy lines will do the trick!
Contrast is very important for creating a map that feels like it has depth. You want to try and achieve a sense of shadow and light, not just in a mountains but across the entire map as well.
Try to stay away from single tone colours and instead use shades of lighter colours in areas hit by a light source and shadows in the opposite direction. This is always always the final detailing on my own maps and takes up a lot of time, but it 100% worth it to make everything pop out of the page. (Just a quick note on shadows, never use pure black. Always use a very dark shade of brown or purple instead to add warmth.)
Although this mainly applies to colour, you can use contrast with line art by applying hatching, which can really bring out a feeling of depth and detail as well.
Consistency & Size
Finally, one of the hardest things to do in this article and that is to maintain a constant and solid consistency & size with the things that you draw across the map. If you draw one mountain much larger than the rest you need to think about why and how you can blend that in, but more importantly large variations in size break the established logical reasoning that you have established. This applies to forests as well and you need to keep the size of the trees equal. In fact the same thing applies to the other features on the map as well like river width, city and town sizes etc.
It's not really important what those sizes are when you create them for the first time, but you should stick to the sizes you have chosen rather than changing them half way through.
Consistency also applies to colours as well but that is another article all on it on about colour that I will do another day!
These are some of the most basic things you can do to start thinking about more artistic ways to create elements or features on map. I use these things a great deal in my own maps and they help to bring things together. It's only relatively recently that I've begun to see my own work as art and that while I see myself as a cartographer first, I am also an artist. I don't have a background doing this however and have learned so much in the last year and half.
Of course even with the above tips, the best advice for making good looking maps… practice, practice, practice!
As always, thanks for reading!