Any Tolkien-lover, fantasy addict, or sci-fi nut has probably scribbled their own fantasy map down in some notebook or on the back of some napkin. Some of us got pretty advanced with ours. Some of us went on to write books around those maps. Ahem. I’m fine.

The YA Fantasy author Tom Barron (of The Lost Years of Merlin series) says he always starts his novels with a map – that’s how he knows where he is and where he is going.

So… here’s how to make an awesome map in photoshop, in 8 screen captures. Are you ready? Here we go! For the sake of simplicity, I started with a square canvas, 6″x6″ at 240 pixels/inch. You can make yours whatever shape and size you want.

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Next, throw down a new layer for your initial line drawing. I like to use the pen (brush) tool for this part. You are ready to lay out the general shape of your map.

A brief note here: there are lots of things to consider when pondering the creation of your map. But the basics are these: time period, trade routes, scope, and plot. Sure, you might want to pen the whole globe, but if your story only takes place on an island the size of Barbados… it’s overkill. Having country A next to country B, but forcing them to trade exclusively through shipping via the sea because your plot is about pirates isn’t the smartest move. And if your story is set in the Middle Ages (or a similar such period), you aren’t going to have highways to get from the top of the map to the bottom, even though that’s the journey your protagonist has to make in three hours during Act II.

So let’s have this map be big, but with an insert of our main area of focus. Best of both worlds. If you look at any of the world maps of our lovely little earth, you’ll see a lot of beautiful almost-shapes. Those islands don’t quite make a perfect spiral, everything accommodates a rounded globe (which is merry hell for cartographers) and Cuba looks just like a cloud I saw the other day. Basically, be random, with a dash of almost-order. ‘Kay?


Me, personally, I love islands. Odd, for a mountain girl, I know, but I love the shapes of these little nations – trailing through the sea like God sneezed or something. I elected to have my map based very roughly off of the idea of the Gulf of Mexico. Game of Thrones is based roughly off of England. Middle Earth is (arguably) roughly Europe from 5,000 years ago. It’s okay to use places from our world to make your world believable, just abstract it a bit.

For my insert, I chose the island in the middle of the sneeze. I copied it into a new layer, dragged it up to the insert box, reduced the opacity, and outlined it with more detail (read that as: wiggles). Then added a few dotty lines and a square around the original map island. IN A NEW LAYER. ALWAYS DO ANYTHING IN A NEW LAYER. You can always merge a layer; you cannot always un-merge a layer.

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All right. We have something fairly map-like happening here, so that’s cool. We still need cities, landmarks, and the finishing touches.

There are several ways to do cities. You can outline them, add clusters of houses, or, my personal favorite, a dot with a name by it. You can always add another map of just a city, so bear in mind your goal with the world map: context.

Photoshop comes with a lot of nifty shapes you can use. I want to keep this elegant but simple, so I started plopping down fleur-des-lises (if that’s even how you spell that). Once I had the locations down, I put a name to each marker. There are loads of free fonts on the internet if you know where to look. The one I chose is called “Freebooter Script”. It was at this point that I started grouping some of my layers to keep things tidy.

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Next: landmarks.

Let’s start with rivers. Rivers were the highways before highways, so most cities were built around bays and rivers. I’m going to go back to the main map layer and add in a few. Basically, rivers take your nice land masses and crack them all to bits. Isn’t it beautiful?

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Due to some previous map-making experience in Photoshop, I have a handful of custom brushes for just such occasions. I have trees, houses, mountains, and elves sitting in chairs. I can just click, and boom! there’s an elf.

I went through with a mountain brush and a hill brush (check out this video here on how to create your own Photoshop brushes). Remember, mountains cluster together and are surrounded/connected by hills.

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Now, for the final touches. Since we did our rivers and landmasses with the pen tool, hopefully, there are no gaps, and we can do a splash of coloring with the bucket tool. I always copy a layer like the main map, just in case I decide I hate my progress five saves from now. I picked some fairly desaturated colors to help make the map look older. Let’s accentuate that now by throwing in some crumpled paper texture (in a new layer, of course, “soft light” layer mode) and a warming filter.

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And for the final stroke: chart lines and a compass rose. Photoshop has a grid function I like to use all the time (ctrl+’) which was awfully handy in this particular endeavor. I used a masking layer on the entire lines group to keep the lines off my islands.

And there’s even a compass rose shape in the Photoshop library if you don’t want to design your own.

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And there you have it. I don’t know about you, but I could write a story for this map!

Fantasy Map

For inspiration, look on the Library of Congress website at the many, many, many maps they have.

Go wild, people. Draw sea serpents on your borders and be creative with your topography. You got this.