The world of fantasy is flooded with the images of characters, castles and epic battles, yet cartography has a particularly intrinsic place amongst these other works of art. Maps have the magical ability to create a world for a viewer without the need for text, visually illustrating entire domains, cities and kingdoms with the stroke of a brush or pen. Along with the ability to link people to the stories they read by placing the reader into the world of the storyteller’s imagination, maps add an extra layer of depth and plausibility to the imagined world and its peoples.
Whether you’re working on an RPG, illustrating a graphic novel or mapping out a new world for a fantasy novel, today’s tutorial will teach you all the basics for how to draw a map.
Developing Your World
Before you learn how to draw a map, you need to decide what type of world you’re illustrating. Decide what type of map you need for your story. Is it a fantasy world filled with large land masses and mountains? Or is it a land of oceans and lakes?
Maps often consist of a multitude of elements that convey information to an onlooker. Rivers, hills, mountains, cities and towns are all parts of a successful and interesting map, though a balance of these elements is always a good thing. A balanced map will usually be divided 50/50 or 60/40, often in favor of the land instead of the ocean.
Having a strong idea of the lands you wish to draw is great, but don’t be afraid to look at the many historical maps that exist to give you further inspiration for your own map. Most maps are based on functionality, so keep this in mind when laying out yours. You can learn how to draw a map with just a pencil. Soon you will have a world of your own coming to life!
How to Draw a Map: The Basic Land Shape
We’ll start learning how to draw a map with just a simple continent, adding islands and coastline details. A simple shape is created with light pencil. Then define and darken the boundaries. Once you know these basic steps, you can create multiple continents to form a larger map.
1: Draw a Simple Shape
Lightly draw a simple continent shape. Be general and don’t press too hard; you just want a light pencil line that you can modify in the next step.
2: Refine the Coastline
Once your general shape is done, go back with an HB pencil and refine the original line with detail. Don’t be afraid to be creative or stray radically from your original line. Make your coastlines fun and interesting. Erase the light guideline sketch.
3: Add Islands
Look for areas to draw islands. Islands are often irregular shapes grouped together. Some are so large they may form their own small landmass. Experiment with shapes and sizes. Islands often have smaller islands nearby.
4: Add Lakes, Inlets and Bays
Add lakes on the mainland or the islands if they’re big enough. Lakes are often long and fingerlike since they are depressions between mountains and hills.
Inlets and bays can make your coastline very unique. Create bays by drawing half bowl-like shapes along the coastlines. Bays can be quite irregular, or contain small islands. Don’t be afraid to make them angular or jagged. Draw wedges or small pockets that face into the landmass for inlets. Erase the sketch lines.
5: Solidify Coastlines
Using a 2B pencil, trace over the lines, wiggling the pencil to give more character to the original line. Don’t be afraid to add more bays, inlets and islands. Carefully go back and erase any of the sketch still showing. Leave only the final coastlines.
Tall mountains and rugged foothills often dominate fantasy realms. Mountains add a sense of vastness and awe to a fantasy world’s setting. Mountains not only serve as physical boundaries between cultures and races, they often form political boundaries as well, dividing various nations and people.
1: Draw a Guideline and the First Mountain
To start, take a 2H pencil and lightly draw a guideline where you want a mountain range to be. Take an HB pencil and slowly draw your first mountain shape, making an upside-down V or W. Draw this first mountain in the middle of the guideline.
2: Create a Mountain Chain
Add a mountain to the right and left of your first mountain until your whole chain is complete. Mountains drawn in the middle of the chain should be the largest, while those toward the end should gradually reduce in size. Mountains are far from regular in shape and size, so feel free to experiment.
3: Define the Mountain
Take your HB pencil and draw thin lines that run down each side of the mountain, with each mountain having at least five to ten lines each. Do this for each of the mountains and watch how they come to life!
4: Finish the Mountain Range
Keep adding varied mountain shapes and texture to flesh out the whole mountain range.
The vision of mountain streams cascading down and rushing into mighty rivers is a powerful one. All rivers begin as tiny streams of mountain waters that trickle downhill to merge together, forming larger streams called tributaries. Tributaries flow downhill and eventually form a larger river that flows to sea. Since water flows around obstacles, rivers and tributaries often twist across the land.
1: Deciding River Placement
With a 2H pencil, lightly draw a guideline for the river. Rivers will often begin in the middle of two mountain ranges and end in the sea.
2: Develop the River Line
When you are happy with the placement of your river, darken the line work. Take your HB pencil and follow the guiding line. The line may snake through the land, so don’t be afraid to give it movement and curvature.
3: Develop a River Delta
Try your hand at a river delta, which is when a river fragments into smaller tributaries before it reaches the ocean. To draw a delta, add a few small lines to the river mouth, spreading out like the branches of a tree.
4: Adding Tributaries
After finishing the river, add tributaries flowing from the mountains. Tributaries often look like branches. With an HB pencil, draw a thin wavy line from the closest mountain terrain to the top of the nearest river, snaking a bit along the way.
Continue drawing tributaries, connecting them to the topmost part of the river. A good rule of thumb is to have three to five tributaries per river.
Combine all the elements together and you’ve learned how to draw a map! You can add more complexity to your map with towns, cities, caves and more, but now you know the basics for drawing the maps you need for your story or game.
How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps
You can learn more about how to draw a map and all the individual elements you need to set up your fantasy world in How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps by Jared Blando, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the North Light Shop and wherever books are sold.