Fantasy Map of North America — Breakdown

Last year I started making imitation fantasy style maps, inspired by classic examples such as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. You can see my earlier post about inspirations over here. It turns out making these is pretty fun and somewhat therapeutic, so I kept on making them in the same style.

Since then I’ve finished a few more maps, including New England, Europe and the United Kingdom and Ireland. Most recently I finished up a version of the North American continent and figured this would be a good time to go through the making of guide again.


North America

I finished up this map in March 2018 after starting then abandoning a similar perspective in September 2017.

The tools and resources used are the same as in my previous map of Scotland which you can find in my previous blog. Primary credit is to the talented star raven for creating a delightful set of fantasy map brushes.

North America — Final Map with Tilt Shift Lens Blur

Overview

The biggest challenge I came upon in this map was deciding what this was going to be a map “of”. Aside from obviously showing the continental outline, I had to choose if there was any other data I wanted to bake into the design. Potential ideas included:

  • National and state boundaries
  • National Park locations
  • Major rivers and tributaries
  • Historical trails
  • Highest or significant mountains
Canada and Greenland

I experimented with various ideas around this but decided in the end that the scale wasn’t large enough to really show much of this without looking horribly cluttered. Borders were excluded since I felt they would be against the spirit of the fantasy style. I liked the idea of National Parks but unfortunately they are broadly clustered quite densely and so wouldn't really be ideal on this scale, unless I was to only show a few or the more well known ones. In the end I decided to show rivers and mountains mostly though even this didn’t show through particularly clearly in the end.

Reference Maps

I used four reference maps focussing on different aspects of the continent, from rivers to mountains to cities. The main reference point was a National Geographic map of the continent.

The coastal Outline

Using one of the reference maps, I use the pencil tool to sketch around the coastal areas including inland bodies of water such as the great lakes. This allows you to make a solid layer for landmass which sits on top of the base layer for water.

Traced coastal features against a parchment background

Layer mask for land

Using this solid landmass from above, created using the fill tool, you can mask this onto whatever texture you want to hide everything that isn’t considered “land”. Once you’ve got this you just need to layer the coastal outline on top and add a little drop shadow and blur to give a more inky look.

Solid landmass created user a mask.

Coastal Lines & Rivers

The coast lines are surprisingly simple to create — select the entire coastal trace layer and expand the selection by ten pixels or so. From there use the draw line tool to draw a one pixel wide line around this new expanded selection. Repeat to add additional lines.

Coastal iso lines and rivers

The rivers are based on one of the reference maps, again drawn on with a one pixel wide pencil and then blurred slightly with a bit of a white drop shadow to make them seem more integrated into the texture of the background. The background texture is simply a blank parchment image from Google image search.

Brushes for Features

Adding trees and mountains is always a bit of a challenge. I tried to match up broadly with reality though the goal isn’t to be entirely accurate when working on this scale. I added a few named mountains for flavour but they aren’t particularly well highlighted — they’re in there though!

Features added.

Generally the biggest tradeoff in this map is wanting to show the major river routes clearly as possible. This caused the problem of slicing up the available space for mountains causing issues in filling relatively small spaces and resulting significant separation between some of the ranges with a lot of empty space that couldn’t easily be filled. In previous maps I’d worked the opposite way in placing mountains first and then rivers — in retrospect this is probably a tidier way to work from an aesthetic point of view.

The most significant issue with using a set of brushes is the variety and avoiding repetition. Duplicated patterns are very easy to spot, and so using the brushes as effectively as possible will create the illusion of unique features as often as possible. Forests can be broken up with additional individual trees, mountain ranges can be expanded, resized and shaded in different ways. This isn’t a precise process but does go a long way to avoiding a repetitive look.

Star Raven’s brushes are beautiful, but there are only around 10 or so mountain ranges and 8 individual mountains. Using these preset brushes to cover an entire image and not look like you just used the clone stamp tool is a real trial and error process.

Cities in this map are only those considered major in terms of population — selection is based on a reference map, I didnt make a conscious decision to exclude certain cities.

Shading and highlighting

This part adds the real depth to the overall image, and also takes the longest to do as it is completed entirely manually using a small brush. In this case I used a soft paintbrush tool with a low opacity to build up layers of highlights and shadow — highlights on the west and shadows on the east. Just pretend it’s sunset I suppose.

Mountains and other features highlighted.

Labels

Now I think about it, the labels are probably more time consuming and fiddly to add simply because of how GIMP handles text to path operations. It’s a fairly convoluted process even for simple text and frankly takes a lot longer than it probably should. Cities and mountains are labeled with simple horizontal text, other features are curved to fit in the given area. All of the text is finished with a simple and somewhat subtle 0 offset white coloured drop shadow to take the harshness off the contrast and anchor the text into the background colour.

Labels added to highlight physical features and cities.

Downloads

As in all my previous maps, the full version is free to download from my Google Drive account. I’ve also included a version with no labels, for those who prefer a blank look or want to use it for their tabletop games!

Buy a Print Online

A few people have asked about buying prints online. There’s no need to do this as you can download a copy via the link above and print it out yourself or using your favourite printing service.

If you want a slightly more convenient option though, you can buy a print via my Redbubble store online:


That’s all! Thanks for reading — you can check out my other work online here:

Callum Ogden