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Create a Fantasy Map Illustration

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Having the ability to produce a fantasy map is a great addition to any Illustrators' arsenal. Fantasy maps are used extensively in role playing games, in both digital and print media. Although there are some specialist map generator applications available, their results often appear lackluster and uninspiring.

In this tutorial, we'll adopt a hands-on approach and modify existing source material to conjure up the magical Kingdom of Nyan!

I'd like to thank everyone who allowed me to use their resources and in particular Stephen Caissie.


You'll find the Photoshop PSD file in a directory labeled "source" that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through it briefly before we begin. You'll also find some 3D renders to complete the tutorial.

As well as the 3D renders, you'll need to grab the following free resources.

  • vector map
  • relief map. (The Hypsography + Shaded relief, 133.9 MB version).
  • grunge textures 1
  • grunge textures 2
  • Celtic border brush
  • old map
  • Celtic ornament (Top center graphic).
  • paper texture
  • You'll also need to this Celtic font and a demo of the SuperBladePro plug-in installed before launching Photoshop.

    Fantasy Maps Past and Present

    Fantasy maps have existed for centuries; in fact the first maps were a combination of reality and fiction. Cartographers of the time were faced with huge expanses of unknown territory, so they filled these missing parts with their imagination. These maps seem quite bizarre today, as next to fairly realistic depictions you'll find serpents and other mythological creatures. Modern day fantasy maps are commonplace in role playing computer games, they also appear in novels and magazines.

    I produced a realistic sea chart illustration a few years back, but I wanted this one to depict a completely fanciful world, complete with barbarians and beasts! Having an existing collection of Daz3D figures, I decided this was the route to take — so before starting, I compiled some reference material and source files.

    Step 1

    Launch Illustrator and create a 250mm square document (the color mode's not important). With your Rulers visible (Command + R) zoom into the top-left corner and drag the rules origin point to the top-left edge of the artboard.

    Step 2

    Pull in central guides — you may need to hit Alt + Command + Semicolon to unlock your guides and position them accurately using the Reference Point Locator (vertical guide X: 125, horizontal guide Y: -125mm).

    Step 3

    Next, set the Fill and Stroke to zero and hit Command + Y to work in Outline Mode. Select the Rectangle Tool (M) and click anywhere on the artboard. In the next window enter 220mm in the Width and Height fields and click OK. Position the object dead center using the Reference Point Locator (X: 15mm and Y: -15mm).

    Now hit Command + 5 to convert the object to guides, then Alt + Command + Semicolon again to lock guides.

    Step 4

    Download this vector map and open it in Illustrator. We won't be needing the entire map, I decided to use selective continents from the Eastern Hemisphere and modify it to suit the fantasy map, but feel free to choose your own area. Unlock both layers, then grab the Direct Selection Tool (A) and drag it across the areas not required and hit Delete a couple of times.

    Zoom in and continue to clear unnecessary details, such as tiny islands, etc. Select All (Command + A) and Copy to the Clipboard.

    Step 5

    Paste the map into your square Illustrator document and enlarge (my map segment required an enlargement of around 650%) then rotate 90 degrees clockwise. We'll be cropping areas which extend beyond the guides later, but for now feel free to use the Direct Selection Tool again to delete any larger distracting land masses.

    Step 6

    Fill the map with black with a zero Stroke. You may need to apply some non-proportional scaling to ensure it covers the guide box. You can also select smaller areas with the Direct Selection Tool and reposition them — remember, were creating something imaginary.

    Once your happy with your shape, select it and choose Make Compound Shape from the Pathfinder palette, then hit the Expand button.

    Zoom in and you'll notice there's a blocky effect around the coastlines. Fix this by selecting Filter > Stylize > Round Corners and entering a small amount in the Radius field — I used 1mm.

    Step 7

    Set your Fill to white and Stroke to zero, then add a square the same size as your guides (220mm square) and position exactly as you did in Step 3.

    Select both the square and map, then choose the Crop command from the Pathfinder palette. Now Copy the combined shape to the Clipboard. Save your Illustrator document, as you'll be needing it later in the tutorial, then Quit Illustrator.

    Step 8

    Switch to Photoshop and create a new canvas, accepting the Clipboard preset, select RGB Mode and White as the Background Content. Now Paste the selection choosing the Pixels option, then accept the Place prompt. Your Illustrator map will now import as a layer.

    Throughout this tutorial we'll be loading the map as a selection, so it's best to store it within an Alpha channel. Target the map layer, then Select All and Copy, switch to your channels tab, add a new channel by clicking on the Create new channel button. Now Paste the layer content onto the new channel and hit Command + I to Invert (Photoshop uses white pixels as selective areas). Double-click the channel thumbnail and ensure the default Masked Areas button is checked. The channel can now be renamed "Map" and your initial map layer discarded.

    Step 9

    OK that's our map safely placed within it's own channel. Next, we need some textures for the continents. Download and open this relief map (be sure to download the top "Hypsography + Shaded relief (133.9 MB)" version).

    This map is ideal because it's high resolution and has all the relief detail we need — it's a pretty hefty download though, so be patient.

    We now need to Copy > Paste selective areas into our fantasy map file; zoom in and look for suitable details. Grab the Lasso Tool (L) and roughly select your chosen area (I selected a chunk of Africa, because it's got some interesting geographical features), then Copy to the Clipboard.

    Before you Paste the selection, click the top RGB composite channel and ensure the visibility of your "Map" channel is still enabled. Switch to your layers tab and Paste the selection as a new layer. Roughly Transform/position using the "Map" channel as a guide.

    Copy > Paste another land area, so it looks something like this.

    Grab the Eraser Tool (E) and use a medium, soft-edged brush to gently blend the top layer. Now hit Command + E to Merge Down the upper layer. Next, set the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to the Current Layer and fill any missing areas — remember to use your "Map" channel as a guide.

    Step 10

    Label the merged layer "Land mass," then revisit your download map and use the same method to extract a mountainous region and Copy > Paste. Enlarge/position as required, then erase the hard edges as previous. Name this layer "Terrain 1."

    Continue adding further mountain ranges using the same process. Although this is a fantasy map, it still needs to obey the laws of nature, so keep these mountainous regions inland, away from the coastline. You can now label all these layers accordingly and drop them into a group folder called "LAND."

    Step 11

    Switch to your channels tab and Command-click your "Map" channel thumbnail to load a selection. Now uncheck the channel's eye icon to make it invisible, and with the RGB composite channel still highlighted, switch back to your Layers tab. Target your "LAND" folder, then go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

    Step 12

    Download these textures and import "delicate1.jpg" as a top layer within the "LAND" folder. Enlarge to cover your canvas, set its Blend Mode to Multiply and label it "Land distress 1."

    Add "delicate3.jpg" as a new layer and resize. Label accordingly and change the Blend Mode to Color Burn.

    Repeat using "delicate5.jpg" with a Blend Mode of Multiply.

    And a final distress layer using "delicate2.jpg" with a Blend Mode of Multiply again.

    Step 13

    Set your Foreground color to #335c60, target the original "Background" layer and hit Option + Delete to fill with turquoise. Import "delicate2.jpg" again, above the "Background" and name it "Sea distress." Set its Blend Mode to Color Burn and lower its Opacity to 72%. This layer can now be labelled "Sea distress." Feel free to flip/rotate this layer, or any other distress layers within the "LAND" folder to taste.

    Next, we'll modify the "Sea distress" layer non-destructively by pressing Option while choosing Hue/Saturation from the adjustment layer drop-down button, in the following window check Create Clipping Mask. Select the Colorize option and use the Hue, Saturation and Lightness settings as shown.

    Step 14

    Now we'll apply a darker edge to the sea; add a new layer filled with #335c60 above the previous adjustment layer, set its Blend Mode to Multiply and Opacity to 68%. Next, add a mask and grab a large, soft-edged brush to hide areas. Note: My mask is shown in isolation below.

    Finally, name the layer "Sea dark edge" and place it, along with the "Sea distress" and it's adjustment Layer, (maintaining their stacking order) into a new folder called "SEA."

    Step 15

    Drop a new folder named "COASTLINE" above the "SEA" folder. Add a new layer within it labelled "Coast 1." Generate a selection from your "Map" channel, go to Select > Modify > Expand and enter 22 px, then hit Alt + Command + D and enter a Feather Radius of 20 px. Now fill the modified selection with #64997d on the new layer, then lower its Opacity to 28%. Note: I've disabled the visibility of the "LAND" folder for clarity in the screenshot below.

    Drop in another layer and name it "Coast 2." Follow the same selection method, but Expand by 2 px and Feather by 10 px. You can fill this selection with #3bb095, but leave its Opacity at 100%.

    Add a final coastline layer called "Coast 3," use the same selection process but Expand by 1 px and Feather by 5 px. This selection can be filled with white and its Opacity reduced to 24%.

    Building up different layers using this technique gives added flexibility for the following step — and also looks less mechanical than applying a Layer Style.

    Step 16

    Let's add a bit of irregularity to the coastline; grab the Smudge Tool (R), uncheck the Sample All Layers and enable the Finger Painting options. Now pick a small, soft-edged brush at around 50% Strength and work on each layer in turn to pull pixels out from the edge.

    Step 17

    Add a mask to the "COASTLINE" folder and use a variety of brushes at varying opacities to knock back areas. Remember, we're aiming for an inconsistent, natural-looking effect. Note: My mask is shown in isolation below.

    Now's a good time to revisit your distress layer Blending Modes and adjust their settings to taste — I reset "Land distress 1" to Color Burn, but feel free to make any further adjustments as required, because your map won't be a carbon copy of mine.

    Step 18

    Now we need to add some extra canvas to allow for the decorative border. Go to Image > Canvas Size (Alt + Command + C) and set both the Width and Height fields to 25cm, then highlight the central Anchor point, White as the Canvas extension color and hit OK.

    Step 19

    Download these textures and import "amitins_20 Leather.jpg" as a new layer above the "LAND" folder and name it "Border." Scale non-proportionally to fit and position as shown.

    We'll need this layer intact for later, so Select All > Copy > Paste, accepting the Clipboard preset and flatten. Now name it and Save to a convenient location — I called mine "Leather_distress.jpg."

    Step 20

    Download this Illustrator border brush and place the "Celtic Border" file within your Illustrator > Presets > Brushes folder and launch Illustrator.

    Note: This brush is for non-commercial use, but the author granted permission in this instance.

    Open your map file that you saved from Step 7 and load the new brush from the brush palette fly-out menu. Note: If you didn't quit Illustrator earlier, the bush won't appear in the brush listings until you restart Illustrator.

    Select the Rectangle Tool and click anywhere on the artboard. In the next window enter 240mm in the Width and Height fields and click OK. Now apply a 1pt black rule to the object using the border brush.

    With the square selected go Object > Expand Appearance. Now snap it to the top-left corner of the artboard and use the Reference Point Locator to check that the X and Y coordinates are set to zero. Enter 250mm in both the Width and Height fields.

    Now Copy > Paste As Pixels into your project file above the "Border" layer.

    Step 21

    Command-click the new layer to load it as a selection, then switch to your channels tab and add a new channel. Now fill the active selection with white and label it "Border sharp." You can now disregard the initial border layer.

    Drag the "Border sharp" thumbnail over the Create new channel button to duplicate it and rename it "Border blur." Now go to Filter > Blur and enter a Radius of 3.0 px. We'll use this blurred channel to create the embossed effect in the next step.

    Step 22

    Target the top RGB composite channel and check that the visibility of the additional channels are off. Now switch to your layers tab and target the "Border" layer.

    Next, go to Filter > Render > Lighting Effects and use the settings shown below. You'll also need to select "Border blur" from the Texture Channel drop-down menu, check White is high and set the Height value to 12.

    Step 23

    We now need to trim away the inner excess. First, add a mask to the "Border" layer, then generate a selection from your "Border sharp" channel. Now Shift-click using a medium, black, hard-edged brush around the four inner corners as indicated — be careful not to stray into the outer border. If you do, just reinstate with a white brush.

    Mask the remaining central area by dragging a rectangular selection and filling with black on the mask. Now clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the "Border" layer. First adjust the Hue Master setting, then use the Edit drop-down menu to modify the Red and Yellow Saturation/Lightness settings.

    Step 24

    Next, clip a Levels adjustment layer to the "Border" layer and set the Input/Output Levels as shown.

    Generate a selection from your "Border sharp" channel again, target the previous Levels adjustment mask and fill with black. Now the Levels adjustment is limited to the areas behind the border.

    Step 25

    To enhance the border a little, load the "Border sharp" channel as a selection again and fill with #cab48e on a new layer at the top of the stack and label it "Border yellow." Change its Blend Mode to Soft Light, then place all your loose layers into a new folder called "BORDER."

    Step 26

    Next, I'll briefly outline how the 3D models were created. I first used Poser to load the figures from my library.

    Props such as weaponry were parented to the hand parts, so they would follow the figure's movements when posed.

    Because I wanted more than one Poser figure per scene, I exported each figure as separate OBJ files for importing into Cinema 4D later. Note: Poser can sometimes run painfully slow when using multiple figures.

    Even though the figures would reproduce very small, I still went to the extent of adding details such as facial expressions.

    The separate OBJ figure files were imported into Cinema 4D using the interPoser plug-in. Each scene was lit, with just a single light casting hard shadows — which suited their reproduction size. I then ran out some test renders and discovered that using isometric projection worked best with the 2D map. Finally, I rendered each scene to high resolution with an additional Alpha mask so they could be selected easily.

    I've supplied all these renders in the "source" folder, but feel free to make your own.

    Step 27

    Open "Render_1.psd," set the shadow layer to Multiply and Opacity to 50%.

    Generate a layer based selection from the top layer, then use the Clone Tool (set to Current Layer) to repair the texture holes on the barbarian's head with a small, soft-edged brush.

    Now grab the Sponge Tool, set it to Saturate and use a medium, soft-edged brush to carefully introduce a little more color to the woman's skin.

    Step 28

    When you're done, highlight both layers and drag them into a new group folder labelled "3D FIGURES" at the top of the stack. Now Shift-click both layer thumbnails, scale simultaneously and position as shown.

    Add a mask to the shadow layer and gently blend the furthest edges using a small, soft-edged brush.

    Step 29

    Import "Render_2.psd," remembering to set the shadow to 50%/Multiply and mask areas as previous. This layer requires a slight tonal tweak, so clip a Levels adjustment to the upper layer and use the settings below.

    Now add "Render_3.psd" using the same technique.

    "Render_4.psd" can also be added, then a Hue/Saturation (to just the Yellows) and a Levels adjustment clipped to it.

    Finally, add "Render_5.psd" (which is minus a shadow) and clip a Levels adjustment as shown.

    Step 30

    Drop a new folder labelled "TEXT" at the top of the stack, grab the Type Tool (T) and add your first text layer using this Celtic font.

    Note: Additional/alternative characters and their keystroke commands are detailed in the readme file that accompany the font download.

    Use the settings shown and color with #569791 by clicking on the Color chip. You can also quickly modify your text by hovering your cursor over the scrubby sliders (circled in red). When you see the double arrow icon, simply drag left or right.

    Now lower the layer Opacity to 80% to allow a little texture to show through.

    Select each initial letter and increase it's size and adjust the baseline shift to compensate.

    Place your type cursor between the initial and second characters, then reduce the kerning. Repeat this on the second line also.

    Step 31

    To enable text to follow a predefined curve, grab the Ellipse Tool (U), located under the Custom Shape Tool and set it to the Paths option, then add a path. Grab the Type Tool and hover over the path until the icon changes. Now type your text and format it as required — you can now reposition the path with the Path Selection Tool (A) and your text will remain anchored.

    To move type along the path, use the Direct Selection Tool (located beneath the Path Selection Tool). You can even flip type to the underside of the path if required and the path can be modified via the Edit > Transform Path command, as well as its individual anchor points adjusted.

    Step 32

    Use the same technique to begin adding the main place names in black. Also apply a subtle Outer Glow Layer Style as shown, using #ceb189. You can either save this setting in the Styles tab, or use the Layer > Copy/Paste Style command to your additional layers.

    Add the smaller place names but remember — this map is high resolution, suited to magazine reproduction, so keep things legible by not dropping below 8pt. If you're short on space, adjust the tracking or Horizontal Scale fields. And If you're producing a map for the web, adjust your point sizes accordingly.

    Step 33

    At this point I felt the "Yellow border" layer needed some amends. First, reduce the layer Opacity to 30%, then clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment Layer. Check the Colorize button and use the settings below.

    Step 34

    We now need to incorporate some detail to the sea; import this old map as a new layer within the "SEA" folder. Transform/position, so the compass sits bottom center, then change its Blend Mode to Multiply and name it "Navigation lines." Next, grab the Clone Tool (set to Current Layer) and use a large, soft-edged brush to repeat areas. We're only after a faint watermark effect, so use a soft-edged eraser at a low Opacity to gently reduce areas.

    Let's apply an advanced blending technique to soften the effect more. Double-click the layer thumbnail to access the blending options, then Alt-click (to split) the top right-hand Blend If slider. Now pull the left half of the slider to 157.

    Finally, bring things into focus and apply an Unsharp Mask filter as shown.

    Step 35

    Download this Celtic ornament (Top center graphic) and open the "Circle Celtic Ornament 2.eps" version with Illustrator. Use the Direct Selection Tool to Delete the right hand copy as well as the fine outer and inner linework. You'll need to keep hitting delete until your graphic looks like this, then Copy to the Clipboard.

    Note: This file is also for non-commercial use, but the author granted permission here.

    Switch back to your Illustrator map file, lock the base layer, add another layer and Paste. Now scale and position top-left. Next, add a circle object with a Fill of zero and a 5pt black Stroke, then center both objects.

    Add the logo using the same font as previous. Set each line separately at 25pt for the smaller text and 38pt to 55pt for the larger text. I also enlarged the Initial "R" on "REALM" a little, then dropped it marginally using baseline shift. Take some time here to balance your elements and also adjust your tracking and kerning. I could have achieved the same effect within Photoshop, but I prefer Illustrator's toolset for creating logos.

    Step 36

    Copy > Paste As Pixels at the top of the layer stack, then load the layer as a selection and fill with #f2c33f.

    With the selection still active, choose Filter > Flaming Pear > SuperBladePro and use the settings below. To achieve the same result as mine you'll need to load the "gold" reflection environment preset and hit the Spin button – also, copy my light settings. When you're done, click OK to apply the filter.

    Step 37

    Select Layer > Matting > Defringe and enter 1px to smooth the edge appearance, then add a Drop Shadow Layer Style.

    Name the layer "Heading." Now boost its contrast by clipping a Levels adjustment and set the Input/Output sliders as shown.

    Step 38

    Add your tag line at the base of the canvas in the same font with a fill of #ecda8a. Now reduce the Opacity of the layer to 85% and Copy > Paste the Layer Style from the "Heading" layer, but reduce the Style's Opacity, Spread and Size amounts.

    Step 39

    Add a new folder at the top and name it "UPPER DISTRESS." Open the "Leather_distress.jpg" that you saved from Step 19 and Shift-drag its thumbnail as a new layer within the folder. Label it "Distress paper" and set its Blend Mode to Hard Light and its Opacity to 73%.

    Next, load a layer-based selection from your "Border" layer mask (in the "BORDER" folder), target the new layer and select Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection. Now clip a Black and White adjustment to the "Distress paper" layer choosing the Maximum White preset.

    Finally, grab the Clone Tool and use a large, soft-edged brush (set to Current Layer) to fix any distress areas that interfere with any elements of the underlying design.

    Step 40

    Open this paper texture and loosely select the horizontal fold.

    Hit Command + J to float the selection as a new layer, Transform 90 degrees clockwise, position top center, then erase the hard edges. Continue to select and float further selections to make a more defined vertical crease.

    Flatten all layers, then add a conventional Black and White adjustment, selecting the Infared preset.

    Now hit Command + I to Invert the image.

    Step 41

    Import this as a new layer at the top within the "UPPER DISTRESS" folder and name it "Creased paper." Enlarge to cover your canvas, then add central guides to position the folds as shown.

    Double-click the layer thumbnail and split the top-left Blend If slider to 139.

    Step 42

    All that's left to do now is apply some overall color and tonal refinements. First add a conventional Levels adjustment Layer above all your folders and set the midtone slider to 1.10.

    Step 43

    For the final step add a Color Fill adjustment Layer using #f9f583. Change this layer to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to between 10 - 25%. This has the effect of aging the map by reducing any pure white.


    I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and also discovered some new techniques along the way. Why not have a go at creating your own fantasy world. Remember, you're only limit is your imagination!

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