Airas Chronicler – Session 9

Airas Chronicler – Session 9

A behind-the-scenes, slice-of-life series based on the trials of a new Game Master.
by Summer Twitter

Hey friends!

Today I’m going to be doing something a bit different from normal. Craig has been teaching you how to design and flesh out your maps using the traditional pencil and paper. As he took a week to bring you an amazing interview, he asked if I would be interested in taking one of those maps and digitizing it for all of you! Of course, since cartography is a love of mine, I agreed.

So let’s begin. Starting out with a sketch on pen and paper can be very helpful when you know you’re going to be bringing your work into a digital program for further work. I use Photoshop CC when working on artwork and that’s what I’ll be using in this tutorial.

Firstly – you want to start with a canvas size that suits your needs. If you’re keeping the map digital and using it on a platform like roll20 – you don’t need an image quite so large as if you’re taking it to print.

I’m beginning with a square canvas, 10×10 inches at 150 pixels per inch. Generally, you want to use 150 to 300 pixels per inch for things that you want to print! I kept this at 150 so that the final images load more quickly when used for web.

I’ve taken Craig’s scan of his map and dragged it onto my Photoshop canvas.

Similar to inking a sketch – I start with outlines. Word of advice, use separate NAMED layers for literally everything. You won’t regret it in the long run! I used a hard edge, circular brush at about 5px wide for this particular outline. I think the thing I love most about map outlines is you don’t need a steady hand. The rockier the shore, the more interesting that can look in your finished product. I traced over the various rivers, lakes and island – and you can see that outline here – with the guide and without.

As you can see – I’ve already gone ahead and started adding some detail in the way of the water that surrounds this island – repeating the light pattern in the lakes and rivers. As you can see, the outline isn’t exactly like the sketch, but this is where you have a chance to make changes, don’t be afraid to stray from your original idea.

I decided to outline the trees and mountains next. In a future tutorial, I’d be happy to go over how I do my mountains and trees – but for now, do whatever you’ve been doing in the past! Every cartographer has their own style and that’s what makes maps so incredible.

So as you can see, bringing your illustrations to life in Photoshop is a lot of refinement. You’re basically very carefully inking your previous sketch. This is why I personally don’t do much in the sketching phase, knowing that I’ll be bringing it into Photoshop to clean up lines and change ideas.

Believe it or not, we’re done with the outline! We could put the map title on this and call it a day! However, I decided to go a little bit further and add some color to this map.

So the way I start my color is by color blocking, using a set of Grays. I block in the land, the trees, and any ravines. I use these as base layers so I don’t have to worry about staying in the lines when coloring and shading.

I’m going to start with the ground and finish up with the trees and mountains last. I start with a base color of green, clipped on top of it’s gray base layer.

I come in with various colors for shading next. I use a soft, large, low opacity brush (usually set at about 30%) and start to gently shade in the different areas. I use darker greens near water and forests and light sandy colors on bits of the shores. I’ll usually use some light browns in areas where there’s not much water or in places that would receive a lot of shade. Honestly, this is totally up to you. You are the master of the world you’re creating and the way you would color this might look totally different than the way I did!

I block color and shade in the mountains next. I’ve used two different coloring schemes, though there are many more than you could use. I’ve used grays for the northern mountains and a more brown color scheme for the lower ones. I’d be happy to go into more detail about lighting in a future article, but for now – pay attention to your light source. Decide where the sun is and use lighter colors where the light would hit your mountains. This gives them an added layer of dimension.

Next, I block in the trees and the water. I’m using one large solid color for each, choosing not to use much color variation or shading in my trees.

Lastly on the shading, I add in a bit of a glow effect around the island where the water would be shallow. This sets your island down in the water, making it feel like it’s rising up out of this ocean. I also add a soft vignette around the border of the canvas to give it an almost worn feeling.

Finally, I add in the name using a simple arched text layer with a slight outer glow effect and add the finishing touch of a map texture overlay. There are tons of high resolution paper textures out there that are free to use and can really add depth and variation to your map.


Voila! You have a finished, colored map. I decided to leave the roads and map markers off of this so that you can use it for your own adventures – and I’ve attached a map with and without the title.

I hope this has been helpful to you and that you get some use out of the map we’ve created! I plan on uploading a video in the future of the complete process of digitizing a map and hope you check that out when it comes.

Thanks so much to Craig for letting me have some serious fun with this – and I’ll see you all next week!


Stay chill,


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