Creating believable shapes for fantasy maps

Creating believable shapes for fantasy maps

Generating believable fantasy map shapes.

It's probably the most asked question when starting on the journey of fantasy cartography. 'How do I create the land or island shape; Where do I start?' 

Well friends, pray, let me assure you there are as many methods to creating a shape for your continent or island as there are ways to milk a fish. In fact, I would bet my entire pouch of coin there may be more. I've tried more than I care to recall, but there are a few forms of inspiration that I personally find most the most effective if I'm feeling stuck: 
  1. Weathered paint or plaster  
  2. Existing landmass shapes.
Pull up a pew, grabeth a mead and lets discuss these briefly, aye?

Weathered Paint or Plaster

photo of grungy wall with peeling plaster

Landmasses or islands by their nature are organic in shape. (There are exceptions such as man-made borders, but for now lets concentrate on the general form of the landmass).

Look at the image above, you can see the weathering and aging takes on these same 'organic' characteristics. What once was a unified coating, has broken apart, leaving fractured shapes that look, and are related; much in the same way lands can pull apart due to tectonic and seismic movements. Its quite easy to imagine the dark areas being islands surrounded by the paler ocean. This is my personal go-to if I need quick inspiration.

Try zooming into an area. You'll start to see all kinds of new worlds take shape before you. Look at the image below and you might find it easy to see the dark areas as water, the light as lands and islands, even the cracks taking on the form of rivers cutting and meandering through the land.

black and white grungy plaster texture

Or below. Are these cracks describing fields, or the roads of  a coastal city surrounding a large lake?

close up of a grungy black and white texture with cracked lines

If you do an online search for Aged plaster wall texture or Old plaster wall texture you'll find plenty to inspire you.

if you like though, you can download and try out a selection of 14 black and white weathered paint and plaster textures that i've set up by clicking here. 

Existing Landmasses

It seem obvious right, if you're going to create and draw a country, why not look at existing countries as inspiration? You can go a step further if you want and pick a country, then look at how its broken up into provinces, counties, or districts. You can use those as inspiration, or, take them into a piece of graphics editing software like Photoshop, Procreate, Krita, Affinity Photo, (or print them, or trace them off a screen) whatever you feel comfortable using; and experiment. 
Try turning them upside down, flipping them, rotating them, inverting them, combine countries together then sit back and behold your new creation...Thou. Art. Now. A. Gaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwd!!

Since one has humoured and accompanied me this far, i do feel a reward is duly bequeathed. upon clicking here, thou shalt gain access to a set of PNG files in the shape of many countries (62 in fact), that you can use.

Oh and Sorry if your country isn't here; I've tried to use the best images I could and the most interesting shapes, avoiding those with too many straight edges/boundaries. Its for that reason most of the African nations have been excluded. 

Below is an example showing how I've combined Canada and the Netherlands png files. Its a time-lapse but was literally less than two minutes playing around. The process involved bringing the .png files into photoshop, then rotating and moving them. I used an eraser to remove some edges, then duplicated the Netherlands again, reduced the scale and moved it somewhere interesting. 
Obviously there's lots more that needs done, if I was actually going to use this, but its a quick way to get started. Which brings me to a topic I'll cover in another article: Names. Since this is a combination of Netherlands and Canada, why not combine those to make a name....Neth(erlands) plus (Can)ada? Nethada. Works for me.

animated gif showing process of combining existing country shapes to create a fantasy map

To Sum Up

Don't be afraid to combine the countries with the plaster shapes, or maybe you look elsewhere, clouds, moss and lichen? There's inspiration to be found in a lot of places. I think there's a fun little challenge in here somewhere. Anyway, I hope you found that useful. Don't be afraid to leave a comment with any questions or thoughts you have.

Here are the download links again: 


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