View Full Version : Mapping without Seeing

02-26-2011, 10:33 AM
I doubt this will be useful for the majority of our members, but after scouring the internet for other folks like me who can't "see" anything, I thought I would put up the process I use in case it helps others someday.

First, let me explain what I mean when I say I can't see. I have zero visual thinking ability. I see nothing in my mind's eye; never, nothing. I can't visualize my mother's face, my front door, a circle, a line. I have a mind's ear instead; my thoughts are a clearly audible dialogue, I always have a song playing on another channel in my head, I remember movie dialogue with annoying acuity. It takes roughly 3 listens for a song to be added to my mental jukebox, which will switch to an appropriate tune at no warning (for instance, I look at a map of NYC and the song New York City by They Might Be Giants starts a continuous loop in my head until I replace it with something else). My creativity is in words, and any artistic ability I have is in the skill (practiced, not innate) of turning those words into instructions for something that ends up looking cool.

So, if you share this condition, or are curious, read on; I've learned after a couple years of practice that this is no bar to making cool maps. The steps below are what I follow for hand-drawing maps, because I find that to be the most difficult (and hence, my favorite).

02-26-2011, 10:33 AM
Step 1: Find a reference/inspiration map showing the style you like.
Neither reference nor inspiration is really the right word for this; it's somewhere in between. I usually use the word inspiration when I post, as reference implies copying. Using this method, you're never going to get an exact copy, so there is no need to be afraid of plagiarism. Got your inspiration map? Ok. As we go, I'll explain what to do with it.

Step 2. Make your coastline.
You can skip this step if you're making an inland regional map; I find that I have a really hard time with those unless I do a continent-level first, as all of the rules I follow go out the window if you can't see the shape of your landform.

So, take a long hard look at your inspiration map. How did they do the coastline? Is it a penstroke? How thick? Is it just a border between a dark sea and a light land that isn't actually stroked at all? Is that a woodcut, or just hatching? It takes a while and some practice to figure these out from looking at a piece, just take your best guess. As you look, you're forming instructions for what to do with your own coastline. Memorize these instructions as well as you can (do not write them down), then put away the reference map.

Now draw your coastline (if you want, you can do this in pencil and style it according to your instructions later). Remember the following: Coastlines have really jaggy spots and spots that are more smooth. Coastlines have lots of protrusions and inlets, and sometimes the protrusions shelter the inlets to make lagoons. The wikipedia articles under the category "coastal landforms" are priceless for getting an idea of the kinds of shapes that coastlines can make.

The coastline, as with most of what we're doing, is trial and error. Most times I'll start with a smooth shape, and then add in detail, erasing the smoothness as I go. Sometimes that takes two iterations before I'm happy with it.

Once you have the shape of your coastline set, style it with the instructions you memorized while looking at your inspiration map. Take your ink (it'll be ok, imperfection makes a map look good, not horrible) and take your best shot following your internal instructions. After you're done, open up (or take out of the drawer) your inspiration map and compare your map to it. Did you come close? If you're so far off that you hate what you made, start over --- but I find that usually I've come up with something my own that doesn't really look like the inspiration but I like it anyway. I think I subconsciously tweak those instructions to pick out what I like about the reference and discard what I don't like. That's why I never write them down.

Once you're happy with your coast, it's time to move on to mountains.

02-26-2011, 10:33 AM
Step 3. Mountains.
Take another hard look at your inspiration map, this time focusing on the mountains. How did they draw them? Is the top rounded or sharp? Is there a clear line between light and shadow, or is it a matter of gradual shading? Is it hatched or washed with color? Are the hatch lines all pointing the same direction, or do they pretty much follow the contours from the peak to the bottom? Again, make a mental set of instructions. This time, though, before you put away the inspiration map, try to look at the whole map and get an idea of how big the mountains are in relation to the whole. This part you may need to keep the inspiration map out for, until you get the hang of the mountain sizing.

Grab a sheet of scrap paper (or open a fresh image in your mapping software) and practice a few mountains while looking at your inspiration map. Muscle memory works. Once you get bored with this, you probably have a good enough grasp to work with.

Now put away the reference map and draw in your mountains using the muscle memory you practiced into yourself and the mental instructions you made while looking at your inspiration map. Keep in mind the following: Mountains don't usually run through the center of a landform unless it's a smallish volcanic island. Mountain chains are not straight or regular; they curve, fork, and double back on themselves. Peninsulas will either have some sort of a backbone of hills or mountains (see Italy), or they will erode away and become very swampy (see Florida). I read somewhere (don't remember where so take it with a grain of salt) that mountains cover roughly 10% of a given landmass.

Mountains are tough; this step will take some trial and error before you can live with your mountains. After each try, look at your mountains compared to your inspiration map. Tweak your mental instructions, put away your inspiration map, and try again. Once you get to something that you can live with, you can move on to Rivers.

02-26-2011, 10:33 AM
Step 4. Rivers.
Rivers are a lot easier than mountains; they're relatively simple shapes, and they follow some basic rules pretty darn consistently. Look at your inspiration map to see if the rivers are hairline, tapered, or outlined; that's all I take from the inspiration map. Most times I ignore the rivers on the inspiration map entirely, even, and just go with my own tapered rivers.

Look at your budding map. You have a coastline and mountain range(s), which gives you a rough idea of the contour of the land (high at the mountains and low at the coastline). Now draw in your rivers, keeping in mind the following rules: Rivers are really skinny when they start, get fatter the more tributaries dump into them, and end at a body of water (usually the ocean). Rivers are one way: high to low. As they go from high to low, they join up. They don't ever split (unless it's a delta or alluvial fan – both of which have great wikipedia entries). Deltas and alluvial fans are VERY rare. In mountains/hills, rivers tend to be relatively straighter, and grow more and more sinuous (and wider, usually) the flatter the land gets.

Got your rivers? Next is hills.

02-26-2011, 10:33 AM
Step 5. Hills.
You're going to follow roughly the same steps for hills as you did for mountains; the only difference is placement. Place some hills at the edges of mountains, and especially at the "ends" of ranges – these are the remnants of the range that never grew all that tall to begin with and have eroded. Your hills are both the transition from flat areas to mountainous areas, and high places in otherwise flat areas. Any non-swampy peninsulas that don't have mountains should have at least a hill or two.

Look at your inspiration map and note how hills differ from mountains. They're probably lower, and more rounded. Sometimes the shading is different as well. Make your mental instructions, practice some, and then put away your inspiration map. Draw your hills in according to your mental instructions and the rules above.

02-26-2011, 10:34 AM
Step 6. Towns, roads, labels
Now that you have rivers, hills and mountains, you have all the information you need to put in your evidence of people: towns, roads, names for things. I just use dots for towns; if you love the way your inspiration map denotes towns, follow the same steps you did for the mountains, and be prepared; town symbols can take even more practice, trial and error. Once you have your muscle memory and instructions (or are prepared to make your dots), put in towns and cities, remembering the following: Cities and towns are often found on rivers, lakes, oceans, as each is a ready source of both water and waste disposal (not smart, but true for medieval-type settings). Roads connect major cities, and will happily cut through forests but go around hills and mountains (between symbols is a great place to put that mountain pass everyone uses). At the intersections of roads, towns and cities will grow regardless of no river etc. being there; they'll dig wells for water instead. Label your mountain ranges, hills, towns, cities, rivers, and even the big blank spots where you plan on having large tracts of forest or desert, etc.; it's much easier to draw these around words than it is to put in the labels afterward.

02-26-2011, 10:34 AM
Step 7. Forests/Deserts/Other features
The rest of the map depends greatly upon your climate and your inspiration map. Fill in any areas that aren't full of mountains, hills, or words with vegetation, rocks, or whatever is appropriate to your terrain. If your inspiration map doesn't have the right kind of vegetation, go looking; you can usually find one that does. I also find that once I'm at this point I can usually apply the same "rules" to different shapes, i.e. a lollipop tree, or a fern for swamps, etc. You'll follow the same process – look at your inspiration, memorize instructions, try it, compare it, try it again. Soon you'll find that you have a beautiful map where before you had some words and a blank screen/sheet of paper.

Happy Mapping!

02-26-2011, 10:34 AM
And here is a pdf of the entire process (such as it is) in case anyone is interested.

02-26-2011, 03:42 PM
Awesome Gidde. I've tried to shut my minds' eye off but of course I can't. Also in your case it is no hindrance to artistic skill :)

02-27-2011, 07:31 AM
Thanks jt :)

07-27-2011, 01:50 PM
This is really neat! As I was reading through I was going 'but isn't this how everyone works?' xP I'm not quite as visual-thinking impaired as you describe, but still have very poor visualization skills (working much more on not so much "images" as concepts and sort of... mental sensations). When I'm making a map, I'm constantly mentally checking in with myself to see if I'm capturing the remembered sensation/effect. In short... I sort of use the method you detailed here, just not quite so explicitly or deliberately as you do! I hadn't really realized this until reading your tutorial, definitely some good advice in there!