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Thread: Starting on a concept

  1. #1

    Default Starting on a concept

    Hello, everyone. I've made many maps in the past (most of which haven't survived the ravages of time) and am quite proficient at Photoshop and other software packages, but I've decided to take on Cartography as a primary hobby instead of it being something I do rarely. I come to you with a peculiarly simple question, especially given the context I've just set. How does one get started? In every other hobby I've ever had it's usually a case of starting small and working one's way to larger, more detailed projects. Walk before you can run, essentially. There are many examples, but I'll give a few. In animation you start off with simple "bouncing ball" exercises and then move on to, say, full character walk cycles and in art you start with basic perspective and shading values and gradually progress to figures. But with cartography, what stumps me is there's no real starting point that you can work towards in the sense that you start small and finish large and complex. It's not as if beginners start with a simple island and then only if they do this will they be able to make a continent. No, it's more a case of just starting from that high point, instead of climbing the ladder. It's not because it's confusing, but because I'm so used to hobbies which follow that similar structure. I guess the starting point in this hobby is the world concept and basic outline of say, the continents? Of course, one's real starting point should be the study of geography and one should at least have a simple understanding of the basic processes involved in the natural world.

    I ponder this because as I've decided to start Cartography as a genuine hobby, I'm confused where to start. I guess I just block out my continents and land shapes and everything else? I want to start working on a world proper, but these thoughts have hindered me slightly. Should I just start with the concept and basic outline of everything and work from there, going through the layers?

    I hope my rambling is in some way coherent.
    Last edited by TaylorH; 07-14-2014 at 02:13 PM.

  2. #2
    Community Leader Guild Sponsor
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    Diamond's Avatar
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    Jul 2009


    Well, for 'real' cartography, I'm assuming you would approach it like any other discipline - that is, taking courses either in person or online, 'apprenticing' to someone who's already in the field, etc.

    For fantasy cartography... it's a bit more problematic. I suspect that those of us who have been doing it for a long while started out scribbling on scratch paper as kids and have just upped our game bit by bit since then. I know that's the way I started out, and from what you've said, so did you. I don't think there's any hard and fast starting point or travel map. Do what thou wilt. I would say take a look at where your interests lie. Are you more intrigued by the idea of mapping a whole world and then mapping out progressively smaller and smaller areas? Have you wanted to try a city map? A cave system? Start with what interests you. Start with something that's finishable. Don't bite off more than you can chew and get discouraged and never map again!

    If you want to work on an entire world, what is it in service of? Are you writing a novel? Is it for an RPG? I would assume you already have some ideas about what you want your world to contain - vast deserts, rhino-riding orcs, who knows? Creating fantasy worlds (and maps) is one of the most rewarding creative experiences you can have in my opinion, but there's so much to it that you could literally write a book about it. And people have. What I'm saying is, the purpose of the map/world should probably dictate how you go about creating it.

    Really, like most other art, the best way to do it is to just do it. Draw some sketches. Play around with the tutorials here. Experiment, don't be afraid to post works-in-progress and ask advice.

    Hopefully that ramble was of some use.

  3. #3
    Guild Expert Chashio's Avatar
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    Jan 2011
    Maine, USA


    Well said, Diamond. And, I still scribble on scratch paper... It's not just for kids. Makes a lovely idea generator and thought organizer.

    If you're looking for a good reference book with examples for basing your fictional maps in reality (for Earth-like realms), Smithsonian's Earth, The Definitive Visual Guide gives a great introduction to things without getting overwhelming and is useful for visualizing landscapes you create in your maps.

    Also... It's not a bad idea to start with an island. It has boundaries, so it's harder to bite off too much.

  4. #4
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    Traverse City, Michigan, USA


    Perhaps you might try going to the Challenges section of this forum and try the current Mini or Regular Challenge map. That would give you something specific to work on while you get your feet wet, and would probably help you think through what part of mapping intrigues you the most.

  5. #5
    Community Leader Guild Sponsor J.Edward's Avatar
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    Mar 2009
    Central PA area


    If you're wanting to go a more hand drawn route - you could start with getting used to sketching trees, forests, mountain shapes, mountain ranges, working on styles for shorelines of lakes and rivers. Then once those are more or less comfortable for you you could move on to color and texture for land types. That would be an easy enough start before trying to jump right into world building. Draw a few villages, towns, cities. Get used to all the little parts that make up the world at the local level.
    Then start practicing different types of coastline - Scandinavian coasts can be fun and quite time consuming.
    You could go to google maps and try to render landscape that you find there.

    There are a lot of directions you could go and a lot depends on where you want to go with cartography.

  6. #6
    Guild Artisan Falconius's Avatar
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    Jul 2013


    Deciding to do something as a "primary hobby' seems like a strange way to start out, but then maybe I should give that a try if it works for you. Generally speaking people do something because they enjoy it and because it meets certain specific goals. So my suggestion is to come up with goals for your maps and then draw to fill them. For example; you decide to make an RPG setting so need to map areas pertaining to your setting. The other approach is to say I'm going to make something and then, perhaps, find a use for it. Like saying I'm going to make an island now and then just getting down to it. Really both of these things can be used in conjunction, for instance if you are stuck or can't think of a project, you just do some random thing such as in the island example, and when you want to do something important to you you have the practice under your belt.

    There is also this fact: Quantity leads to quality. So just keep bashing away at it.

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