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Thread: River Scale

  1. #1

    Question River Scale

    I'm a fairly new mapper (new to these forums, at least), and I've got a few questions about rivers for the experienced mapmakers here.

    Mainly, I'm interested in how people draw rivers with shapes similar to the real world. I know that major rivers tend to wind around a lot once they reach a floodplain, but what kind of scale should those meanderings have? How exactly should the shape differ between a major river as it reaches the ocean and a smaller river as it moves from mountainous foothills into the low-lying land? I can recognize when a river looks unnatural (like my first few attempts), but I can't figure out how to make them look realistic.

    I started with all of my rivers displayed as the same scale on the map, but that's probably a mistake. I assume I should use wider strokes for the biggest arteries and thinner ones for the tributaries.

    I've looked at maps of the kind of rivers I want to imitate: the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Elbe. Unfortunately, I'm not exactly sure how to replicate their appearance. Do most people just fudge it?

    I have access to Illustrator CS2, and a very old copy of Photoshop (way too expensive to buy a new one).
    Last edited by SteelyGlint; 02-16-2010 at 01:15 PM.

  2. #2
    Professional Artist Facebook Connected Coyotemax's Avatar
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    Jul 2009


    First off, welcome to the guild!

    I just make my rivers up as I go along. I tend to put them in after other terrain features have been decided on, though sometimes I'll add a few things (why does that river curve back away from the coastline? I know! i'll add a series of hills that cuts it off!).

    Other than that, it's pretty much what you just described. I'll wander them in between hill features, along the edges of (or right through the middle of) forests, as they get closer to the coasts have them a bit more windy, and occasionally (no more than once or twice in a map) toss in a delta.

    I don't think i've ever had a river police citation, so I must not be entirely off base

    One of the things to remember is that at when you're doing a regional map where you are showing an entire world or continent, you're often working at a scale where 1 pixel might equal 1 mile across - in that kind of situation, your rivers are more representations, as there are very few rivers out there that are a mile or more across, so realistically you would not not see many rivers at that scale if at all. Your idea of wider strokes for major rivers and thinner for smaller is a decent way to go - and if you can taper the stroke along the path so much the better, that helps the illusion of the river getting larger as more tributaries (even if you can't see them) add their flow.

    If you zoom in on that region, that's when you might want to get more picky. If I want to get more precise, I'll refer to google earth (or maps) and look around till I find a region that's similar to the area I'm mapping, and look for rivers in that area to get ideas.
    Last edited by Coyotemax; 02-16-2010 at 01:07 PM.

    My finished maps
    "...sometimes the most efficient way to make something look drawn by hand is to simply draw it by hand..."

  3. #3


    Yeah, 1 mile per pixel is about the scale I'm using. Is there any particular way to depict rivers not to scale that looks good? Right now I'm using the same technique I'm using on my shorelines. This means the rivers seem to carve their way through the grasslands and forests that cover most of the region.

  4. #4
    Professional Artist Facebook Connected Coyotemax's Avatar
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    that's pretty much what i myself do, but some styles don't lend themselves as well as others.

    I'd suggest starting a WIP thread for more feedback, or post what you have in here.

    My finished maps
    "...sometimes the most efficient way to make something look drawn by hand is to simply draw it by hand..."

  5. #5


    I guess I'll post what I've done for now in this thread. Note that some parts of the edges will be trimmed for the final product, so I'm not worried if things look a little weird near the edge. I might even cover up parts of the edges of the map with cloudy "terra incognita" if I can figure out how to do that well. The paper texture is from one of the threads on this site, so signing up has already paid off.

    I'm actually pretty happy with how the rivers turned out, and I think the coastlines/oceans/rivers are pretty much what I'm looking for... which is a very simple style for use in a small RPG I'm developing. I'm actually more worried about the mountains and forests now, since the mountains especially don't fit the theme of the rest of the map.

    The style I'm going for is very accurate positioning of basic biomes (might want to add some swamp indicators in the south or snow indicators to the north, if I can figure that out). I'm not sure exactly how to make good looking mountains while maintaining both accuracy and a simple style. I'm especially concerned about avoiding clutter, since I need room for cities, roads, sea routes, and names of various types.
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  6. #6


    I think I've improved on the mountains a little. Also a fairly substantial palette change, with more of a focus on faded colors.

    Hopefully someone has a suggestion or two to finish polishing it. I would appreciate suggestions for how to indicate swamps in the south, add snowy shading in the north, design or find a stylish rose compass, or produce "terra incognita" clouds around the edges.
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  7. #7


    At a scale of 1px = 1 mile, the majority of your rivers would not be visible. However, the purpose of a map is not necessarily to resemble an aerial photo. As far as the rivers in your map go, they look pretty good to me. There are a couple of oxbows that seem a bit unlikely, and I think you could possibly add another level of fractalization (wiggles between the wiggles you already have), but overall I think they're very plausible.

    I'm not sure how you've drawn your rivers or just how old your version of Photoshop is, but you could add a taper at the headwaters. Open the Brushes palette, click "Shape Dynamics", and under size jitter, set control to Fade. Adjust the number of steps until you get a nice tapered end to the stroke. Or if you have a tablet, you can simply set size to pen pressure, which is much easier.

    Oh, and I like the less saturated color palette; a big improvement!
    Bryan Ray, visual effects artist

  8. #8
    Guild Expert jbgibson's Avatar
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    Oct 2009
    Alabama, USA


    "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." - Mark Twain

    Thing is, real rivers are going to do some stuff that looks "unrealistic" :-) yet we have to believe what we see on an aerial photo. Paradoxically, you may get something that looks like a real piece of terrain if your rivers don't just take a wavy path between here and there, but some of then abruptly take off in THAT direction, loop around some minor rise in the land you can't see at 1mi = 1px, take a sharpish jog amid a long curve, and so forth. Like Midgardsormr said - a varied degree of fractalization. Your meanders are nice, yet their scale makes me think the wanders are more because of topography forcing the rivers to go here then there, not just to wander as they flow across a flattish plain. Or put it this way - at your scale, lots of Earth's lower Mississippi River meanders would be within the width of your actual river. Some of that's the necessary representation of features outside their visible scale on a map. But look at the Mississippi state map here. It's within 20% or so of the scale of your map - see the degree of loopiness on its western border?

    Is the darker green a distinct biome, or an altitude range? If altitude, you've got a multitude of small dips, more of which would logically fill with water. If the dark green is forest, vs. the lighter green being grassland, do you have a cultural or environmental reason why no lake is forested right up to water's edge?

    You mention swamps in the south. Are those lakes impact craters, or knob & kettle topography as from past glaciation? Or something else?

    If the dark green is forest, it's puzzling that all mountains are bare - none forested. You could tell us if the large-ish basin left center, west of Thousand-Mile-Estuary, is intended to be a higher-altitude flat-ish zone, by having the river to the south reach up into it, maybe with a 'slot' of a valley crossing the southernmost lowest part of the encircling ridges. Maybe even with a set of falls indicated, if it is a higher basin than the terrain just to its south.

    If the mountain area is maybe a thousand miles by fifteen hundred, I'd expect more fine divisions. Mountains are tough to get realistic. Your range is maybe ten times the length of Switzerland, yet even just Switzerland has "more bumps"... to use the technical term. :-). I'd figure some of the rivers would reach 'up into' the mountain valleys too. While you may be thinking they get too small to "see" at higher elevations, remember your overall scale. One would figure draining multiple times the breadth of Europe's Alps would take some serious rivers, even up in the mountains. The smaller mountain zone in the NE is maybe 250 miles across, yet is shaded like one mountain. If you intend Olympus Mons, OK... even then on any Earth-like planet I'd figure a mondo big lone mountain to have acquired all sorts of erosion ridges and valleys.

    Think "past the edge"... what is off to the southwest? If many more miles of woods are being drained, it'd be OK to let several of the SW rivers come in from off-page fully formed. The way they are implies not much landscape exists between them and some continental divide. Maybe you've got a desert hidden there <shrug> if so, it's fine to have the rivers visibly starting on-page. Just do it on purpose.

    Really, these are all just things to consider, and nitpicking to improve your landscape. I do like the look, and with cultural features and labeling it would make a fine map as-is! I think some subtle work like the paper folds adds "realism", in that it seems more a digital version of something somebody had printed up. It existed in the real world (well, somebody's real world) before you brought it to our attention in scanned-in form :-).

  9. #9


    Thanks for the suggestions, jbgibson.

    One problem with the rivers is that I'm not entirely sure how to depict them such that they're both similar in style to the rest of the map and able to show realistically-scaled meanderings. I'm considering reducing them to 2 pixels wide (1 for the tributaries) with the blackish-brown coastline color. This would have the side benefit of eliminating those unsightly squared-off river heads and allowing for a higher density of rivers since they'd be less obtrusive. If I change the way I draw rivers, I might also gain some more leeway in extending rivers up into the mountains and the large forested basin as you suggest.

    The darker green is indeed intended to be forests. As you seem to have perceptively detected however, the extent of this forested region was in fact generated from an altitude map. However, I decided to discard much of that altitude information which is why they instead follow some other (merely hinted at) elevation levels. This was kind of a hackish way to get out of having to hand-draw the forest borders.

    In the source altitude map, all of the circular lakes (and dips, and forest rings) are actually impact craters. Your mention of Olympus Mons is appropriate, since the source material is a topographical map of Mars. I didn't want to draw undue attention to the many craters, which is one reason I discarded some of the altitude information.

    As far as the mountains go, I've changed them once since the last version I posted and am now considering changing them again after having read your post. I don't have a good way of blending the mountains with the forest considering my primitive version of Photoshop and likewise primitive Photoshop skills, so it will have to be left to the imagination that some areas of forest are rugged and low-lying mountains are lightly forested. The shape of the mountains are in large part determined by the few Photoshop tools at my disposal, and their shapes within the mountain "zone" have no relation to the altitude source material.

    Honestly, I have no idea what's beyond the edge of the map to the southwest. If I'd have to say something, it would probably be the roots of another massive mountain range. I'm fine with the 10% of the map closest to the edges being a little less polished than the middle, since the middle is considerably more important.

    I'd say the main things I'm going to focus on after reading your post are: narrower and simpler river lines which allow more intricate river meanderings, more complex mountain ranges with smaller individual mountains, and better drainage of all areas of the map.

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