Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Photoshop Basics

Wherein I teach you the absolute basics about Photoshop as needed for cartography

If you’ve never used Photoshop before or aren’t familiar with any kind of image editing software, there’s little I can do. Hopefully you understand the basics of moving and panning and maybe using a brush. If you don’t, there are a ton of tutorials out there with the googles to find.

However, I do want to cover some absolute basics. Even if you’re a Photoshop wizard, you’ll want to read the section about The Grid, as I’ve got some specific settings that work really well with fantasy cartography.

The Grid

You’re going to get so used to typing <command>’ that your fingers are going to fall off. That’s the key command that will turn on or off the grid in Photoshop. The grid is your friend, especially when it comes to shapes and polygons.

First, you’ll need to set it up. Photoshop’s defaults are alright but (trust me) you’ll want to have it super tight.

How to Set Up Photoshop’s Grid for Cartography
  1. Go: Photoshop -> Preferences -> Guide, Grid, and Slices
  2. In the dialog, under “Grid”:
    1. Set the line style to solid.
    2. Set the gridline every 10 pixels with 10 subdivisions.
    3. Set your grid color. I set the grid color to #ff0000, but any bright, vivid color will do.

Now you have a grid that shows every pixel boundary. This isn’t super important with outdoor maps but you’ll find it invaluable with blueprints and battlemaps.

The Grid Preferences
The Grid Preferences
Screenshot of an Active Grid
Screenshot of an Active Grid

You’ll want to turn on “snap to grid”. This will ensure that when you set down points and lines in your shapes that they won’t be “halfsies” and create weird blurs.

How to Turn on Snap-To-Grid
  1. Turn on your grid (<command>’ or View -> Show -> Grid)
  2. Go View -> Snap To -> Grid

You won’t turn the grid on all the time, and you’ll discover that it provides a color distortion effect when on, but when you’re moving anchor points around, you’ll think it a godsend.


Intersecting Guides
Intersecting Guides

Similarly useful to the grid, a Guide is useful for aligning objects and snapping them into line. Guides can be horizontal or vertical. There are two ways to add guides.

How to Add a Guide by Dragging
  1. Click your mouse inside either scale at on the outside of the canvas and drag into the canvas. A guide will follow your mouse.

The second way is programmatically, and is useful if you need one placed exactly (e.g., at 4.25 inches in an 8.5 x 11 inch canvas).

How to Add a Guide Programmatically
  1. Go View -> New Guide
  2. Choose a vertical or horizontal guide./li>
  3. Tell it exactly where you want the guide to go.
  4. Click “Okay”

You can move guides after the fact by switching to the Move tool and centering on the guide. You can prevent them from being accidentally nudged with View -> Lock Guides.


The Layers Panel
The Layers Panel

You need to understand what layers are. This is a “first-grade” lesson but it’s important.

Photoshop documents are structured in layers, in a stack, and read top-down. Layers can be turned on or off and individual effects can be applied to them. They can be duplicated and deleted.

You should never be afraid of adding or duplicating a layer. You will usually want to have one layer per object on the map, though “object” here can be broadly defined. For instance, I often make the entirety of a dungeon’s walls as a single vector layer.

Layers can (and should) be grouped into folders. You can turn a folder’s visibility off and on just like with a layer. Collect layers of like things together; that way you can turn them on or off if you need to as you work.

Additionally, you can give layers or folders colors. This can be useful when you have a lot of layers and groups to deal with (and you will, oh yes, you will).

Layer Comps

The Layers panel has a tab called Layer Comps. Layer comps are alternate views of a file. Each layer comp can define the visibility and layer style of any layer independently. This allows you to have multiple versions of your map in the same file. For example, you may want two versions of your map: one with color and one in black and white. Or you may want to have a version of a world map that shows nation borders and one that does not. You do this with layer comps.

Colored Version of an Island
Colored Version of an Island
Black and White Version of an Island
Black and White Version of an Island
Black and White Version of a Dungeon
Black and White Version of a Dungeon
Colored Version of a Dungeon
Colored Version of a Dungeon
The Layer Comps Tab
The Layer Comps Tab

You create a new layer comp by clicking the “New Layer Comp” button at the bottom of the pane (looks like a document). Give it a title (“Black and White,” say). This will create a new layer comp based on the current document state. Make changes to your layers (visibility, style, etc.). You’ll need to update the layer comp it for it to be saved.

How to Update a Layer Comp
  1. Flip over to the Layer Comps tab. You’ll notice that the selected comp is titled “Last Document State”.
  2. Select the comp you’re working on. Don’t click in the area with the icon; just click its name (clicking the icon area will reset the document to the old state).
  3. At the bottom of the pain, click the “Update Layer Comp” button (the one with the circle arrows)

With multiple layer comps, switching between map styles is a breeze. Note that adding layers and groups to the document does not automatically turn them on in the various layer comps; you’ll have to do that as you.

Selecting Whole Layer Pixels

A technique you will want to use a lot is selecting all of the pixels in a layer. This is a way for you to constrain where you’re editing or to do duplications (select a layer’s pixels, create a new layer, and use the paint bucket) or subtractions (select a layer’s pixels, switch to another, and hit <delete>).

Selecting a layer’s pixels is easy and requires only one click.

How to Select All Pixels in a Layer
  1. <command><click> on the layer’s preview icon in the Layers panel.
  2. There is no step 2.

Smart Objects

Photoshop has the ability for you to define what are called Smart Objects. Smart objects are a great way to manage your maps when you have a lot of the same object over and over again, like settlement icons or bits of furniture in a battlemap. You can think of them as being similar to templates.

When you turn a layer or a group of layers into a smart object it becomes its own “mini document” that you can edit independently. Changes made to a smart object are immediately applied to all instances of that object.

Smart objects are non destructive. You can modify any cloned instance of a smart object independently (resize, mask, or even add layer effects) and it won’t affect the other copies (unless you modify the core object).

Making a smart object is easy.

How to Make a Smart Object
  1. Select the layer or the a layer group.
  2. Right click to access the menu.
  3. Select “Convert to Smart Object.

You’ll have a new layer with a special icon inside it’s preview window. You can now duplicate this layer and move it anywhere you want.

Editing a smart object after the fact is just as easy.

How to Edit a Smart Object
  1. Double click on the preview icon for the smart object. A new window will open in Photoshop with the smart object’s layers.
  2. Edit the smart object as you see fit.
  3. Save the smart object (<command>s)

You’ll notice that all the clones of the smart object will immediately update in your original document.

Layers Panel Before Turning Groups into Smart Objects
Layers Panel Before Turning Groups into Smart Objects
"Convert to Smart Object" Menu
“Convert to Smart Object” Menu
Groups Turned Into Smart Objects
Groups Turned Into Smart Objects
The Internals of a Smart Object
The Internals of a Smart Object

In the examples below, I have two icons that I want to convert to smart objects. I do so, and then clone the “City” icon several times. Afterwards, I edited the “City” smart object and changed its color to a blue.

You can “uncompile” smart objects by editing the object and then selecting and dragging the layers out of the smart object window and into your original canvas (drag to the original document’s tab to switch documents, then drag and drop the layers onto the canvas, not the layer’s tab).

Smart objects also allow you to use non-destructive filters on them (smart filters). However, how to use them is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Two Icons, Not Yet Smart Objects
Two Icons, Not Yet Smart Objects
Multiple Clones of the "City" Smart Object
Multiple Clones of the “City” Smart Object
Cities After Editing the City Smart Object
Cities After Editing the City Smart Object
Resizing a Single Smart Object Clone
Resizing a Single Smart Object Clone doesn’t Affect the Others


The Gradient Tool Options Bar
The Gradient Tool Options Bar
The Gradient Overlay Settings
The Gradient Overlay Settings

I’m gonna be honest: working with gradients is a pain in the ass. Not because they’re difficult, but because they’re tedious. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with clicking dialogs and the like. Working with gradients is an exercise in experimentation.

However, you’re going to end up working with them from time to time so let’s talk about the gradient editors and how they work.

There are two main ways to add gradients: with the Gradient tool (a sub-tool found in the Paint Bucket menu) and through a Gradient Overlay Layer Style. Each behaves slightly differently.

When using the Gradient tool, the settings for the gradients are located in the top bar. When using layer styles, the settings are in the layer styles dialog. The biggest difference between the two ways of applying gradients is thus:

When using the Gradient tool, the direction of the gradient is set by clicking and dragging on the canvas, while in with Gradient Overlays it ise set in the dialog. Otherwise, editing gradients remains (mostly) the same (Gradient Overlays have a few extra bells and whistles).

Gradient Styles

There are several styles of gradients. They are:

  • Linear. The gradient goes in one direction, source to end.
  • Radial. The gradient flows outward from a central point.
  • Angle. The gradient rolls away from its starting angle, in a circle.
  • Reflected. The gradient goes in two directions from its center.
  • Diamond. The gradient goes in four directions from its center.

You’ll probably use “Linear” and “Radial” the most.

A Linear Gradient
A Linear Gradient
A Radial Gradient
A Radial Gradient
An Angle Gradient
An Angle Gradient
A Reflected Gradient
A Reflected Gradient
A Diamond Gradient
A Diamond Gradient

Other Gradient Options

Gradients have several options beyond style that are important to know how to use.

  • Blend Mode. Sets the blend mode for the gradient. You’ll want to use Color or Normal in most cases.
  • Dither. Just don’t.
  • Reverse. Changes the direction of the gradient to the opposite.
  • Angle. Changes the direction the gradient is applied (Layer Style only).
  • Scale. Changes the gradient’s internal scale. You probably won’t mess with this much; it can have subtle and unexpected effects.

The Gradient Editor

The Gradient Editor Dialog Settings
The Gradient Editor Dialog Settings

If you <double click> on the gradient box you’ll open the gradient editor. This window has several presets that you can immediately apply if you so choose (and you can save gradients to it).

The important thing to know is the bit at the bottom, with the color scales and stops. This shows what you’re gradient will look like.

The stops on the top of the preview denote the opacity of the gradient. The stops at the bottom denote the color of the gradient at that point.

Selecting any stop will allow you to edit the properties of it. Each stop has two options that can be modified: Color or Opacity, and Location.

You can edit the location of a stop by dragging it or entering a number. These numbers are percentages along the length of the gradient.

You can only edit the color on color stops and the opacity on opacity stops.

Adding a new stop is easy. Just click anywhere there isn’t a stop. You can drag it wherever you like or manually enter the location’s percentage.

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