Tutorial: How to Use My Brush Sets

A few people have asked me how one would go about using my brush sets. (Or anyone’s brush set, really.) It’s a great question! It’s easy to see how daunting it’d look for the layperson. But the sets themselves are effortless to use, and that’s their intent. I want to empower writers or gamemasters to create detailed maps that are period-authentic for their fantasy work, be it a book, RPG, or a personal map for a gaming session. This is the onus of #NoBadMaps.

This post is going to serve as a step by step guide on use. But first, some introduction to the whole brushes thing: brushes were designed to mimic different mediums digitally—so one could develop brushes for oil paints, graphite lead, charcoal, watercolor, etc. The brush would randomize and do its best to emulate the little details left by those tools in the real world. My brush sets are a hack of that system. Instead of mimicking mediums, we’re doing something slightly different.

Think of these brushes as stamps.
Think of these brushes as stamps.

Think of these brushes as stamps. Only it’s one you never have to ink, and you can see where each symbol/shape/element is placed. You’re not dragging a mouse or drawing with a stylus across your document. No artistic skill is needed. All you’re doing is placing and clicking. The pattern goes like this: 1) select the brush you want. 2) position it. 3) click, and you’re done. 4) on to the next object! It’s that simple. By utilizing this system, one can rapidly develop a detailed map that feels hand-drawn. Instead of rendering each object one by one, we’re just stamping them into place.

As with my tutorial on coastlines, I’ll be using Adobe Photoshop CC on my Macbook Pro running macOS Mojave, but I am sure similar functions exist in other image software. Nothing I am using in this tutorial will be cutting-edge. For this tutorial, you need minimal experience using Photoshop, Gimp, or whatever tool you choose—this tutorial sits firmly in Beginner Level territory.

Let’s begin!

Step 1 – Download a brush set

Step 01 - Download

Download the set by clicking on the button from my site. For this demo, I am going to use Walser, one of my more popular brush sets. You can find links to all the sets over on my Free Stuff page. There’s a variety to choose from, pick whatever you like best.

Step 2 – Install the brush set

Step 02 - Install

Your browser will download the file. Simply locate it and install the brush set by unzipping the file (double-click on it) and then double-click on the .abr file, this will automatically install the brush set into Photoshop. Click here for step by step instructions on installing brushes for GIMP.

Step 3 – Set up your document

Step 03 - Set Up
For this demo, I am using a 1400x1400px artboard with a pre-drawn landmass to save a little time. I name the layer with the outline “Border.” You can draw your landmass any way you want, scan in a drawing, or download my demo map (pictured) and use it.

[!] Tip: There are plenty of tutorials out there on how to do this. But if you want a fantastic guide on creating realistic coastlines, check out Mike Summers’ tutorial. It’s a simple solution with some reliable results.

Step 4 – Locate your brushes

Step 04 - Locate Your Brushes

Now that you have a landmass, it’s time to add the details. Select the Brush Tool (B) then open the Walser Cartography Brushes folder using the Brush Dropdown (pictured) or from the Brush Palette located under Window in the File Menu.

Step 5 – Select your first brush

Step 5 - Select Your First Brush
Select the brush you want from the subdirectories. I take a great deal of time labeling and organizing these sets so you can find what you want quickly. I tend to start with the most significant landform first and work backward, but you can place your brushes any way you want. In this instance, I selected “Mountain 1.”

Step 6 – Place your brush

Step 6 - Place a Brush
Your cursor will change to an outline of the brush you selected. Make sure to choose the color you want. I usually go with #000000 (Black) to mimic ink. (You can change this by clicking on the Foreground Color located on the bottom of your toolbar. Just click on the swatch, choose a color, and click Okay.)

While not necessary, I personally like to use a new layer for each “type” of symbol. In this instance, I created a New Layer (Shift+⌘+N) or click Layer > New > Layer…  in the File Menu. The New Layer panel will appear, name your new layer “Mountains” then click “Okay.” You’ll now have a new layer. Now, just click to place your brush where you want it.

Boom! That’s it! You made a mountain!

[!] Tip: Want more nuance in placing your objects? Give each individual object its own layer. That way you can use your arrow keys to nudge it to the exact spot you want. Be sure to name each layer in a convention that makes sense to you. There’s nothing worse than having to hunt through a mass of misnamed layers.

Step 7 – Expand your mountain range

Step 07 - Expand Your Mountain Range
Repeat the process to expand your mountain ranges wherever you want them. Be sure to mix and match symbols to give your map that classic hand-drawn feel. This is why I include so many different variances in my sets, the less repeating symbols you have, the more custom your map will look.

Step 8 – Add hills

Step 08 - Add Hills

Create another New Layer (Shift+⌘+N) and name it “Hills” then repeat the process using the hill brushes. Place ’em wherever you want! As I mentioned above, think of the brushes as stamps. You’re just stamping away placing the landmasses, flora, and settlements wherever you feel like. The pattern and layout are entirely up to you. As Zombo.com used to sagely say: “The only limit is yourself.”

[!] Tip: If you want more advice on creating realistic geography for your fantasy worlds I’d recommend checking out Brandon Sanderson’s Worldbuilding Geography lecture, it’s a great entry into geography development. Check out Part I and Part II on YouTube.

[!] Tip: Remember that rivers come from elevation, generally after this step, I’d consider where I’d extend my rivers. You can see I drew in a few wider rivers in my initial border, but they would need to be lengthened to finalize this map.

Step 9 – Add flora and more

Step 9 - Add Flora and More
Follow the same steps as above for your flora. You can be as sparse or detailed as you want. When you’re finished, you can move on to your settlements. Just add a New Layer, label it “Towns” and repeat the process above. Once complete label your towns and cities with the Type Tool (T).

From here you can style your map any way you want. Add texture. Add effects. Weather the edges. Mess with the Blending Modes. There are loads of options to customize and tweak your design. Do what fits your vision!

[!] Tip: Not finding what you’re looking in Walser? Try mixing and matching brush sets! Different engravers highlight different aspects, so you never know what you’ll find to make your map your own.

You did it!

That’s it! There’s no step 10. You created a map just by clicking and placing the brushes you wanted, where you wanted, and it’s already looking pretty amazing. That’s the beauty of these brush sets, it allows anyone with a computer to create an authentically styled map quickly and easily. Hopefully, you found this tutorial simple to follow, and you were able to achieve the look you wanted. As always, let me know if I need to clarify anything.

If you’re looking for more advice on how to continue or expand the design your map check out Mapping Resources for Authors and GMs—it’s a handy resource detailing a variety of options and communities for authors and GMs who want to expand their map-creation skills.

You can download and learn more about my brushes over on Free Stuff page. I currently have ten sets available with more on the way. All my brushes are distributed with a CC0 license. No attribution required!

💸 Supporting This Work

If you found this helpful and want to support my work, instead of a donation, consider buying one of the novels from my Bell Forging Cycle series. The first book—The Stars Were Right—is only $2.99 on eBook. You can find all three in stores and online, and the fourth is due soon. Visit bellforgingcycle.com to learn more about the series. Leave reviews and tell your friends!

And what’s a pulpy urban-fantasy novel without a map? When Old Broken Road, the second book in the series, launched I shared a map detailing the expanded world of the Territories, you can check it out here.

The Bell Forging Cycle

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