How to Make a Fantasy Map in GIMP

With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, you may be planning on writing a fantasy or sci-fi story.  Congrats!  This is one of my favorite genres to write.  However, if your character(s) are doing much traveling, it’s not hard to get lost.  There usually isn’t a GPS on these worlds, either.

That means you need a map!

If you’re creating a world from scratch, though, that presents a problem.  Where do you get a map for a place that doesn’t exist?

Well, GIMP, of course! Here’s how you do it:

Making a Fantasy Map in GIMP 2.8

Step 1: Use a Clean Slate

Start with a blank canvas.  You can choose your size; I usually do 1000 x 1500 or some similar proportions.  Regardless, it’s only going to show a portion of your world anyways, so it doesn’t really matter.  For this tutorial, I went with a much taller map, because I wanted to try something different.

It doesn’t matter what base color you have for the background, either: it’s going to be overwritten by the next step.

Step 2: Make Some Clouds

Next, you’ll go to Filters -> Render -> Clouds -> Plasma.  I like to set it to Randomize, to give more variety, but I leave all the other settings alone.  You can do this more than once, too, if you don’t like what you see.  I did it twice for the demo map. You’ll end up with something crazy looking, like this:
GIMP Fantasy Map How To Step 1 Plasma

Step 3: Tame the Crazy

Next, you need to convert it to black and white.  This part of the process is very easy: just go to Colors -> Hue/Saturation and move the Hue slider all the way to the left.  This will make your fun rainbow become boring but usable.

GIMP Fantasy Map How To CurvesThe other half of this step is adjusting the curves.  This is also found under Colors.  I usually find it easiest to adjust it along the bell curves that are already there (see above), and then adjust more as needed.  You adjust this by dragging anywhere along the line, then dropping when it creates a curve you want.

GIMP Fantasy Map How To Step 2 Color Adjustment

Step 4: Make it Clear

This still isn’t stark enough to do what we need to, so we need to do one more adjustment before we can select things.  Go to Colors -> Threshhold.  Play with the slider until you get it to as stark a black/white contrast as you can.

GIMP Fantasy Map How To Step 3 Threshhold

Step 5: Making Landfall

Now you have to decide if you want the black or the white areas to be the land for your fantasy map.  If you’re creating an island map, you’ll probably want to use the black areas; otherwise, the white areas area is almost always best.  Use the Fuzzy Select Tool (the magic wand; shortcut is U) and click on the white area.  Always select the biggest area first; it’s a lot easier!  Copy and paste onto a new layer.

GIMP Fantasy Map How To Step 4 Select Land Area

Step 6: Make it Float

You’ll notice there are a LOT of jagged edges inside your large area.  This makes creating borders on the fantasy map between the land and water harder (they look REALLY ugly), so we need to smooth those out.  On your new layer, you should have a bunch of white, with a blank background.  Make the original background that you copied from invisible (the little eye icon next to the layer), so that you can see the blank areas.  Using the magic wand again, click on one of the blank areas and hold down Shift while you click other areas that you want to include.  If you want lakes or islands, make sure you click the littler blank areas inside the white.

Leaving these areas selected, go to Select -> Invert, or click Ctrl + I.  This will select all of the other areas that you don’t want as water (or islands).  Select the Bucket Fill Tool (Shift + B) and choose the Fill whole selection option.  Set the color to ae9764 for land or 827143 for water, depending on if you’re making the large area a continent or an ocean.  Click anywhere in the white area and voila!  Instant land mass or ocean.  Then just create a single-color layer behind this layer and dump whichever color you didn’t use in there.  That will create your islands or water in the gaps.

Step 7:  Create Boundaries

Duplicate the land layer on your fantasy map (whether it be a continent or smaller islands) twice.  Place these layers behind the original.  I like to create a group for these layers, but you don’t have to.


In order to create a border, we’re going to Stroke these layers.  With the middle layer selected, use the magic wand or the Select By Color Tool (Ctrl + O) to select all of the land.  Make sure you change the foreground color, which is what this tool will use, to 6f6447, then go to Edit -> Stroke Selection, and change Line Width to 3px.  Leave everything else the same, and hit the Stroke button.  Repeat this process with the bottom layer (you can just leave the selection as-is), except change Line Width to 10px.

This will create a small border around the land.  If you used a very big canvas, you might have to go back and increase those Line Widths a little bit in order to see them.  Now change the original land layer’s opacity to 15% and the middle layer’s opacity to 40%. Play around with the opacity if it doesn’t look right (for example, I didn’t actually change the original layer’s opacity in the image below.)  If the third layer’s border looks too sharp, try using the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter -> Blue -> Gaussian Blur) to soften it up.  I usually do it in increments of 4px (both horizontal and vertical), until it looks the way I want.

GIMP Fantasy Map How To Step 7 Create Boundaries

Step 8 (optional): Everything Gets Better with Age

The final step is to give your fantasy map a slightly weathered look.  You can skip this step, if you don’t like that style.  If you do want to weather your map, just go to Filter -> Render -> Clouds – > Fog.  I usually up the Turbulence to 2.0, and you may want to experiment with the color a bit.  I’ve found that an ugly gray-brown tends to work best for me, along with adjusting the opacity down to 30-50%.  You can do this step as many times as you want, to achieve the desired look, experimenting with different colors and opacity settings.

Step 9 (optional, but recommended!): Population Explosion!

What’s a fantasy map without any terrain or civilization?  If you want to complete your map, in a suitably Tolkien-style, try downloading a font like First Order and some fantasy map icons, like the ones here, courtesy of the wonderful calthyechild and TheWhiteCrayon on DeviantArt.  Once you’re done, you’ll have something like this!

GIMP Fantasy Map How To Completed

Got questions?  Ask away!  Did you follow along with the tutorial and finish your fantasy map?  Show us your masterpiece!

This post is part of the How to NaNoWriMo series.  Check out the other posts below:

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