Fantasy cartography using the Stockholm method

Posted by Chris Rosser on Fri 28 August 2020
Hello! This site is archived and no longer maintained. For Chris' main site go to chrisrosser.net

While watching a video on YouTube by WASD20, I read a comment where someone suggested using Stockholm's island network as the basis for creating the landmasses of a fantasy map. Intrigued, I've decided to give it a shot.

So, let's fire up Google Maps and take a look at Stockholm, Sweden.

Stockholm courtesy Google Maps
Stockholm courtesy Google Maps


Zoom in a bit, and you can see the potential, as hundreds of islands begin to appear.

Islands around Stockholm
Islands around Stockholm

From here, I zoom in on the islands I liked the look of, and take some screenshots. I'm rushing for the sake of the tutorial, but it's worth investing time to zoom in on the shapes you like and capture them with greater detail.

Next, bring those screenshots into your preferred image editing app. I use Pixelmator Pro, but this works with GIMP, Affinity Photo or Photoshop. I created an A4-sized canvas, but this will work with any size and resolution you prefer.

Screen shots dragged into Pixelmator Pro
Screen shots dragged into Pixelmator Pro

Now it's a matter of copying the shapes I like and using them as the basis for the landforms of my map. To do this, I'll be using pixel-based selection with the Select Colour tool, or Magic Wand as it's referred to in Photoshop. Note, this is were the level of detail in your screenshots matters, the more detail, the better (more natural) the selected shape will look.

Selection based on colour
Selection based on colour

To capture the missing pixels, I use the free selection tool with mode set to add to selection. Note there is nothing to stop you combining islands to create different landforms that are harder for geography buffs (and Swedes) to recognise. I also remove the naturally occurring lakes because I prefer to draw them in later.

Completed selection
Completed selection

Once I have my selection, I then convert it to a vector shape, so that it's easier to edit. Here's what it looks like with the screenshot layers hidden.

Vector shape, based on selection
Vector shape, based on selection


The beauty of using vector at this stage is you can edit them easily by manipulating their nodes, as well as rotating and resizing the shape without losing resolution.

Vectors, easy to transform, and....
Vectors, easy to transform, and....
...and edit
...and edit

With the basic technique down, I'll create a few more landmasses from different islands, this time joining a couple together. Then it's a matter of arranging, resizing and rotating the shapes until I have something I like.

Blocked in landmasses
Blocked in landmasses

You'll note above where I've made mistakes in my selection — white lines and shapes against the black. I want a solid black shape, so I'll edit those out by removing the points I don't want from the vector path. Alternatively, you could convert the shapes to pixels and then paint over them with a solid black brush.

Solid landmass
Solid landmass

Finally, I'll flatten all layers and use this as the base selection layer for the new map. For the sake of completeness, I'll quickly knock up a map using a technique I've described in a previous post.

Basic styled map
Basic styled map

Slap on some mountains and trees, and you've got a half-decent looking map. I spent next to no time on this stage, but you get the idea — take as much or little time as you like.

Finished map - not too shabby
Finished map - not too shabby


Concluding thoughts

I find one of my biggest hurdles to creating a fantasy map is drawing the initial shape of the landmass. Staring at a blank screen or piece of paper is an exercise in frustration. I'm not much of an artist, and I have poor spatial recognition. So, using existing landforms is a great way to lessen that cognitive load.

As per the comment where I first heard of the technique, I used the islands around Stockholm, but any chain of islands will work, such as those found in Indonesia or Hudson Bay. Stockholm is particularly useful because of the density of islands in the region.

Timewise, I spent less than forty minutes on this map — including writing up this tutorial: difficulty-wise, it's layers and selections, which are easy to learn. As a means of getting fast, pleasing results on paper (well, screen), I can't think of a quicker method short of using a random generator. Still, those give you little scope for customising your map.

For the starting point of a novel, or a D&D campaign, I reckon this a pretty good technique. It gives you the place to start you world-building, anchoring your creative in geography. For most of us, that's all we need to set our imaginations free.

If you have ideas for creating maps quickly, I'd love to hear them so drop a comment below!


Wow you read this far! This site is archived and no longer maintained. For Chris' main site go to chrisrosser.net