How to make a fantasy city map with Illustrator

Drawing maps is a key part of many fantasy writers’ process, but it can be hard to find the right program to get your ideas down on paper. I recently created a city map using Adobe Illustrator, and wish to share how you can too. →

After successfully creating a world map for my WIP fantasy series Graceborn, I have been searching for the best way in which to draw an accompanying map for one of the story’s key settings: the city of Asphodel. City maps have different requirements that geographical maps and I found that GIMP, which I used previously, did not quite have the functionality I was after. This time around, I used Adobe Illustrator to draw the map of my city, as shown below.

I am very pleased with how this turned out, and would now like to share how I went about the process. A preliminary note, however: this post is NOT a step-by-step guide on how to use Illustrator. I am by no means an expert on the program, and if you wish to give map-making a shot, there are far better resources out there than me!

Install Illustrator and learn the basics

Adobe Illustrator is a vector graphics editor available through Adobe Creative Cloud. Unfortunately, you have to pay, but there are a number of different online plans available, and you can also try the program for free for a period of up to 7 days. As mentioned above, I won’t go into detail on how to use Illustrator here, but after you’ve installed it familiarise yourself with the interface—there are loads of tutorials out there!

Draw the outline or wall

I used a thick black line to draw the wall of my city, with the circles at each vertex representing towers. Since my city is perfectly octagonal, I used the Polygon Tool, but you may choose to draw a Path for less regular shape. I decided to use a dark grey colour for the built up areas and tan for open spaces and roads. My city has a clear space directly inside the wall, so I filled my border octagon with tan and drew another grey octagon inside it.

Insert open spaces

Next, I created a new layer and drew in the open spaces. You may choose to do this at a later stage depending on how your mind—and your city!—works, but I did this fairly early on. For my open spaces (which include squares, courtyards etc.) I used various Shape Tools and Paths with a thin black Stroke (i.e. outline) and the aforementioned tan filling.

Add key buildings and features

Immediately after the open spaces, I added in important buildings and other such features. These include more thick black lines for internal walls, marking in where the gates are, and denoting a variety of key buildings, statues and monuments etc. in grey with thin black Strokes. Again, I advise you put these in a separate layer as it makes things easier to keep track of!

Insert the main streets

Once again in a new layer, I inserted the main streets. You may choose to do this earlier, such as before inserting the open spaces, as knowing where the main thoroughfares are help to structure the city. It’s up to you! I used the Pen Tool for all of my main roads. If you want the roads to be outlined like mine are, you can add a second Stroke to each Path: the base Stroke being a thicker black one, and the top Stroke being a thinner tan one! (I hope that makes sense.)

Draw the minor streets and erase intersecting lines

The remaining built-up areas (i.e. the dark grey space) can now be broken up with minor streets. My minor streets were constructed using both the Pen Tool and the Curvature Tool depending on whether I wanted the roads to be curved or not, and I used a similar technique to the main streets in creating tan lines with a black outline. Once you’re happy, you can then go over the map and erase any obvious intersecting lines with the Eraser or Paintbrush Tool!

Add text labels

As a self-professed novice at Illustrator, I still have trouble getting the text to do exactly what I want, so I cheated and added my text labels in Microsoft Word. Using the Glow Feature really helps the text to stand out against the dark background. And in case you’re wondering, the font I used is called Dalelands, which you can download for free here.

Be adventurous!

Get creative and be adventurous! Despite the visual complexity of my map, the structure of my city itself is pretty straightforward: it’s an octagon with a tower at the centre and eight approximately triangular districts (and there’s an important plot-related reason for that). But maybe your city is an amorphous shape. Maybe it hugs the coast or has a river running through it. I’m sure, with enough hunting around Illustrator, you can find ways to depict these effectively!!

What do you think of my map? Do you make city maps for your own WIPs? What program do you use? Post a link so we can check your work out!!

  One thought on “How to make a fantasy city map with Illustrator

  1. 08/02/2019 at 6:05 PM

    This is a very nice design, Rebecca.
    I haven’t used Illustrator before, I don’t have the software, but I plan on getting it soon.
    Photoshop is great and all, but sometimes, vector beats pixels in terms of the quality of the image produced.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 08/02/2019 at 7:41 PM

      Thank you so much!! I haven’t had as much practice using Photoshop, but I definitely prefer Illustrator. For my needs, it can do most of the same things as Photoshop can but has the added benefit of being vector software which, as you pointed out, can produce much sharper images. Best of luck as you start to use it!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 08/02/2019 at 7:03 PM

    That is awesome! I use Illustrator all the time in my work but have never attempted anything as detailed and intricate as this. Respect! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • 08/02/2019 at 7:43 PM

      Thank you Jo!! I get an idea in my head sometimes and just can’t seem to function until I see it to its conclusion. I definitely questioned my sanity as I was drawing out all those streets but it was worth it in the end. Illustrator can do so many cool things!! 😍

      Liked by 1 person

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