Review: Josh Stolarz’s Map Maker for Procreate and Photoshop

I review Josh Stolarz's Fantasy Map Maker for Procreate and Photoshop. A toolkit that promises to take the pain out of cartography for authors, world-builders and D&D dungeon masters.

Review: Josh Stolarz’s Map Maker for Procreate and Photoshop

As much as I enjoy drawing maps for my fantasy setting, I admit that I’m short on artistic talent. Faced with such limitations, I can either spend months (or years) improving my drawing skills, or spend hundreds (or thousands) to commission professional artists to draw them for me. Neither option appeals to me, for reasons I don’t need to discuss here.

I’m not alone in this need to create maps, nor in my constraints in time, skill and money. Authors and dungeon masters alike need maps — maps for preparation, and maps for presentation. In fact, there’s a healthy industry catering to this need with apps such as Wonderdraft, Dungeondraft and Inkarnate, along with a slew of random map generators, some of which I’ve reviewed in the past.

While I like these apps and respect what they do, I have a particular style or aesthetic I prefer in the form of hand-drawn (digital) maps created by talented individuals as Jonathan Roberts, and Josh Stolarz. The style is reminiscent of field maps drawn by 19th and early 20th century explorers, cartographers and archaeologists, and became a staple of fantasy thanks to the enormously influential Middle Earth maps created by J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien.

Josh Stolarz in particular nails the style I like; good-old fashioned fantasy line art but with just enough texture and shading to make the map pop right off the page (or screen). Josh works with the toolset I most enjoy — the iPad, Apple Pencil, and the app Procreate. His website contains more than a dozen tutorials covering most aspects of map-making with Procreate, and he’s released several high-quality Procreate brush-sets just for fantasy mapping.

I already own the Wandering Bard and Map Maker essentials, which I’ve used to create many of my smaller maps. Today (3rd of March), Josh dropped his biggest collection yet, and it’s very different to what he’s offered to date.

Fantasy Map Builder by Josh Stolarz
Fantasy Map Builder by Josh Stolarz

Josh’s Fantasy Map Builder is an enormous collection of brushes for Procreate and Photoshop. And unlike his other sets, this one is more than a collection of textured lines, brushes and washes that require a measure of artistic skill to use. Rather, the Map Builder is almost a complete turn-key solution for those of us without artistic talent.

The pack includes 200 brushes, 8 parchment-like paper textures, 6 print-ready border templates and 3 bonus fonts for labelling. I was also lucky enough to get a set of Medieval Icons as a bonus for buying the set within the first day the pack launched.

The hand-illustrated brushes include a mix of textured lines and paths, similar to Josh’s earlier packs. These are ideal for creating coastlines, rivers, paths and brushing in hatching. They’ll make a fine addition to the sets I bought previously.

However, what’s new to this pack is the inclusion of ready-to-use map elements you can place or brush on the canvas like stamps. These include:

  • 40 mountains, hills and volcanoes brush stamps
  • 40 deciduous and evergreen forest/tree stamps
  • 22 vegetation stamps for adding marshland, grassland and deserts
  • 40 terrain stamps including dunes, rockery, crevasses, cliffs and mesas
  • 32 culture stamps for location, standing stones, compass roses, banners, grids (for D&D encounter maps) and more

I’ve used stamp-like cartography brushes in the past, but never with this level of quality or variety. Josh’s stamps are very high resolution, scaling well to almost any map size without a noticeable loss in quality. The variety offers matters too, and given they are all created by the same artist, your maps will look more coherent than if you’ve had to piece elements together by sets created different artists on DeviantArt or the Cartographer’s Guild. Another thing I like is that each stamp is just the line art, meaning you can shade them in whatever manner you like — or omit the shading completely when you want to print the map with a mono laser printer, or include it in a published paperback novel.

On this note, let’s talk about the licence. I’ve avoided buying brush sets from several artists because their licence is too restrictive, either flat-out prohibiting commercial use or demanding heft royalties. Not so here. Josh’s licence is very generous, allowing you to retain copyright of what you create and use the assets for commercial purpose. The only requirement is attribution, and you don’t share or resell the assets, which suits me fine.

So, that’s enough of the jabber, let’s see what kind of map I can create. For this review, I’ll be using the brushes in Procreate on my iPad Mini 5 to recreate a map of a valley in my fantasy setting I first created with Wonderdraft.

Here are the results with the original map on the left, and my new one on the right.

Cae Valley recreated from Wonderdraft to Procreate
Cae Valley recreated from Wonderdraft to Procreate

Since this was my first stab, and because I was trying to create something like-for-like, it took me about an hour and a half. Much of this time was spent becoming accustomed to the brushes and trying to match them with what I had in Wonderdraft. Not everything translated directly, and where it didn’t I simply hand drew the missing elements using Josh’s stone liner brush, which is part of his Mapping Essentials kit, which I already had.

For a localised valley, I have far too many mountains, and if I was starting for scratch, I’d go about my design much differently. I have a scale problem, but that’s partly on me and partly because I’m using Apple’s smallest iPad. I also haven’t bothered shading the map as I just wanted to evaluate the line work. My overly busy (and quite frankly crap) design aside, and I can’t fault the brushes. They are effortless to use, and they look great. In particular, I love the mountain and cliff stamps, and the conifers/pines look great. The settlement icons and are also really nice, but if you don’t like them the pack ships with more traditional markers.

With my first map done, I wanted to create a coastal setting to try out the coastline and ocean textures. Since I wasn’t following an existing design, the process went much quicker (about 10 minutes for the whole map). I penciled in a coastline and ocean texture, but found that I need to practice this more to line up the horizontal strokes with the coast and get them to be the right length. After this, I quickly added in the mountain range, river and tested out some vegetation brushes.

Here’s the result.

10-minute map in Procreate
10-minute map in Procreate

That I could create a map in 10 minutes that looks this good is a testament to the quality of brushes Josh has created.

The last map I’m going to have a crack at is a basic dungeon map for D&D encounters. The pack features a couple of grid (and hex) brushes, so I figured I’d give it a shot to see how that looks.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered the two grid brushes don’t match your standard 1-inch grid commonly used for encounter maps. That means that when I set up am 8×8 inch canvas and switched on the document grid, it didn’t line up with the grid created by the brush. Resizing the layer proved to be a frustrating exercise and I soon gave up. I’m not certain if it is possible to create a grid brush with this level of accuracy. Without it, however, the creation of pixel-precise encounter maps is very difficult. But, I’ll continue on without the document grid.

Note, I’m only using the grid brush here and one of the supplied textures. I drew everything else with an assortment of brushes, mostly from Josh’s Essentials kit, and a couple of brushes that come with Procreate.

Here’s the result.

Grid brush and textured backround
Grid brush and textured backround

Leave aside the issue of the grid brush not conforming to the document’s 1×1 inch grid, and I think it makes a nice, hand-drawn effect.

Affinity Suite and Pixelmator

I noted the pack includes the brushes in Photoshop format. I don’t use Photoshop, but its brush format (.abr) is compatible with Affinity Photo, Affinity Designer and Pixelmator.

So far, I’ve been able to load the brushes in to both apps, and they seem to work very well. Here’s a selection of brushes loaded into Affinity Photo.

Brush stamps in Affinity Photo
Brush stamps in Affinity Photo

I’ll return to map-making with the Affinity suite in another post. I’ve ordered a Wacom tablet, which should make drawing with my laptop much easier. So, if you’re interested in that, watch this space, or subscribe to my newsletter and let my RSS-powered minions do it for you!

Concluding thoughts

Josh Stolarz’s Map Maker kit for Procreate and Photoshop is an excellent tool for the time and talent constrained author or dungeon master. With very little practice, you can create an aesthetically pleasing and professional looking map in comparatively little time. The quality and variety stands above any stamp brush collection I’ve used to date, and the pack integrates very well with Josh’s older brush sets.

I’ve only used the pack for one day, and already I can see it becoming an indispensable part of my fantasy cartography toolkit.

The pack sells for $34 (46 AUD), and full disclaimer, I purchased this pack (and the others mentioned in this review) with my money.