Fantasy Cartography: Just Add Something Blotchy

It's been a while since I've done a graphicky post, so here's a new one for the chilly weather. Over on the doomed platform of magnificence known as Google Plus, reader Michael Lee tagged me to ask:

I remember reading about you taking a lot of pictures that you store away to use as textures and reference for the work you do on your art. If you have an article kinda going through your process on using those photos in a piece, I'd love to have a link to it. If not, is it something you wouldn't mind sharing?

I do make extensive use of snapshots in my graphics, and the technique is so simple it's almost embarrassing, but that makes it super-easy to share, and something even a Photoshop novice can fiddle with as long as they're comfortable with the basic Layers palette.

To demonstrate the effect from the ground up, we'll need some ground. We'll take a chunk from one of my finished maps.

From the Scott's Landing Article
(Uresia: Lore and Curiosities)

I've left the Layers palette visible to show the dance-steps, and in particular I've highlighted the Layer Group called "Texture Bundles," seven grouped layers of varying transparency and blending modes. To see what those layers are actually doing, we'll now turn them off.

All The Graphics in This Post Are Embiggen-Able, But Do So Somewhere With Unmetered Bandwidth; They're Big Images

It's still the same map, but ... smoothier. Soapier. A bit more plainly digital, with those nice-even gradients and Cloud filters and so on.

Having stripped the image of its textures, I'll need a new one. Flipping through the snaps on my phone, my eyes are drawn to this delicious cheat-day indulgence from several weeks ago, so I send it to my laptop and whip it into a tile by copy-pasting the good bits over and over on itself (use the Offset filter and avoid the edges):

Seriously look at how thin that crust is.
It's draping over the lip of a PAPER plate.

Why the pizza snap? It's blotchy, without too many large zones of overtly-different contrast (there are no pepperoni slices, for example). I don't always use food ... I use snapshots of rocks, leaves, vegetable skins, supermarket bins of almonds, dirty painters' drop-cloths, broken concrete ... pretty much anything blotchy or grainy or streaky (remember that Oscar the Grouch song about trash? Like that).

I did some great textures once from a frying pan I'd ruined with a grease fire. Sad day for the skillet, but that was a fine mapping texture. Anyway we just flood that pizza-tile into a new layer:

And that's not helpful, but it's amusing. It becomes helpful when we choose a blending mode for the pizza layer. Three of my favorite blending modes for map-textures are Soft Light, Screen, and Overlay. Here are all three, each at 100% opacity.

Soft Light Mode
Screen Mode
Overlay Mode

Compare. Contrast. Consider. The overly-digital gradients of the base are now crudely and productively interrupted by the contrasts of cheese, sauce, and dried herbal flakes. This one layer, made from a phone snapshot, adds some legitimate character to the map.

It also changes the colors quite a bit, giving it an autumnal vibe we may or may not want. But if we want it to look different, we can just de-saturate or hue-shift the pizza layer. Or we can invert it to a negative-image of itself. Or we can reduce its transparency, or cross-cut two different versions of the same texture (one rotated 90 degrees, for example) or (as I did in the original map) include it as just one transparent texture among many. Or any of a million permutations or combinations of these or other effects.

Some Quick Variations. There's So Much More You Can Do.

This is why Photoshop is one of my favorite videogames. Just one simple "trick" becomes the basis for a thousand looks, and the best way to get there is just play with it. Play and learn.

Hope that gets your juices flowing and/or gets you supporting a local pizzeria. Thanks to Michael Lee for the prompt, and remember: my inbox is always open.