Building Cae Valley

Summary: I put my PC project rig to use and start mapping the setting for my fantasy anthology in Adobe PhotoShop.


While my contemporary thriller novel, First Byte is being alpha read, I’ve been working on an anthology of three fantasy stories set during the lead up to Weaver of Dreams. Two weeks ago, I wrapped up the first story, The Weaver’s Boy, and since then I’ve been working the next one, A Man at Arms.

Both stories share a couple of threads, the main one being the setting — the Cae Valley from my fictitious world. Last weekend, I finally started to map the place. Where The Weaver’s Boy was confined to one settlement, the events of A Man at Arms will take the characters further afield and so I wanted to get the geography set before I started writing.

I’ve created my fair-share of maps in the past, but it’s been a while and this time I’m using new tools. Instead of a Mac and Pixelmator, I used my refurbished project rig — a PC running Windows 10 and Photoshop CS 5.5 (both 64bit) — which I recently upgraded with a better graphics card. It was also the first real opportunity to use my new drawing tablet, an UGEE HY-1060 Pro which I bought last year to replace a very old and very wonky Wacom Intuous 3.

UGEE HY-1060 Pro
UGEE HY-1060 Pro

Performance wise, it proved to be a good choice. There’s something to be said for using a desktop-class machine with a beefy CPU, plenty of memory and storage and a honking great graphics card. It’s a class of machine built to perform, and perform it did.

I set up the Photoshop document as an A3-sized1 canvas at 300 DPI. This works out to be just over 17 megapixels. The image is also composited from multiple layers, most of which have attached layer styles. Photoshop handled the image without a sweat, utilising the OpenGL power of computer’s graphics card along with the system RAM.

Using Windows 10 for anything other than gaming, felt a bit weird at first and though there are things I don’t like, I’m slowly warming to the operating system. Photoshop, is well, Photoshop — I find it much more stable and feature-rich than Pixelmator, even a version as old as CS 5.5. Aside from different keyboard shortcuts, Photoshop behaves the same on macOS and Windows. It’s been several years since I used Photoshop, and most of my learning curve was spent remembering how to do stuff.

I’m under no allusions about my artistic ability — I have none. The map is first and foremost a tool to help me get the setting clear in my head. Nevertheless, I had a conventional style in mind which is fairly common to fantasy maps. Basically, I started with a faux paper textured background, pencilled in the river and contours of the landscape and then painted on the colour in layers.

Here it is, in all it’s flawed glory.

Cae Valley Map
Cae Valley Map

The UGEE tablet was a delight to use. The drawing area is twice the size of my old Wacom. The pen has a nice heft and is very responsive to pressure (2048 levels, I believe). There’s also very little discernible lag. At a fraction of the price of a comparable Wacom, I’d recommend it, particularly as a first tablet.

Another convention I experimented with was pulling out a key settlement, Skeinhold, and created an inset depicting the castle’s floor plan. I like this approach because it means I can capture the overall geography of the setting, while being able to brush in little detail for the important bits of the stories. The inset was created in Adobe Illustrator and then dragged into the Photoshop layer. I’m not sure if I’ll continue to use Illustrator, or simply draw the settlement in a different Photoshop document and import it that way.

Skeinhold Inset
Skeinhold Inset

The map is very much a work-in-progress effort. I need to create a few more insets, add a road or two and finish labelling the settlements and other features. There’s also elements I want to improve (the insets and the contours) and will do so when I feel like spending more time on them. One of the advantages of using layers for individual elements, is the ability to modify them ease later on as my patience and time permits.

Another thing I would consider is offloading the layout and labelling to Adobe InDesign. Working with text and vectors in Photoshop is a bit janky so the idea of just using Photoshop to draw and paint and then adding the decorations later is rather appealing.

Regardless, it will be fun experimenting and learning different techniques. On the subject of experimentation, I’ve been thinking about ways to publish the material I create as part of my world-building. More on that in a future post!


  1. Australia uses International paper sizes and I like the option of being able to print at high–resolution if I want to.  ↩

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