Mapping Your World: Brush Packs

Edit: There are also commercial options available, but I only review free brush packs in this article. 

Edit 2: Here is a nice, huge new set of 200 Photoshop Map Brushes. Some sub-sets are reviewed in this article.

If you wish to use a tool like Gimp, Photoshop, or PaintShop Pro to create maps for your game, it’s nice to have some ready-made symbols for mountains, trees, cities, etc.  You can have those by using (or creating) appropriate “brush packs.” Today, we’re going to look at some ready-made brush packs you can use, and we’re going to talk about how to convert from one software to the other.


A brush in this type of software is essentially a little image file that provides the shape your cursor will leave on the image, accompanied by a series of instructions for the software telling it what to do with with parameters such as speed, pressure, transparency, rotation, etc.  Note that some of those parameters only matter if you are using a pressure-sensitive tablet.

Most brushes are created by editing a PNG image and saving it as a brush in the software of choice.  Alternately, the software’s brush editor function allows you to create brushes based solely on specified parameters.

A brush pack is a collection of several of these brushes, usually assembled by theme by its creator and saved as one single file.  Here are some common file extensions you will see:

  • .abr: Photoshop brush format, also usable without conversion by Gimp.
  • .gbr: Gimp brush format, for ordinary and colour brushes.
  • .jbr: older PaintShop Pro brush format
  • .PSPbrush: more recent PaintShop Pro brush format
  • .vbr: Gimp parametric brush format, i. e., brushes created using the Brush Editor.

There are also some animated brush formats, like .gih for Gimp; we will not discuss them here, since they are not typically used for map-making.

Ready-Made Map Symbol Brush Packs

Some people have made nice, useful brush packs that will probably cover most game mapping needs.  Here are some of my favourites:

hexGIMP_samplehexGIMP brushes by Thorfinn Tait.  Thorfinn’s original brushes were created for Adobe Illustrator, but were converted to Gimp format by The Isomage for use with his hexGIMP plugin for Gimp.  If you only want the brushes, you can extract the Gimp .gbr files from the Brushes folder inside this .zip file (the other files are for the script itself, which I recommend if you are using Gimp.)  If you have Adobe Illustrator, you can download Thorfinn Tait’s cartography resources, including the brushes, in this other .zip file.  The brushes are copyrighted by Thorfinn, used with permission.

MapSymbols_sampleMap Symbols by Crimson Vermilion.  A very nice Photoshop map symbol pack created in a hand-drawn style, including mountains, rivers, city markers, marsh, prairie, forests, hills, farmland, compass symbol, etc.  Particularly good for fantasy maps but can work for an Old West game, for example.

OldMaps_sampleOld Maps from WebTreatETC.  A bit different: the “brushes” are entire old maps which have been turned into Photoshop brushes so you can stamp an image with them.  Great to create props for your players.  The stamps thus created are large enough and have enough resolution that you could print them as just one map each.  Or you can clip and edit sections to fit your fancy.  The “brushes” are monochrome, but you can add colour to produce a richer result, as shown here.

SketchyCartography_sampleSketchy Cartography by ~StarRaven.  This is an extensive collection of symbols, once again in a hand-drawn fantasy style, including various types of terrain, symbols for cities, castles and other man-made structures, “magical” glyphs, and more, for Photoshop.  I particularly like that some icons look European and some look Asian, so the set can be used for different flavours of maps.

TolkienMapIcons_sampleTolkien-Style Fantasy Map Icons by calthyechild.  This brush set explicitly tries to replicate the feel of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-drawn maps and is available in both Photoshop and Gimp formats.  The brushes are larger and drawn thicker, and can be made to look like they were made with a wide-nib quill or with charcoal.

Converting Formats

Gimp, Photoshop, or PaintShop Pro?  I have used all three and was happy with results in all three, so it’s really up to you.  Photoshop is the most expensive of the three, PaintShop Pro is actually fairly modestly priced, and Gimp is free and open-source.  PaintShop Pro has the advantage that it can handle both raster and vector formats and even mix layers of both types in the same image.  Gimp can be used on Mac, Windows, and Linux.  You can exchange most brush files between the three fairly cleanly.

Photoshop to Gimp: The easiest.  Files with the .abr extension can be used directly in Gimp (version 2.6.10 and forward) without conversion.  Here is a tutorial on installing brushes in Gimp on any OS.  For older versions of Gimp, see this tutorial.

Photoshop to PaintShop Pro: You need to essentially export the .png files that are inside the .abr brush file, then convert them to a .jbr or .PSPbrush file as normal.  Follow the instructions found here.  However, some sources say that you can simply rename the file by changing the extension from .abr to .jbr/.PSPbrush; I don’t know if it always works.

Gimp to Photoshop: Open the .gbr file using Gimp, save the image as .png format.  Next, open the .png file using Photoshop and create an .abr brush file as normal (tutorial here).

Gimp to PaintShop Pro: Open the .gbr file using Gimp, save the image as .png format.  Next, open the .png file using PaintShop Pro and create a .jbr or .PSPbrush file as normal

Paintshop Pro to Photoshop: This source indicates that .jbr and .PSPbrush files can be merely renamed with the .abr extension.

PaintShop Pro to Gimp: Since the .jbr and .abr are interchangeable by simply renaming, all you need to do is rename the .jbr file to .abr and open it in Gimp as normal.  For the newer format, open the .PSPbrush file in PaintShop Pro and export it as a .png; then open this .png in Gimp, and create a brush file as normal (tutorial here).  (Alas, you cannot simply rename the .PSPbrush files and have Gimp directly recognize them.)

Making Brush Packs

There are many good tutorials out there for making brushes in Photoshop, in Gimp, and in PaintShop Pro.  Look for animated ones on YouTube as well.

You can use these to create your own map symbols.  For example, I collected images from Dr. Seuss books and used them to create this map for my friend Mark’s “Savage Lorax” game.



One Response

  1. […] at the Emerald City Gamefest site, I review five free brush packs that are useful for map-making in Photoshop, GIMP or PaintShop Pro, and I explain how to use them […]

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