I use Campaign Cartographer 3 (CC3) to draw my continent maps, which I also use for region maps by zooming in. There’s an add-on called Fractal Terrains, which can be used to generate continent shapes with the click of a button. It actually creates entire planets but I’ve typically looked for a continent that I like the look of. Mountains, hills, vegetation, and even lakes or bays, etc., are also depicted. If I don’t like what I see, another click and I get another planet. There are changeable parameters to generate more or fewer land masses, for example.
I take a screen shot of one I like, crop it to size in an image program like Windows Paint, and save it. In some cases, I take two different continents and overlay them atop each other to create a composite shape that I like. I then import the image into CC3 using their instructions for doing so. Then I use CC3’s tools to trace the continent outline. I sometimes change little features I don’t want to include, or add them.
I’ll have already decided the continent’s latitude, hemisphere, and which direction it lies from any existing continents I have. For the latter, the reason is that on Earth, tectonic activity sometimes separates one large continent into two smaller ones that appear to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; see the western edge of Africa and the eastern edge of South America for an example. I might want to imply such a relationship between two continents.
In CC3, I use the hill and mountain tools to drop these icons over the Fractal Terrains image, though I’m free to ignore or add features that weren’t present. For a mountain range, it’s best to drop the foothill icons first because these will be farther out from the range’s center. Then I drop the mountain icons on top of the foothills, starting at the top of the range and going down. The reasons for this would be apparent if you did it in reverse yourself. Basically anything you add will cover what’s already on there, so the southernmost mountain should be fully visible but partly covering the mountain icon to its north. To achieve this, just start at the top and move down. Top to bottom is generally the way to work.
Once I have outlined the continent and mountains/hills that were depicted on the Fractal Terrains image, I no longer need the latter and can hide it in CC3. I add some major rivers and lakes. There are tools to draw rain forests, shrub land, deciduous and coniferous trees, and more. I start at the top of my continent and work my way down, adding items as I deem appropriate, with an eye for the information in this volume and with what little artistic sense I have. I add cities and towns at fresh water locations and by the ocean. I tend to use the rivers as country boundaries.
For each settlement, I give it some farmland, maybe a bridge over the rivers, and roads/trails to the neighboring settlements. Then I start filling in clear areas predominantly with trees, unless I have reason to believe rainfall is limited, in which case I give it grasslands or shrub lands. On the windward side of mountains, I put thick forest due to the rainfall. Desert goes on the leeward side, then maybe grasslands farther from the mountains as moisture is picked up in the atmosphere again. I just repeat this process as I work my way around the map, dropping icons for whatever I need.
CC3 comes with different color icons for settlements, with some blue, gold, red, etc. To help readers (and myself) understand the country boundaries, I tend to stick with one style of icon for a given country, such as the gold ones for one country and the blue ones for a neighbor. If you’re zoomed in enough, you can tell just by looking at the map what areas are in a territory. The results are good and publishable with my manuscripts, and yet I can’t draw to save my life. You can see the resulting maps at http://www.llurien.com/Antaria and http://www.llurien.com/Llorus.