Tips for Stunning Coastal Effects

Coastal effects can add interest and texture to your map of land, water, and island areas. These effects help develop a visual hierarchy between land and water areas, an important cartographic principle providing clear separation and focus to the land areas. In addition, such effects lend to the overall style of your map design whether contemporary or historic in nature. Here’s how…

Prepare Your Map for Coastal Effects

Add a new layer to your map called “Land Area.” Begin by drawing coastal and island features.

Join and Close Paths


Along coastlines, paths that meet end-to-end should be joined into single paths for coastal effects to be applied evenly. Select paths and choose Edit > Paths & Tracks > Join from the main menu or use the CTRL-J keyboard shortcut. For stand-alone polygons, such as small islands, the paths should be logically closed. Choose Edit > Paths & Tracks > Close from the main menu. We can see from this example that coastline effects will look uneven when applied to paths which are not closed (top image).

Combine Objects


If you have multiple objects in your map, such as small islands along the coastline, combining the objects will ensure the coastal effects are unified. For example, we see when objects are separate (top image) this waterline effect overlaps among adjacent island. To combine objects, select them and choose Graphic > Combine > Append from the main menu. As needed, the objects can be broken apart later for further editing, then re-combined.

Duplicate Active Layer

To apply a variety of coastal effects, duplicate your Land Area layer to use it as a coastline layer. Choose Edit > Duplicate > Active Layer from the main menu – all features from the active layer will be duplicated in place to a new layer with the default name “Copy of —“. Click the name of the copied layer in the Layers list and rename as desired, for example name it “Coastlines.” Drag the coastlines layer to be under your land area layer in the Layers list. Make Coastlines your active layer and select the features. You are now ready to apply the coastal effect of your choice.



Waterlining, used on many historic maps, was a popular effect achieved by talented engravers. Waterlining has proved less-so today due in part to the relative difficultly to reproduce digitally, particularly among traditional GIS mapping software programs. With its robust Style Inspector, Ortelius makes waterlining straightforward.

The effect here uses style “Waterline” available in the Ortelius default symbol set. Note the even application of waterlines around islands and inlets.

Coastal Vignette


Referred to as “coastal vignette,” a glow or blur applied to the coastline is a common technique used by cartographers. It provides a striking contrast between land and water areas.

This effect uses the style “Grey Blur” available in the Ortelius default symbol set. Note the even application around islands and inlets. This is quite similar to adding a simple shadow to your fill style with minimum shadow distance and maximum shadow blur. Other available styles, such as “Gaussian Blur – Outer Glow” provide similar effect with slight differences, such as more concentrated color around bays and inlets. The key here is it’s incredibly easy to change styles to see what works best in a given situation. And remember, you can always have fun experimenting with new effects and Clones of existing styles.

Waterline Wash


A color-wash along the coastlines is a more natural looking effect than waterlining, offering subtle variation and texture. Here, we use the style “Waterline Wash” available in the Ortelius default symbol set. Because it uses semi-transparent colors, this particular style also provides a pleasing effect when the Coastlines layer is on-top of the Land Area layer rather than under it. For another interesting effect, try hand drawing a highly simplified version of the coastline with this style, applied over a more detailed land area.

As with all Ortelius default styles, you can Clone the style and edit it to suit your purpose, such as changing the color or transparency of the strokes and fills.



An alternative to a separate coastline effect, a shadow can be applied to the main Land Area polygons’ style proving striking visual appeal that makes the land areas “pop” off the page. To add a shadow to an existing style, select the feature and open the Style Inspector – Simple pane. Click the “Clone” button. You’ll now be modifying a clone of the style without altering the original. Check the box to add a shadow to the fill. Adjust the rotation angle, distance, and blur using the controls, and change the color and transparency as needed.

white shadow on coastline map - no offset

Try adding a simple shadow to your fill style and make the color white, with minimum shadow distance and maximum shadow blur. When you apply a solid blue (water) fill style to a New Border Layer you can achieve lovely results.

If desired, click the Expert pane in the Style Inspector to name and save your new style to the Library.


Many styles are available or can be created to enhance the visual appeal and hierarchy of coastal elements on your map. When selecting a style, consider the overall look you wish to achieve and how your coastal effect should blend or contrast with other map features.

Note that some of the coastal effects presented here (as well as ones you make on your own) may be graphically demanding and can slow performance with large and detailed files. For example, highly detailed coastlines imported from GIS shapefiles can slow performance when these effects are applied. One way to overcome this is by first simplifying your map data on shapefile import or using an external application such as