How to use and create Photoshop brushes.
One of Photoshop’s coolest features is the ability to customise and import different brushes. Until now you might only have used Photoshop’s standard round brush to paint masks that hide and reveal layers. But if you spend some time with the brush panels you’ll discover that using different brushes not only makes your work easier but will give life to your photography in ways you’d never dreamed were possible. And the best part is you don’t even have to be able to paint or draw! Hooray!
Here are some examples of Photoshop brushes. With a single mouse click I created grass, smoke, the moon, scattered leaves, hair, birds, blood and ink spatters, clouds, stars, fire trees and snow. And that’s just a small sample of the brushes available. You can then customise these further by playing around in the brush options, adding colour, and using the transform tool to move and warp the brush as you desire.
How to find and install Photoshop brushes
Photoshop comes with some brushes of its own but to get the really interesting ones you have to do a little hunting. If you just want to browse through the types of brushes available Brusheezy is a good place to start. But if you know the kind of brush you want, head to Deviantart or even just Google and type in (for example) “birds Photoshop brush”. And guess what? The majority of brushes are FREE! Just keep in mind that the more brushes you have, the longer your brush panel takes to load.
Once you’ve found and downloaded your brushes you’ll need to install them. Firstly, if they come as a zipped file make sure you unzip them, then in Photoshop load your brush tool (b) and on the brush options bar click the drop-down arrow next to the brush size to load the Brush Preset Picker. In here click the cog icon on the right hand side and select Load Brushes.
Navigate to the downloaded brush you wish to add (it will have the extension .abr). This adds your new brush(es) to the bottom of the brush list. If you get a message asking if you want to replace or append the brushes choose ‘append’ to add the brushes to the list rather than replacing the current ones. There’s other ways to install brushes but this is the method I like best. You can remove a brush by right clicking and deleting. This only deletes the reference in Photoshop and not the brush itself from your hard drive. To save Photoshop from getting bloated with too many brushes I like to load only the brushes I need for a project and then I’ll remove them afterwards. They can be loaded again if needed. You can change the brush for every Photoshop tool that uses a brush, so for example, the eraser and clone stamp brushes can be customised to give a more organic result than you’d get with a round brush.
I find the brushes really hard to see in the brush preset picker but you can customise this by again clicking on the cog icon and selecting ‘Large Thumbnail’ or any other option you like.
How to use Photoshop brushes
When using brushes here’s a few shortcuts to help you work quickly:
- If you have the brush tool loaded you can access the Brush Preset Picker by right clicking inside your canvas.
- The [ bracket decreases the brush diameter
- The ] bracket increases the brush diameter
- If you hold down shift with these same brackets it changes the brush’s hardness (you can only change the hardness of Photoshop’s round brushes)
- On a PC if you hold down Alt + right click + drag your mouse up and down this changes the brush’s hardness. Dragging right or left changes the brush’s size.
- On a Mac hold down Control + Option and drag.
- Command + option + control and holding down your mouse on a Mac brings up the colour picker. Alt + shift and right clicking on a PC does the same.
- F5 (or fn + F5 on a Mac) shows and hides the brush panel (more on this later).
How to create your own brush (it’s easy!)
Create a new document using File>New set both the Width and Height to 300.
Edit>Fill the canvas with white (if it isn’t already). Using black, draw the shape you wish to turn into a brush. Vary the opacity of your brush to give areas of transparency for depth. If you don’t like to draw an easier way is to make a selection from another photo and drag that onto your blank canvas. Use Edit>Transform to resize the selection to fit your canvas and then Image>Adjustments>Desaturate. Whatever is white becomes invisible so you may need to go to Image>Adjustments>Invert to swap white to black (and vice versa) and then play around with Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast to get your tones as desired.
Then go to Edit>Define Brush Preset, name your brush, press OK and your brush will now be at the bottom of the Brush Preset Picker ready to use!
If you have Photoshop CC you can also download the Adobe Brush CC app on your phone or tablet to create brushes that sync with Photoshop (although I found it I bit hard to create anything usable).
How to customise Photoshop brushes
Some brushes just need to be stamped once to create the image you want. However for any that require some painting you can customise how the brush behaves. You need to do this in the brush panel which can be accessed by pressing F5 (Fn f5 on a Mac) or going to the Window menu and choosing Brush. On the left hand side are a bunch of options for customising your brush.
- Brush Tip Shape – in here you can control the size, angle and perspective (play around with the round icon on the right) as well as the spacing of your brush. You can see how these changes will look by using the preview pane at the bottom.
- Shape dynamics – play around with the size, angle and roundness jitters to vary how each brush stroke will look. These make your brush look more natural.
- Scattering – scatter and count control the spread of your brush and how often strokes occur
- Color dynamics allows you to change the colour of your brush as it paints
- Transfer allows you to vary the opacity of each brush stroke
These are the options you’ll probably use the most but there are other options in the menu you may wish to play around with such as adding texture, noise and wet edges to your brush.
If you use a tablet with Photoshop you can use the brush panel to control how your pen pressure affects the brush tool so it will mimic your drawing. (I highly recommend using a tablet by the way – I have a small Wacom Intuos Pro which I love but sadly no desk to put it on! So I usually get by without it *sad face*)
How to add colour to stamp brushes
Brushes that behave like stamps are usually designed to be painted with black (sometimes white) and have colour added later, otherwise if you choose the colour first they can end up looking flat. There are three ways to add colour to a stamp brush:
- Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Click colorise and play with the sliders. You may need to clip this layer to your brush’s layer.
- Add a new layer and change its blending mode to ‘Color’ then using the round brush choose a colour from your Color panel or click on the foreground colour square in your tool panel to bring up the Color Picker. Hand paint your colour(s) as desired.
- Add a Gradient Map adjustment (advanced). Click on the colour bar to bring up your settings and then click on each of the handles under the colour bar to choose your colours. Add more handles (by clicking under the bar) to add in extra colour stops.
And that’s it for my round up on brushes! Brushes are brilliant in compositing for tasks like drawing hair (because selecting real hair is too difficult), for drawing grass in front of your subject to make them look like they were really in a scene or drawing trees along a horizon line to hide a seam between your foreground layer and a replaced sky. Endless possibilities!
About ‘The Endless Delight of Delirium’
This week’s image is based on the character ‘Delirium’ from the greatest graphic novel series ever written, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I’ve always wanted to create a photo around Delirium because she’s so visually interesting, often surrounded by fish and butterflies (and sometimes frogs and bubbles). Because each of the Sandman comics was illustrated by a different artist the appearance of the characters change, so in researching this image I looked at many different interpretations of Delirium and designed my costume around the common elements. For example she has red hair, sometimes shaved on one side, sometimes with stripes of colour. She has one green and one blue eye. She is always wearing fishnets, and sometimes mismatched socks and a tutu. Watercolour and swirls are used to allude to her delirious mental state. I shot the images of myself and the bubbles in my garage with a Speedlite.
The brushes I found in various places on the Internet but after they were added I felt the image lacked depth so I composited in some real photos of fish I photographed at Underwater World, Mooloolaba and butterflies photographed at Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia. The background is a paper texture from Lost & Taken.
Working on this image was a joy from start to finish. Let me know what you think!