The Vast Playground of Photoshop Brushes

May 08, 2018  •  2 Comments

I developed this script for a mini-class to be given at the Ulster County Photography Club in Port Ewen, NY on May 9, 2018.

Brushes are among the most versatile and powerful tools in Photoshop.  This presentation is based on Adobe Photoshop CC release 19.0 and later.  Adobe Photoshop Elements has brush capabilities that are similar in concept to Photoshop CC but more limited in capability.  Lightroom has something that's called an Adjustment Brush, but it is pretty much just a selection tool, used to defining an area of your image that you want to affect and then allowing you to make basic adjustments, such as exposure, contrast, highlights, etc.  It bears little or no resemblance to a brush in Photoshop CC or Elements.  The brush capabilities in Photoshop have been evolving quite a bit recently.  There have even been some changes in the six weeks or so since I started developing this presentation.


There are two primary ways of using a brush:  On a “pixel” layer (such as a copy of the background layer or a new blank layer) or on a layer mask.  A brush cannot be used directly on an adjustment layer (although it can be used on an adjustment layer's layer mask).  We won't go into painting on layer masks unless there’s time later, since that requires a knowledge of masks that I don't assume everyone has.


Basically, brushes in Photoshop allow you to draw or “paint” pixels freehand on your image.   Let me start with a simple example. 


If you select the brush tool (or type the shortcut letter b), you will see the options bar for brushes.  Several characteristics can be adjusted here.  The first you will see is the size, in pixels.  If you click on the pull down you can adjust the size and the hardness (which is kind of like feathering).  Another way to adjust the size, and one that will prove to be extremely handy is to use the square bracket keys.  '[' makes the brush smaller, while ']' makes it larger.


Next is the mode setting, which defaults to Normal.  This is similar to a layer mode, but applies only to the “paint” you are currently putting down.  Unlike the layer mode, this mode only takes effect when you paint after selecting it.  It doesn't do anything to the paint that has already been put down.  There is one special, and very useful, mode here for most brushes, and that is Clear.  When you paint in the Clear mode, it removes any previously painted pixels on the active layer.


Opacity, again, is similar to what you will can set on an entire layer, but it effects just the pixels for a given series of brush strokes after making the setting.  It is the maximum opacity of your painting with one series of brush strokes.  In other words, if you set an opacity of 50%, the pixels you paint while you hold the mouse button will never exceed 50%.  Flow, on the other hand, affects the rate at which the pixels are added.  If, for example, you set a flow of 10%, you will have to go over that spot five times to achieve 50% coverage.


I'm not going to talk about any of the other options on the brush options bar at this point.  Some of them are just too advanced; others we'll get to later.


So far, we can see some rather basic brushes.  These are hard or soft round brushes.  Note that some of them say things like “Soft Round Pressure Size.”  This indicates that you can adjust the size of the brush, not only by moving the slider or using the square bracket keys, but also by applying different amounts of pressure on the pen when you are using a tablet.  Most of what you will need to do with brushes can be done with the mouse, but if you become a serious brush user, you may want to get a pen and tablet to take advantages of many settings that can be adjusted dynamically with the pressure, angle, etc. of your pen.


Between the size and the mode is an icon that looks like a file folder with a picture of a brush on it.  Clicking on that will give you the complete brush settings menu, and when I say complete, I mean that there are tens or hundreds of settings that you can manipulate for any brush.  This menu can also be accessed from Window>Brush Setting or simply F5.


So let’s take a walk through some of the more interesting settings in this menu.


Before we do that, however, I want to introduce some good practices:

Each time you make a change that you like or find useful to a brush setting, you should instantiate it as a new brush preset.  You do this by clicking on the menu icon in the upper right and choosing New Brush Preset.  Let's see a simple example.  At the bottom, you will see a setting called Spacing.  With a Spacing setting of 1% or so, the brush paints a continuous line if I drag the mouse or pen.  Now let's see what happens if I change the spacing value to, say, 127%.  Now, it looks like I've taken the brush and dabbed it on the canvas at regular intervals.  If I like this effect, I can save it as a New Brush Preset, calling it something that will be meaningful to me, such as Soft Round with Spacing. 


Now there's a problem that arises here in that if I keep doing this, I will wind up with a myriad of brushes that may make it difficult for me to find the one I want.  A second good practice is to throw away brushes you're not needing.  To do this, you simply select a brush or a folder of brushes and drag it to the garbage can.


But before you do that, be sure to save any brushes you have created that you may want to use again.  To do this, hold the control key (command on a Mac) and select the brushes you wish to save.  Then, once again, click on the menu icon, and this time select Export selected brushes.  Now you have an important decision to make:  where to save them.  The Photoshop default (in Windows at least) is C:\Users\[your user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CC 2018\Presets\Brushes.

But let's not use the default.  Rather, create and use a directory that you can find and remember.  You don't need to replicate what I do either.  I have a directory on the C drive called $TomHackettPhotography which contains everything on my computer related to photography.  Under that, I have a subdirectory called Adobe which includes everything to do with Adobe products (except what's installed with the product).  Under that I have Photoshop CC, which contains folders for Actions, Brushes and Workspaces (so far).


With this scheme, I save my brushes under c:\$TomHackettPhotography\Adobe\Photoshop CC\Brushes.  Now any time I want to use those brushes, I just go to the menu icon, select Import Brushes, navigate through my own directory structure and click on whatever collection of brushes I want.  This brings up the question what to name your brush collection when you save it.  One recommendation is to use the file name of the photograph you're working on.  That way if you want to go back to work on that image at any time in the future, you can find the same brushes you were using.  If you are working on another image with similar needs, you can import those brushes and at some point export them under the name of the new image. 


So now, back to talking about the brush settings.


To me, there is little that is more boring in landscape photography than a large, cloudless sky.  Here is an example.  Now, there are several ways to add clouds to this sky.  One is to place a photo with robust clouds on another layer and use blending options to let it show through in the right places.  This can be tricky, though, when the sky is interrupted by such things as trees, mountains or buildings.  You may have to wind up making detailed selections where you do (or don't) want the clouds to show through.  Or, you can paint on your layer mask.  But, as I said, that's a topic for another time.


In Photoshop CC, I have another option.  I can select a brush that already has a cloud shape and “stamp” or “paint” it into the sky more easily and quickly and, I contend, with more realistic results.


When you select a brush from the Brushes window, you're essentially selecting a brush tip, such as round, oval, flat, and a group of brush settings that was in effect when the brush was saved.  We already mentioned changing the brush size and mode.  Let's look at the detailed brush settings.  We won't have time to go over all of them, but I wanted to touch on some of the more important ones.  The first one we come to is Brush Tip Shape. 


We already talked about spacing, which allows you to create a “stamped” effect even though you are clicking and dragging the brush across the canvas.  You can also specify hardness, which controls the degree to which the “paint” conforms to the exact size of the brush, rather than being “feathered” around the center.


Below Spacing is something called Shape Dynamics.  This is where things get really interesting.  We begin to see the word “jitter.”  When we set basic parameters like size, it turns out we are really setting a baseline.  Size jitter allows the program to more or less randomly change the size as we drag or stamp the brush.  Why would anyone want to do that?  Well, we'll get to that in a minute.


Another control I want to point out here is, well, Control.  Here, among other things, we can set the control to Pen Pressure.  This means if we are using a pen and tablet, the size is going to be controlled by the pressure we exert with the pen on the tablet.


The next control is called “Scattering.”  Here we can control three things.  The first is Scatter, which means the distance from the baseline that we draw.  We can use the slider to control the amount of scattering, or rather the extent to which the program can deviate from our placement of the brush.  This can be coupled with Count, which controls how many instances of the brush shape are allowed to be created each time we paint.  Count Jitter specifies how far from the count number we have set that the program can deviate.


Back to the cloudless sky example.  Photoshop CC ships with hundreds of brushes, each configured with its own tip and settings.  You can also download, sometimes for free, brushes created by others or create your own brushes.


As it happens, I downloaded some cloud brushes.  So I'm going to click on this little icon in the upper right corner of my brushes panel and choose Import Brushes. 


Let's look at TPH Cloud 7.  Looking at the brush settings, we start with Brush Tip Shape.  There are a number of characteristics we can play with here, but we first look at spacing.  If we click to turn spacing off, we see two clouds, signifying that we really intend to use this brush as a “stamp” brush, meaning that we click where we want it go be placed and don't intend to drag the mouse or pen.  If we turn spacing on, then we can see the effect of moving the slider.  This means that as we drag our mouse, the brush will put down multiple “clouds” along the way.


We can also change the size here, but I prefer to expand and contract my brush tips using the left and right square brackets on the keyboard. 


Scattering allows the clouds to appear above and below the line taken by our pen or mouse.  Here we see something called “jitter.”  We will see this again and again.  It signifies that the values for characteristics like “count” vary somewhat randomly.

What I want to illustrate here is painting clouds into our image.  Now it just so happens that I have created and saved a cloud brush.  If we set the Spacing to maximum, we can see the brush tip itself.  It kind of looks like a cloud, doesn't it?  I'll use a spacing of 159%, which I found by trial and error.  Under Shape Dynamics, I have set the size jitter to 61%.  I'll set the Scatter to 100%, the Count to 1 and the Count Jitter to 50%.


The last option I'm going to talk about with respect to the clouds brush is Build-up.  When this is on, the longer you hold down the mouse button or keep the pen on the tablet, the more intense the painted object becomes.


Now, before I actually do any painting, there are two other things to set.  One is the foreground color.  Since we want light, puffy clouds, I'm going to set this to white.  Next, I want to do my painting on a separate layer, not the background layer.  This is because I want to work non-destructively.  I could type Control or Command J to make a copy of the background layer, but instead I'll just type Control or Command Shift N to create a new blank layer.  I'm also going to give it a meaningful name, in this case, “Clouds” or “Cloud 7,” using the name of the specific brush.  If I totally dislike the result, I can just delete the layer. 

A few clicks with the mouse, and we've created somewhat realistic looking clouds in the sky.


In the remaining time, I'd like to show some really cool options.  If I were a painter, I'd draw you a nice picture, but I'm not, so I'm just going to doodle on a plain white background.



Let’s continue our journey through the Brush Settings.  I'm going to skip over Texture and Dual Brush and go right to Color Dynamics.  It's not that the others are unimportant, but in the limited time we have, I want to show just a couple of interesting settings.  I'm setting the Saturation and Brightness Jitter to non-zero, but the one I want to emphasize here is Hue Jitter.  This allows the program to vary the hue as we paint.  It will use analogous colors to give you a bit of variation.


Now if we draw a simple line, we see that it changes color along the way.  Another interesting setting is to set hue jitter to 0 and foreground/background jitter to something like 50%. Now we see the stroke alternating from the foreground to the background with everything in between.


To further show the effect, I'm going to paint on a blank canvas and start with the color picker to choose a starting point.  For this, I am going to load another set of brushes that come with Photoshop CC.  I could go to the Photoshop default location, but instead I have copied these to my chosen location.  What I'm going to load here are from a collection called KYLE brushes (whoever Kyle is).  I'm choosing impressionist.abr because it contains a brush called Monet that I particularly like.


Now if I use this brush right away, you can see that it does not illustrate the Color Dynamics setting I created a while ago.  This is because whenever you load a brush it reverts to its original default values.  That's one reason that I recommend that whenever you modify a significant setting you should create a new brush preset and eventually save it.  So I'm now setting the Color Dynamics.  Viola!  An impressionistic brush stroke indeed.


Now texture is magical.  You can use one of the preset Photoshop textures or create your own.  Again, creating textures is beyond the scope of this presentation.  By zooming in, we can see the texture that I've selected for this illustration.  (I probably wouldn't use this for clouds.)  Part of the magic is that you can use it again and again, and the texture will stay aligned between different strokes.


The last option we're going to look at transfer.  I'm not sure what this does with a mouse, but with a pen, the pressure can control the opacity of the brush.


This is just the tip (pardon the pun) of the brushes iceberg. 

Real life example


At this point, I'd like to give a somewhat realistic example of how you can easily change the color and style of a simple photograph. 


Copy background layer as a reference.  Turn it off.


Create another copy of the background in between the two layers.  This will be the first working layer. 


Convert this layer to B&W (Image>Adjustments > Black & White).


Still on this layer, select Filter > Stylize > Find Edges.


Then Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast to your liking.


Then Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen More.


New layer.

Impressionistic brush (or any other brush you'd like to try).


I (Eyedropper) to sample on the reference layer.


B and adjust size.


Paint the background.  Don't worry about spilling onto the flower.  We can fix that later.  Turn off the layer you've just painted.


Create a new layer for the center of the flower.


I to get the color from the reference layer.


B Reduce the size of the Brush.


Paint the center of the flower.


Turn off.  Create new layer for petals.


I to get color from the center part of the petals from the reference layer.


Adjust color in Color Picker.


B to paint the petals.


Play with blend mode/opacity of painted layers.


Change brush mode to Clear to get rid of mistakes.

Selected topics


Whenever you have a brush selected, there is the possibility of making a symmetrical drawing—horizontal, vertical, diagonal and several other combinations.  This is chosen using the butterfly icon on the options bar.  You may have to go into your Photoshop preferences and turn on Technology Preview to get this feature.

Types of brushes

From time to time you may see an icon in the upper right corner of a brush preset.  The icons correspond to the types of brushes available from the tools bar.  There are brush tool brushes (sometimes called paint brushes).  These just lay down color (or “paint”) wherever they go.  If a brush preset has no icon, it can be used as a Brush, Mixer brush or from the Smudge tool.  If you select a brush with the mixer icon (a droplet to the left of the brush symbol), you will automatically be switched to a mixer brush.  If you select a brush with the smudge icon, you will be directed to the smudge tool.


A mixer brush puts down paint of its own and smudges or blends with what is already there.  A mixer brush is a variation of the brush tool.  It is intended to simulate realistic painting techniques.  The amount of paint it puts down is controlled by the Mix setting on the options bar.  If you want paint from another layer included, check Sample All Layers.  (In the latest release of Photoshop, this is a symbol that looks like a stack of pancakes with arrows at the corners.)


A smudge brush picks up existing paint at the point where the stroke begins and smudges it.  It does not put down any paint of its own unless Finger Painting is checked or you hold the Alt (Option) key.  In that case, it puts down paint of its own, depending on the Strength setting in the option bar.  In other words, finger painting on starts laying down paint with the foreground color; off starts with the color under the pointer when you begin the stroke.  Note that if you want paint from another layer to be included, you must turn on Sample All Layers.  The smudge brush is actually a variation of the blur tool.


The term Blender is used differently depending on who is using it.  I don’t think the official Adobe help or tutorials mention Blender brushes.  Ironically, if you do a search on Photoshop Blender Brush, you will be directed to articles o Mixer brushes.  Yet, some of the brushes now supplied with the product (especially the ones identified with Kyle) are called blenders, even though they switch you to the smudge tool.


Other information

By far the most complete explanation of brushes I’ve encountered is “Working with Brushes in Photoshop CC” on Creative Live.  The instructor is Lisa Carney, who I find particularly difficult to listen to.  If you want to go deep into brushes, you might want to check it out.  Otherwise, I figure I’ve saved you from having to listen to Lisa.





Zenith Clipping(non-registered)
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Nicely described. Thanks for sharing this helpful tutorial about photoshop brushes.
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