Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush Tool, Part 2

August 02, 2013

Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush Tool, Part 2

Many photographers use Photoshop and/or Photoshop Elements to edit their photographs. To that end, we've been talking about some of the basics of Photoshop's Brush tool.

In our previous post, Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush Tool, Part 1, we learned how to access the brush tool in Photoshop (CS6) and Photoshop Elements (PSE).

In this post, we'll continue talking about the Brush tool and, specifically, how to work with the basics settings in the Options Bar. And, since this varies a bit depending on whether you are using Photoshop or PSE, we'll start with Photoshop Elements.

The Brush Tool in Photoshop Elements

When you select the Brush tool in PSE, you will see a number of settings for the tool in the Options Bar.

Selecting a Brush Tip

One of these settings is the brush tip:

photoshop elements brushes PSE

You can change this brush tip by clicking on the small down-facing arrow next to the brush. When you do, the Brush Picker opens:

photoshop elements brushes brush picker PSE

The Brush Picker

While the Brush Picker, also called the Brush Preset Picker, may seem like a pretty basic menu, it's actually an especially useful panel in PSE. You can use the Brush Picker to, as the name implies, choose a brush tip. But this panel also allows you to manage brush presets, load brushes that have been downloaded from the internet and even create your own brushes from scratch.

First, let's talk about choosing a brush tip. When you first open the Brush Picker, you will see a selection brushes that you can choose from. These brushes are from PSE's Default Brush Library and include a selection of brushes that can be divided into three basics categories:

Round Brushes

The round brushes are by far the most used and useful of the Photoshop brushes.

The round brush brushes come in an assortment of either hard or soft tips. You'll notice the soft tips by their faded, feathered outline:

photoshop elements brushes PSE hard vs. soft

Hard brushes create a paint stroke that has a precise, well-defined edge. A soft brush tip, on the other hand, creates a line that's fuzzy, with less distinct edges:

photoshop elements brushes PSE hard vs. soft

By the way, when you look at the selection of round brushes in the Brush Picker menu, you'll notice that the size, in pixels, shows along with the thumbnail for each brush:

photoshop elements round brushes PSE

But don't worry too much about the size of the round brush you choose since you can easily change that later using the size setting in the Options Bar. But more on that later….

Specialty Brushes

PSE's default set of brushes also includes a number of brushes for artistic painting, brushes that mimic the effect of real-life artistic media. These includes airbrushes, charcoal brushes, sponges, scatter brushes, watercolor brushes and chalk.

Shape Brushes

Not all brushes in Photoshop Elements are for traditional painting.

The Default Brush Library includes a number of brush tips shaped like objects such as flowers, stars, grass and leaves. Think of these brushes as something akin to a stencil or a stamp. You can use them singly to create a lone impression or embellishment or you can use them in multiples to make a cluster or decorative border:

photoshop elements brushes PSE border

Like the round brushes, these shape brushes show the pixel size next to the brush thumbnail. And, again, like the round brushes, you can resize these brushes using the size option in the Options Bar (see resizing brushes) but only to a point. Since these brush shapes are not vector elements, the software resizes them by using interpolation to make them smaller or larger. And that can mean that you may notice the brush shape becomes pixelated if it's enlarged too much:

photoshop elements brushes PSE

By the way, many of the Shape brushes include Dynamic settings, meaning that many of them will scatter, rotate and vary colors as you brush with them. But you can change any and all of these settings using the options in the Brush Dynamics settings panel. We'll be talking about that in a later post.

Changing the Brush Library

If you don't find exactly the brush that you want in the Default Brush Library, don't despair! There are 13 more libraries filled with lots more brushes for you to choose from.

To change the brush library, click on the arrow next to the brush set name. This will open a pop-up menu showing the additional brush libraries. Click on any to load:

photoshop elements brush library PSE

Managing your Brushes and Brush Libraries

You can also manage your PSE brushes through the Brush Picker Menu.

Click on the little symbol in the top right-hand corner of the Brush Picker panel. That will be a chevron arrow in versions of PSE prior to version 11 and a drop-down symbol in PSE 11. When you click on this symbol, a pop-out menu will appear with options for managing, loading and saving brushes:

photoshop elements managing brushes PSE

By the way, we'll be talking more about loading and creating and saving your own brushes in a future blog post. But for now, just know that this is where that kind of magic happens…!

Now that we know all about how to choose a brush tip, let's look at the other settings that you can change through the Options Bar.

Brush Size

The next setting that you will find on the Options Bar is the brush size:

photoshop elements brush size PSE

There are a couple of ways to change the brush size.

First, you can simply select the digits that show in the size box and type in the size that you want:

photoshop elements brush size PSE

Then there's a sliding scale that you can move back and forth to change the brush size. In PSE 11, the sliding scale is right there on the Options Bar. In earlier versions, you can access the sliding bar by clicking on the small down-facing arrow to the right of the size setting. Just drag the slider to increase or decrease the brush size:

photoshop elements brush size PSE

Lastly, you can gradually increase or decrease the brush tip size from the keyboard by tapping on the left (to decrease) or right (to increase) square bracket signs, with each tap of the key changing the brush size by 10 pixels:

photoshop elements brush size PSE

Setting the Brush Opacity

Another setting in the Options Bar is the opacity setting:

photoshop elements brush opacity PSE

The opacity setting controls the transparency of the brush strokes. At 100% opacity, the brush strokes are completely opaque, so nothing is visible underneath them. As you reduce the opacity, the paint strokes become more transparent, allowing whatever you paint over to show through. At 0%, the brush strokes basically become invisible, allowing everything underneath them to show through.

The brush opacity setting works a lot like the opacity setting available for each layer in the Layers Panel:

photoshop elements brush opacity PSE

But there's one big difference. When you create a paint stroke using the brush tool, the opacity setting becomes part of the pixels of the stroke. In other words, unlike the opacity setting in the Layers Panel, which can be changed on the fly, once you paint a stroke with a particular brush opacity setting, that setting becomes a permanent part of the stroke and can't be modified after the fact.

There are three ways to change the brush opacity setting.

First, you can simply type the setting that you want into the settings box:

photoshop elements brush opacity PSE

You can also change the opacity setting by using the sliding scale. In PSE 11, this scale is accessible directly on the Options Bar. In earlier versions of the software, you'll need to click on the small down-facing arrow to the right of the opacity setting on the Options Bar to access this scale. In either case, you change the opacity setting by dragging the ticker on the bar back and forth:

photoshop elements brush opacity PSE

And, finally, you can use the keyboard to quickly change the opacity setting. With the Brush tool selected, just type in the opacity percentage. Type in a single digit to set the opacity to a percentage that is a factor of 10. Or type in two digits quickly for a more exact number. So, for example, type in 1 for 10 percent, 2 for 20%, or a 25 for 25%. By the way, typing in a single 0 gives you 100% opacity but typing in two 0's (00) gives you 0% opacity.

Setting the Brush Mode

Another setting that you'll see in the Options Bar is the mode setting:

photoshop elements brush mode PSE

The mode setting determines how the pixels that you create with your brush strokes blend and interact with those already on the current layer. So there's an important point here. In order to see an effect from the brush tool's various mode settings, you have to paint directly on top of other pixels.

The Brush Tool Blend modes work a lot like the Layer Blend Modes that you can access through Layers Panel:

photoshop elements brush mode PSE

But, as with the brush opacity setting that we talked about above, there's one big difference. When you use the different brush modes as you paint, you can't change the effect afterwards. You can undo the effect by using PSE's undo command, but once you save the file and close it, the effect is permanent. You can't change it when you reopen the file.

And, since the effect is only visible when you paint directly over other pixels, this limitation can put you in a bind if you're not careful. This is the reason I rarely use the brush modes (and the brush opacity for that matter). Instead, I typically paint on a blank, separate layer and then use the options in the Layers Panel to get the effect I want. This leaves me with the ability to edit the effect whenever I want.

Photoshop Elements offers 27 different Brush tool blend modes, all using a different formula to determine how the painted pixels will interact with the pixels below it. These include all of the modes that you find in the Layer Panel, but with two additional modes: "Behind" and "Clear".

The Behind mode causes the brush tool to work only in areas of the layer that are transparent, allowing you to paint on the layer but leave the current pixels unaffected. The Clear mode causes the brush tool to act as an eraser, removing pixels rather than adding them.

The best way to get to know how the different modes work is just to experiment with them to see the effects that you can create.

To access the different brush modes, click on the small down-facing arrow to the right of the mode setting box in the options bar. A pop-up menu will appear showing the different mode options:

photoshop elements brush modes PSE

That's it!

Ok, so now we know all about changing the basic brush settings in Photoshop Elements. Next up, we'll look at changing those same settings in Photoshop CS6….




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