Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush tool, Part 3

August 10, 2013

Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush tool, Part 3

This is the third post in our ongoing series about getting to know the Brush tool in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (PSE).

In our previous post, Photoshop & PSE: Getting to Know the Brush tool, Part 2, we looked at how to work with the basic setting for the Brush tool in PSE. In this post, we'll look at how to change those same settings in Photoshop. A lot of this is the same as in PSE, but there are a few important differences.

So here we go!

The Brush Tool in Photoshop

When you select the Brush tool in Photoshop, The Options Bar at the top of the interface will open to show you a number of settings that will effect how the brush strokes will look on your project.

Selecting a Brush Tip

The first of these settings is the brush tip, located towards the left side of the CS6 Options Bar:

photoshop brushes

You can see that the Brush tip setting in the Options Bars in CS6 is a bit different than what we saw in PSE. In CS6, the setting for the shape of the brush tip is bundled with the brush size. Above, you can see the current brush tip shape along with the size of 15 pixels.

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

photoshop brush picker

The Brush Picker

The Brush Picker, also called the Brush Preset Picker, is a menu that gives you access to all sorts of useful functions. Looking at the screen shot above, you can see that you can use the Brush Picker to choose a brush tip and then select it's size and hardness. But there's lots more that you can do here. This panel 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 of brushes that you can choose from. These brushes are from Photoshop's Default Brush Library and include a selection of brushes that can be divided into three basic categories:

Round Brushes

The round brushes are by far the most used and useful of the Photoshop brushes. With their circular shape, they act much like a regular, physical brush. So you can use them for all sorts of jobs in Photoshop.

Specialty Brushes

Photoshop'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.

Many of the Shape brushes include Dynamic settings, meaning that the brush tip 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 panels. We'll be talking about that in a later post.

photoshop brushes border

Erodible Tip Brushes

Erodible tip brushes are new to Photoshop CS6. These brushes are intended to simulate a charcoal pencil, the tip of which erodes, wearing down and widening as it's used. So when you start painting with the brush, the tip is sharp. But the brush will lose that sharpness as you use it. How quickly the brush wears down can be controlled through a Softness setting that we'll see in a later post when we talk about the Advanced and Dynamic Brush tool settings found in the Brush Panel

You can see the eroding effect in the Live Tip Brush Preview that opens automatically when one of these types of brushes is selected

photoshop erodible brushes


Airbrushes are also new to CS6.

These brushes are designed to give your project a more realistic airbrush look, with the conical shape of a spray can of paint, than the airbrush options of previous Photoshop versions.

Changing the Brush Size

In Photoshop, the brush size setting is found in the Brush preset menu:

photoshop brush size

This is different than in Photoshop Elements, where this setting is accessible directly from the Options Bar.

There are a few different ways that you change the brush size.

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

photoshop brush size2

You can also use the sliding scale under the size setting. Move the slider back and forth to change the brush size:

photoshop brush size3

Finally, there's also a keyboard shortcut that you can use to change the brush size. It's the same keyboard shortcut we saw in Photoshop Elements. 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 brush size4

So you can resize any of the brushes as needed. And for the round brushes that works out just fine. But there's one caveat I should mention. The shape brushes and the media brushes are not vector elements. So when these brushes are resized, the software has to use interpolation to make the brush tip larger or smaller. And that can mean pixilation if the enlargement is taken too far. Just something to keep in mind:

photoshop brushes enlarging

Changing the Hardness Setting

Photoshop's Brush Picker panel also includes a slider that you can use to change the hardness setting, from 0% to 100%, for the round brushes:

photoshop brushes hardness setting

The hardness setting controls the precision and sharpness of the brush's border. So hard brushes have clear-cut, solid edges whereas soft brushes feature faded, feathery borders:

photoshop brushes hard soft

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

photoshop brushes hard soft2

There are three ways to adjust the hardness setting.

As we saw with the size setting, you can select the digits that show in the hardness setting box and type in the setting that you want:

photoshop brush hardness2

Or you can use the sliding scale under the hardness setting. Move the slider back and forth to change the brush hardness:

photoshop brush hardness3

And there's also a keyboard shortcut that you can use to change the brush hardness. To gradually change the hardness, hold down the shift key and tap on the left (to decrease) or right (to increase) square bracket signs, with each tap of the key changing the hardness setting, up or down, to the next multiple of 25%.

photoshop brush hardness4

Changing the Brush Library

As we saw in Photoshop Elements, you aren't limited to the brushes that you see when you first open the Brush Preset menu. When you first open this panel, you'll be looking at the brushes from the Default Brush Library. But there are 14 more libraries that come with Photoshop and they're filled with lots more brushes for you to choose from.

You can change the brush library by accessing the fly-out menu that's part of the Brush Preset panel. To do this, click on the small icon in the top right-hand corner of the panel. When you do, the fly-out menu will appear. You will see the additional brush libraries at the bottom of this menu.

photoshop brush library

To use a different Brush Library, click on the name. When you do, a dialog box will pop up, asking if you want to replace the current set of brushes or add the new brushes into the list:

photoshop brush library2

Whichever you choose, keep in mind that you can always reset your Brush Picker panel to show the Default Brushes by choosing "Reset Brushes…" from the fly-out menu:

photoshop brush library3

Managing your Brushes and Brush Libraries

You can also manage your Photoshop brushes through this same fly-out menu.

When you open the Brush Picker's fly-out menu, you can see options for managing, loading and saving brushes.

photoshop managing brushes

These options give you the ability to create your own custom brushes or use brushes that you can download from the Web. So that means that your Photoshop brush options are virtually limitless! How cool is that?

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 little fly-out menu opens all sorts of possibilities in the world of brushes!

Now that we know all about how all about the Brush Picker panel, let's move on and look at the other settings that you can change through the Options Bar.

Setting the Brush Opacity

Another setting in the Options Bar is the opacity setting:

photoshop brush opacity

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 layers opacity

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 brush opacity1

You can also change the opacity setting by using a sliding scale. To access this scale, you'll need to click on the small down-facing arrow to the right of the opacity setting on the Options Bar. Then, drag the ticker back and forth to change the opacity setting.

photoshop brush opacity

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 brush mode

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 layers mode

The brush mode works in Photoshop just as it does in PSE. So that means that, once you use brush with the tool set to a particular mode, the effect is permanent. You can't change the effect afterwards. You can undo the effect by using Photoshop'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 can get you into trouble since you are effectively destroying pixels as you use the tool. So just be careful here.

In fact, 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 offers 29 different Brush tool blend modes, all using a different method for establishing 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 quickest way to become familiar with how the different modes work is to just 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 brush modes

Setting the Flow Rate

You'll find the flow rate setting on the Options Bar near the opacity setting:

photoshop brush flow

The flow setting controls how much paint flows out of the brush as the tip moves across your workspace.

Varying the flow allows you to build up the intensity of the color of your painted strokes because the color will darker each time you brush moves across the area.

Maybe an example will help. Say that you've set the flow to 20%. That means that, in a single stroke—so without lifting the brush off of the canvas—you add 20% of the full flow of the brush every time you brush over a single area.

I don't know if that helps.

Let's try looking at an illustration. Below, we have four lines of color.

  1. The first one was created using a hard brush with 100% opacity and 100% flow.
  2. The second was created using 100% opacity and 50% flow.
  3. The third used 50% opacity, 100% flow.
  4. The final used 50% opacity and 50% flow.
photoshop brush flow2

You'll notice that in the lines where just the opacity changes (line 1 vs. line 3), the color of the line simply gets lighter. But reducing the flow rate to below 100% gives the line the look of a repeating pattern. That pattern is the caused by the buildup of color where the dots of paint from the brush tip overlap.

To change the flow rate, you can use the same methods we've seen used for the other settings in the Options Bar. You can type in a percentage from 1 to 100 in the setting box or you can use the flow slider that appears when you click on the small down-facing arrow next to the setting box, dragging the ticker back and forth to change the setting.

Of you can use a keyboard shortcut to set the flow rate. To do this, hold down the Shift Key and then type in a number. Type in a single digit to set the flow rate to a percentage that is a factor of 10. Or type in two digits quickly for a more exact number.

Using the Airbrush Feature

To switch the Brush tool to Airbrush mode, click the button on the Options Bar:

photoshop airbrush

The airbrush mode allows you to use the Brush tool as a traditional airbrush, with a sprayed effect that builds up color the longer you hold the mouse button down. And, unlike the buildup of color that happens with movement when using the flow rate setting, the buildup with the airbrush mode happens with time, regardless of the movement of the brush tip. In other words, in airbrush mode, paint flows out of the brush tip for as long as you hold down the mouse key.

The airbrush effect is especially noticeable if you are using a soft brush. With the airbrush feature enabled, the paint dot from a soft brush will spread out as the mouse button is held down.

The illustration below shows the same size brush, with and without the airbrush effect. In both cases, the mouse button is held down for 5 seconds

photoshop airbrush2

By the way, if you're using a completely hard brush and the opacity and flow are both set to 100%, the airbrush has no effect.

So that's it! We've covered all of the basics of the Brush tool in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements!

Now you can see what we meant when we praised the usefulness and versatility of this humble tool at the beginning of this series of posts.

We hope it's been helpful! Stayed tuned for more on the Brush tool when we dive into some of the advanced settings in an upcoming post…

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