Brushing Up on Photoshop’s Advanced Painting Tools

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Photoshop’s name has always been somewhat misleading. Beyond being a digital darkroom for photographers, it’s an equally powerful environment for creating artwork from scratch. One of the key ways to do that is by applying digital paint with Photoshop’s enormous array of brush tools. The “brush engine” in Photoshop offers tons of power, a small subset of which is employed by its basic brushes.

This tip will show you how to take the reins of Photoshop’s advanced painting tools to produce effective, naturalistic, expressive strokes that look not in the smallest way mechanical.

terrified robot

Incidentally, this tip comes from Chapter 31, “Bristle and Mixer Brushes,” from the course Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Mastery on

Oh, and by the way, you folks who have been asking for some advise on using Wacom tablets with Photoshop, here you go.

Up-shifting your painting experience

We’re about to discuss the advanced painting capabilities in Photoshop, where the aim is to emulate what can be done with real paint, brushes, and pencils.

terrified robot

The image above might look like it was drawn with markers on coarse paper and then scanned, but it was drawn entirely on a computer with Photoshop. Many advanced painting features used to create that image are simply not accessible with the standard computer input device, the mouse. To unlock those features, you’ll want to use a graphics tablet.

When you use tools such as the Clone Stamp, Eraser, Blur, Dodge, or Burn tools you’re using Photoshop’s “brush engine.” In most cases, you’ll probably want to use a simple round brush with a low Hardness setting to produce a feathered edge, the most rudimentary application of Photoshop’s brush technology. For such tasks, a mouse is sufficient to get the job done; however, brushes and pencils respond to pressure and even tilt in the real world, and painting with a mouse is a bit like holding a hockey puck.

A graphics tablet is a flat surface that responds to pressure, tilt, and gestures you make with a stylus that you hold like a pen. One of the leading models on the market today is the Intuos 4 from Wacom (pronounced “Wah-Kum”), which makes digital painting feel more like drawing on paper with something akin to a felt-tip pen. Without pressure and tilt, a mouse always produces the effect of holding the stylus perfectly vertical while applying medium pressure.

wacom pen settings

The Wacom Intuos 4 has a programmable rocker switch on the side of the barrel, which can be configured to perform various keystrokes or commands. The illustration above shows some of its configuration options. It also has an eraser on the opposite end of the stylus, so that you can erase in Photoshop without using the Tools panel.

The example below shows how you can set Photoshop’s Brush panel to control the size of a brush by the pressure applied with a stylus. We’ll discuss the Brush panel in more detail shortly, but for now, note that the stroke preview has tapered ends—this indicates that the brush size responds to pressure, and the graphics tablet is your access to that functionality.

pen pressure

Selecting and modifying brushes

In this section, we’ll use the Brush tool as an example, but all of the following tools are based upon the same brush engine, and can be configured the same way:

  • Brush tool
  • Pencil tool
  • Mixer Brush
  • Clone Stamp
  • Pattern Stamp
  • History Brush
  • Art History Brush
  • Eraser
  • Blur tool
  • Sharpen tool
  • Smudge tool
  • Dodge tool
  • Burn tool

Whenever you activate a brush in the Tools panel, the Options bar shows two buttons for defining the brush itself. One button displays the current size, shape, and hardness of the brush, and the other is an icon that opens the Brush panel. The Brush panel icon appears in a number of places, as you’ll soon see.

brush options
  1. Click on the button displaying the current brush to open the Brush picker panel. You can also get to the panel by Right-clicking (Mac: Control-clicking) in the image whenever a brush is active.
  2. Click a brush preset to select it. A box will surround the selected brush.
  3. Optional: You can adjust the Size or Hardness settings of the brush in this panel. Keep in mind that Photoshop resamples brushes to render them in other sizes, so the default size will always be the cleanest version.
  4. If you change the settings on a brush, but decide you want to return to its original settings, just click on the preset again.
  5. Hit the Enter key (Mac: Return or Enter) or click outside the panel to close the Preset picker.

Once you’ve selected a brush, you can use it as-is, or alter its characteristics in the Brush panel. Click the icon in the Options bar to open the panel. A box on the left side of the panel operates like a menu:

  • Clicking the underlined items at the top of the box will display controls on the right side of the panel. If the box is un-checked, clicking the label will check the box and activate the option.
  • Clicking the one-off items (the ones at the bottom of the list that are not underlined) simply toggles the associated check box.
  • Click any check box to deactivate an option.
brush panel controls

The Shape Dynamics section is where you can tie the size of the brush to the pressure applied to the stylus by setting the Size Jitter control to Pen Pressure. You can also set the minimum diameter of the brush. The Size Jitter setting introduces its own size variation on top of the pressure-based setting. If you only want pressure control, leave the Size Jitter set to zero. The Transfer section allows you to tie Opacity or Fill to pen pressure.

The options bar has two buttons that can override the Brush Panel settings on the fly, allowing you to tie Opacity or brush size to pen pressure:

option bar override pressure

The Color Dynamics section of the Brush panel has an option—FG/BG Jitter—that mixes/swaps the foreground and background colors on the fly, based on pressure.

Most dynamic brush adjustments can can also be set to use the tilt of the stylus, instead of pen pressure, to control parameters of the brush.

Let’s return to the top of the menu on the left side of the Brush panel. The section labeled Brush Tip Shape allows you to make oval brushes and adjust the brushes’ angle of rotation. It also contains a miniaturized version of the Brush Preset picker for your convenience, so you can select and redefine brushes in the Brush panel without ever opening the Brush Preset picker.

A closer look at presets

Once you’ve defined a brush that you like, you can click the upturned page icon at the bottom of the Brush panel to save it as a new preset.

make brush preset

The top of the Brush panel also contains a button that opens the Brush Presets panel in this alternate format:

brush presets panel

You can think of this particular panel as management central for your brush presets. The larger format is easier to work with than the shrunken version inside the Brush panel. It has a Stroke Thumbnail view that displays both a thumbnail of the brush shape and a sample stroke indicating whether it responds to pressure. Alternate views show brushes by name or in thumbnail form. Notice the icon to switch back to the Brush panel at the top.

The left side of the screenshot above shows the first 16 brush presets that are loaded by default with a fresh installation of Photoshop CS5. If your panel doesn’t look like this, don’t worry; we’ll look at how you can reset this panel shortly. The first 6 presets are variations on round brushes with hard or soft edges. The pressure sensitive brushes are set to vary the brush size or opacity as you bear down.

Beneath the basic round brushes are the ten styles of bristle brushes. There are five flat styles and and five round styles. The bristle brushes are new to Photoshop CS5, and create a distinctive set of pressure and tilt-sensitive marks that really require a tablet to be useful at all. Bristle brushes will be the subject of a detailed future tip, but for now, here are some useful points:

  • Bristle brushes are often presented as a form of magic, and they’re not.
  • The shape of bristle brush strokes can change dramatically as you apply stylus pressure,
  • The round bristle tips produce the same type of stroke when you move in any direction.
  • The flat bristle tips have a default vertical orientation, which produces a thin vertical stroke and a thick horizontal stroke.
  • Deke’s favorite style of bristle brush is the Round Blunt.
  • Bristle brushes with long bristles and low stiffness produce the most expressive strokes.
  • Stiff bristles give a high degree of control.
  • Increasing the bristle count, length, thickness, and stiffness settings can bog the machine down. You can bump the spacing up to around 6% to compensate.

A quick glance at the Brush Presets panel hints at a potential problem: It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of brush presets available to you, especially if you start creating a lot of your own. You’ll use the fly-out menu at the upper right corner of the panel to tame the potential mess.

brush preset panel

The menu allows you to load groups of brushes and keep the Brush Presets panel uncluttered. You’ll also use the Preset Manager to organize them. You can open the Preset Manager via the menu or by clicking its icon at the bottom of the Brush Presets panel. Deleting brushes does not remove them from your computer, it just removes them from the Presets panel. As long as they are in a saved set of brushes, you can always reload them.

  • Reset Brushes allows you to reload the default set of brush presets that ships with Photoshop.
  • Load Brushes allows you to add a set of brush presets to the Presets panel. It appends the set you load to the set of brushes already in the panel, so you can end up with multiple copies of your brushes.
  • Save Brushes stores the entire collection of brushes in the panel as a document that you can reload with Load Brushes.
  • Replace Brushes clears out the current set of brushes and loads the saved set of brush presets that you specify. It will ask you if you want to save the current set of presets first.

Analyzing brush behavior

Several sets of brushes, including the M Brushes, appear beneath the save and load commands. It is worthwhile to explore these sets of brushes, looking for useful presets. Brush sets that you’ve saved will appear in the list under the group containing the M Brushes, but they do not appear there immediately; the menu only updates when you quit Photoshop and restart it.

Some M brushes behave in spectacular ways. A key to understanding how to make your own brushes is to pull examples apart and see how they work. We’ll take a look at some of the brushes in the M Brushes set. To do that, we’ll load the set first:

  1. Select M Brushes from the fly out menu at the upper right corner of the Brush presets panel.
  2. A dialog will appear, asking if you want to replace the current brushes. Click OK.
    replace brushes confirmation

    Remember, you’re simply determining which brushes appear in the Brush Presets panel. You can reload the other brushes later. When you do, you can either append them to the M Brushes set or replace the M Brushes.

Select the Crosshatch Gesture brush and try it out. Once you press the stylus down, keep holding it down and let your marks overlap or come close to each other. You’ll see the effect build up as parts of the stroke interact with each other. Release the stylus and start a new stroke. When the new stroke passes over the old one, the two strokes do not interact.

Another interesting brush to look at is the Crosshatch brush, which has an obvious “grain.” What is particularly interesting is that the grain pattern changes its orientation based on the direction that you are moving the brush. Try drawing a spiral and notice what happens to the pattern. You can also see this with the Hypno Line and Tumbleplanet brushes.

The Crosshatch brush is based upon the Crosshatch Gesture brush. It is also instructive, because it is a Dual Brush. Click on the Crosshatch brush in the Brush Presets panel to activate it.

select crosshatch brush

The first thing to notice is the discrepancy between the thumbnail and the stroke preview. That’s the way you’ll immediately recognize most dual brushes. They’re composed of a “parent” brush and an inner brush. The brush thumbnail only shows the parent brush, and the shape of the parent brush acts as a mask for the inner brush.

To begin investigating a Dual Brush, click on it in the Brush Presets panel, and then click on the icon at the top of the panel to switch over to the Brush panel. When the Brush panel appears, click on the Dual Brush section to reveal its controls. You’ll see a set of brush thumbnails, and one of them may be selected, however it’s probably not the inner brush for the current dual brush; Photoshop simply re-selects the last inner brush used in any Dual Brush.

The only way to find the inner brush in question, is to click on your best guess and see if the preview changes. If you guessed wrong, go back to the Brush Presets panel, re-select the Dual Brush, then switch back to the Brush panel and try again. The only other clue you’re given, is that the Size setting will match that of the inner brush, as long as the slider wasn’t changed after the inner brush was selected. However, in the case of the Crosshatch brush, the choice for the inner brush turns out to be pretty obvious:

dual brush details

You’ll probably notice the Mode menu at the top of the dialog. While the names of the modes are the same as those in the Layers panel, the behavior is very different. It’s best to stick with the default Multiply mode.

Reducing Chaos

Once you get rolling with brushes, you’re likely to create and save a number of your own and perhaps find some on the web that you want to use on a regular basis. You’ll probably find others among the sets of brushes available in the fly-out menu of the Brush Presets panel. At that point, you’re likely to notice a few things:

  • Whenever you create a new brush, it ends up at the very bottom of your Brush Presets panel.
  • Loading and appending all the brush sets creates an unwieldy mess.
  • Every set of brushes contains quite a few that you’ll probably never use.
  • Once you load the Brush Presets panel, you can delete brushes you don’t want, but only one at a time.

The solution is the Preset Manager, which you can actually use to manage far more than brushes. As mentioned earlier, you can enter the Preset Manager via the icon at the bottom of either the Brush panel or the Brush Presets panel (see the illustration above), or via the fly-out menu at the top right corner of the Brush Presets panel.

preset manager

The list of brushes inside the dialog is linked to the contents of your Brush Presets panel.

  • The triangle in the circle contains a fly-out menu like the one that appears at the top of the Brush Presets panel. Use it to change the appearance of the list, reset or replace brushes, or load pre-defined brush sets.
  • Use the Load button to load any saved set of brushes.
  • If prompted, you’ll have the choice to either replace the brushes you’re already showing in the panel, or add them below those that are already loaded (the append option).
  • Changing the contents of the Presets Manager updates the contents of the Brush Presets panel.

Once you’ve loaded brushes into the panel, you can select multiple brushes to manage them.

  • Click one brush to select it and then shift-click to select all brushes in-between - or -
  • Click the first brush and then Ctrl-click (Mac: Command-click) to select additional brushes individually.
  • Use Ctrl + A (Mac: Command + A) to select all.

To save the selected brushes into their own set, click Save Set.

To remove the selected brushes from the current list, click Delete.

Here’s a scenario: You’ve picked out several brushes that you’d like to use regularly among the default brushes, along with several more from the M Brushes. You’d like to save them all together in a master collection called myBrushes, that you can load up any time you like.

  1. Select Reset Brushes from the triangle menu at the top of the Preset Manager window and click OK when prompted to replace the current brushes.
  2. Optional: You may be prompted to save the current brushes. Whether you save the set or not will have no effect on creating your master collection.
  3. Select your preferred default brushes and then click Save Set. Save them as myDefaults.abr.
  4. Select M Brushes from the triangle menu and click OK when prompted to replace the current brushes.
  5. Select your favorite M Brushes and click Save Set. Save them as myMBrushes.abr.
  6. Optional: Select and save brushes from other sets as above.

Now to assemble your master set:

  1. Choose Replace Brushes from the triangle menu and load myDefaults.abr as your first set.
  2. Click Load and select myMBrushes.abr. The brushes will append to the previous ones.
  3. Optional: Use the Load button to append any additional favorite brush sets.

Your master collection is now available in the Brush Presets panel, but you may not like the order of the brushes. You can select one or more brushes and drag them to resequence.

Once your brushes are organized the way you like, it’s time to save them:

  1. Use Ctrl + A (Mac: Command + A) to select all brushes in your completed master set.
  2. Click Save Set and save the file as myFavorites.abr

Your master set is now saved and loaded into your Brush Presets panel. Click Done to exit the Preset Manager.


As much as this tip seemed to be about housekeeping for your brushes, it really wasn’t. The point was for you to get a sense of how to harness the advanced capabilities of Photoshop’s brushes. Armed with that knowledge, you can make the kind of lines you saw in the lead image, and paint the kind of colored washes you see here in the final version:

robot in color

There’s a lot to explore. Enjoy!

Next entry:Depth Maps Become Reality

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 010: Making 3D Type With Repouss√©


  • Painting with PS CS5

    Sure would like to see all the painting tuts in one collection.  Beginner to Adv.

  • Audio-visuals like Lynda’s ...

    ... are frustrating and hugely inefficient. Do you plan to put any of this material into print? Is any of it already in print?


  • Brushes

    C Bates

    It would have been very helpful for you to give a snap shot of each brush you used and what their settings were

    and what it looked like in a photoshop document.

    It would have been very helpful to explain what are the best ways to make our own cool brushes from scratch and/or from an image.  There are things that really work, and others that do not. 

    It was helpful to know how to sort brushes and delete more than one at a time.  I shall have to save those instructions.

    This was really just a tutorial on how to use the brush pallet.  Not a tutorial on how to make the illustration you showed us and led me to believe you were going to illustrate how you did it.

    That was a false lead, and wasted my time, as I already know how to work with brush pallet.

    However it was an excellent tutorial on using the brush pallet.  May I post this link on my blog on my website?

    I am a professional photographer and member of Website is

  • thank you!

    I just got one for our anniversary present. Thank you so much! Can’t wait to come back and read this tonight.

  • omg your dvds are incredible

    thanks <3

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