Mastering Brushes in Photoshop

All Photoshop Brushes are based on a flexible, sophisticated system which you can use to customize existing Brushes or to create new ones from scratch. When you select a tool, its corresponding options will become accessible in the upper tool bar. Being quite complex entities of Photoshop though, Brushes have a separate palette dedicated to them, as well. You can toggle this palette by relying on the F5 hotkey, or, alternatively, you could invoke it directly using the option bar of the Brush tool.

There are numerous attributes that control and define how a Brush behaves when you create a stroke with it. The level of this control could range from simple to extremely sophisticated, depending on the result you are looking for.  The essential attributes of Brushes are the shape, the size and the hardness of the tool. Apart from these properties though, you may also need- or want to control optional values exclusive to the Brush system. As you will see, a wide range and fluent customizability of options are available to form the type of control you need to achieve the results you have in mind.
mastering brushes in photoshop
Accessing Brushes

Photoshop comes with rich libraries of Brushes, inviting you to organize a virtual jar containing the tools that you use most frequently in your current work. While the Brush system is infinitely flexible, the basis of an effective jar consists of the default Brushes Photoshop comes with. Regardless the unique sets and types of tools you will use and create, the most frequently used tool in the software will be the standard Brush with the shape of a circle.

To access a Brush Library, you need to activate the flyout menu of the Brush palette. Flyout menus are easy to spot on all Photoshop palettes. They are located in the upper right hand corner of every palette that has this function associated to it. The flyout menu of the Brush palette is quite rich in its contents. Notice that the menu is divided into numerous parts. The bottommost section lists the available Brush Libraries, while the upper sections give you straightforward controls of Brush management. Once you click on an available library, Photoshop will ask if you want to add these new Brushes to the jar, or, would you prefer to replace the previous Brushes with the contents of the selected library instead. Libraries can be saved out with the .abr – Adobe Brush – file extension to them and this is the file extension you will find downloadable libraries with, as well.

Brush Customization

The Brushes section of the Brush palette hosts all the optional attributes you could utilize to form virtually infinite types of control to define Brush behavior. To see these in effect, pick a Brush Tip of your choosing that has well defined characteristics. Tips resembling grass are good candidates to see the effects of various options on. Brush customization happens via six main categories and all of these have a separate set of controls. To see and understand how custom attributes do work, select the Shape Dynamics category and put a checkmark next to it. You have just activated this optional set of attributes. Now click on the word „Shape Dynamics” to access the attributes themselves.

The values you currently see on the right side of the palette are context sensitive and they are exclusive to the Shape Dynamics category. Try and adjust the different sliders and see how they affect the Stroke preview. This preview is a precise representation of what the stroke will look like if you amend the current settings.

Once you have established values for a category that you are happy with, you have multiple choices. You could lock these values in by clicking on the tiny padlock icon. Locked values will be remembered by the software and the visual results they yield will not be altered by any subsequent changes. There is one exception though, as you could deactivate the effect of the category by removing the checkmark. This will not remove the effect, but will toggle its visibility. These optional attributes are stackable, meaning that they will react to each other non-destructively to create the stroke you are looking for.

Essential Brush Shortcuts

There are multiple methods to access the most essential Brush attributes like the size of the tip and the hardness. A quite effective technique is to press right click with the Brush tool activated. This will grant access to a dialog panel you could define the Master Diameter – size – and the hardness from. You could select a fresh tip from here, as well. Once you are confident with the shape of the Brush though, you may want to gain even more effective control of the size and hardness attributes.

One of the most comfortable pair of hotkeys in Photoshop is activated using the bracket keys. Once you have a Brush in your hand and you press and hold the bracket keys, the diameter will change “on the fly”, giving you direct feedback on the size of the Brush. Keep in mind that the Brush cursor is not necessarily rendered by the software. In case you do not see the Brush cursor, then there is a good chance that you have it deactivated. To display the cursor and the shape again, press the hotkey “Caps Lock”. This is the shortcut to toggle the visibility of the Brush tip.

Being able to alter the size of the Brush intuitively is a valuable ability, but the hardness of the tool remains almost as essential as the previous property. To alter the hardness of the Brush, you could rely on the bracket keys once again, but press and hold the SHIFT modifier key while you set the new value. These four, comfortable hotkey maneuvers will make your work flow much more swift and fluent.

Creating Custom Brush Tips

Create or open up an image and select an area of it which you would like to use as a brand new Brush tip. Keep in mind that your selection will define the Brush tip itself. Once you are happy with the selection, go to Edit – > Define Brush Preset. A dialog will pop up, inviting you to name the new tip. You could do so or you could skip that step, as well. Regardless of your choice, the new tip you have just created is added to the current jar of Brushes. You will find the new tip as the last component of the jar. In case you would like to keep any of your custom Brushes, you could save them out as a variant of an existing Library, or you could create a Library from scratch. To remove and/or rename individual Brush tips from a Library, simply right click on the Brush tip’s thumbnail image in the jar and select the function you need.

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