Photoshop 101: Brush Tool basics

Jürgen Heiss

The Photoshop Brush Tool is one of the simplest yet most powerful tools available in Adobe Photoshop. And many designers don’t know their full power! So my goal is to show designers how to easily access and utilize Brushes.

For this first part, we’ll go over the basics.

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Start by opening Photoshop and selecting the Brush Tool (B)

1. The dialog

Lets take a look at the basic settings the Photoshop Brush Tool has to offer. The first way to enter the basic settings from the Brush Tool is by right clicking on the canvas. This will open a dialog, displayed below. The options and setting are almost self-explanatory, but I’ll show you some quick examples to make everything clear from the get-go.

Size

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The first setting, size, allows you to decrease or increase the size of your brush.

Hardness

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Predefined Brushes

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2. Expanding on the basics

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There is still one more option in the brush dialog which maybe you didn’t see at first — it’s small! I’m talking about the small arrow in the right top corner, it’s a button you can press to open a submenu. This menu is categorized into three groups:

Display Options

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With this setting you can control the look and feel of the predefined brushes in the dialog. Try to change the settings, for example to Large Thumbnail or to Stroke Thumbnails. Choose what looks best to you, and leave it there! This is one setting I chose one time, and have never touched it again. In the image above you can see the difference between the Thumbnail, List and Stroke settings.

Managing

In this category you can control the brush presets. You can load, reset or even save new brushes (which you will learn how to do later on in this series.)

Presets

Here you can see the whole set of presets Photoshop offers you by default. Depending on which project you are working on, some of these presets could be very handy for you. Click through them to see what’s available, and to text them out. When you click on a preset Photoshop will ask you the following:

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Select append if you want to add the new Brush preset to the existing one, or OK if you want to replace the old with the new brush set. Which you do depends on the circumstances, as sometimes it’s good to have multiple brush sets loaded and at others it’s quicker and easier to stick to one specific set. No matter what you decide, you aren’t changing anything on the preset itself — only controlling which brushes will be loaded in the dialog.

3. The Photoshop Brush toolbar

When the Brush Tool is active, you will see a brush-specific toolbar that offers you a variety of ways to control the look and feel of your brush. Some of these are available in the dialog box referred to above, but there are additional options available here as well.

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Saving brushes

Click on the first button on the left, with the brush symbol. A dialog opens to give you the option to save brushes with the specific setting you have made. This means you don’t need to adjust the settings over and over again before you can use the brush on other designs. Once you are happy with the brush you’ve created, press the the small icon (paper sheet) to give it a name, or go with the default name, and you’re set.

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Once the brush is saved you can always access it quickly from the toolbar with one click. This is a great way to organize brushes that you use over and over again.

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Brush pallet

The next button as you move right on the Brush Toolbar opens the same dialog as above. The third button opens the brush pallet which gives you 100% control over the brush.

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There are a lot of different settings here, which we will go through as we continue in this series of posts. But play around with some of the settings in the meantime to get a feel for them.

4. Blend modes

With the Brush Tool you can control Blend Modes while you are painting on the canvas. Beyond the normal Blend Modes, which you also find on layers (read more about them in this article), there are also some specifically for brushes.

Normal

This Blend mode applies the brush stroke and color without applying any kind of transformation to it. In the image below I painted 3 magenta lines and after 3 cyan colored strokes. As you can see, the cyan strokes goes over the magenta, since I painted them after.

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Behind

Lets try exactly the same but this time with the Blend mode set to Behind. This mode paints behind any exiting stroke(s). Note, that this time the cyan lines goes BEHIND the magenta one.

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Clear

The Clear Mode you can imagine as an eraser, as it deletes any pixel of a brush stroke that it is painted over. The big difference between this and the eraser, is that Clear only erases pixels you have applied with the brush tool whereas the eraser will remove any pixel from the image.

5. Opacity and flow

I’ve found that a lot of people don’t know the difference between these — though sometimes opacity and flow appear to be the same thing, they’re not.

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Opacity controls the intensity of the color, while the flow controls the rate at which the color flows out of the brush (think of an airbrush). It’s a bit easier to grasp when you can see it:

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Lets first take a look at the Opacity. I used a 30px Brush with 100% hardness, changing the opacity.
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Now lets take a look what happens if we leave the opacity at 100% and change the flow instead.

When the opacity and flow are both high, it’s a bit difficult to tell what’s happening, but when you start lowering numbers in either process, you can see the huge difference. When you combine both of these settings you have the full level of control over the brush. It just takes a little bit of practice to determine what combination of these two you need for different scenarios.

Be sure not to miss the next tutorial, when we will delve into using the brush panel.

Header photo: John Morgan (via Flickr)

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