The other day I found myself wanted to do a little housekeeping with my Photoshop brushes, and I figured I’d share some thoughts. I won’t be teaching anything about how to create brushes in Photoshop here as I’ve already detailed all of that in both of my DVDs, an article I wrote for Photoshop User Magazine and in a webinar or two that I recorded for Wacom. Creating Photoshop brushes is an easy topic to find online and I would encourage anyone who wants to paint digitally to learn how to create and customize your own brushes.
With an almost limitless supply of free brush sets online, digital artists of all levels seem to have a habit of downloading anything they can find on the off chance that one day; they might have use for the Valentine’s Day Zombie Cupid Brush Set.
I’ve seen artists who not only have hundreds of brush sets at the ready, most of which they’ve looked at once, but also those who have a hundred or more brushes in the set they use every day, most of those going untouched as well. Before downloading a brush set, ask yourself if you’re really going to use it.
Stamp or Paint
There are two main brush types that I’ve come across and both have their uses. The first are stamp brushes. Usually it’s the type of brush that is meant to be tapped onto an image just like a stamp. For my editorial cartoon work, my signature is a stamp brush. As I want my brand to be consistent, it is comprised of my editorial cartoon signature (different than my actual signature), and my website address. On every cartoon I’ve done for the last few years, my signature looks exactly the same because of this stamp brush and it’s the only stamp brush I use consistently.
Paint brushes on the other hand are ones intended to be used with a brush stroke. With a little imagination and experimentation, a well-crafted stamp can be turned into a versatile and powerful paint brush.
Some of the free downloads out there are really great. You can find specific sets for holidays, environments, themes, moods, and weather. I’ve spent many hours exploring brush sets over the years. As time went on, however, I found that less is more and I pretty much stick to one brush set, most of which I designed myself.
Here’s the set I started with and what it looked like after I was done editing. Some were even duplicates, although I don’t know how I managed that. Some look like duplicates but because of different settings, the brush stroke is very different, even if the stamp doesn’t reveal that. To clean them up, I just went through them one by one and asked myself how often I really used a brush. If the answer was ‘almost never’ then I deleted it.
I still have and use other brush sets from time to time. For example, I have a brush set that is just snowflakes, another that is just leaves, and yet another that is just lightning stamps. But I use them very rarely, so while those brushes are not part of my main set, they’re still worth keeping. What you see here, however are the brushes I rely on every day.
Because I like to keep my tool and brush palettes clean and out of the way, I don’t worry too much about naming my brushes because I only view them as small thumbnails. I do, however, like to have them grouped so that I don’t have to test a brush each time I grab it to make sure it’s what I want. If they’re grouped together, I have a good idea what any brush is going to do when I choose it. Here’s how mine are grouped.
Why I Don’t Share Brushes
I’ve been asked innumerable times to provide my brush set for people and the answer is always No. It’s not that I have any magic brushes; it’s just that you will learn a lot more by creating your own than by using ones other artists have created. The main brush I use for painting, however, is one you already have if you use Photoshop. It’s a default and is my favorite painting brush, the one you see in the next image. In articles and videos, I’ve also shown how to make my hair brushes, but don’t be fooled. Having the tools is completely different than knowing how to use the tools. You only get that from experience and you only get experience by painting.
Experimentation and Discovery
While this panel may look complicated, it’s not. The best way to find out how everything works is to experiment with the different settings and paint on a blank page while doing it. I actually use much less than half of the options available to me in this panel because the way I paint doesn’t require all of the bells and whistles. My brushes are pretty simple.
Cleaning up this brush set took well over two hours because I kept experimenting with ways to make each brush better and I enjoyed playing around with the possibilities.
One brush, however, kept crashing Photoshop, and I have no idea why. Every time I tried to work with it, Photoshop CC died on me. The first time it happened, I lost about 20 minutes work because I hadn’t saved the new brush set. Happened three times before I realized it was the brush itself, and I ended up deleting it entirely and avoided any further crashes. It takes very little time to save the set after each brush change. Get in the habit of doing that when you’re working with brushes. Save the brush, save the set.
There are so many ways to paint digitally. Some artists seek to emulate traditional media and do so with great skill. Others paint in ways that traditional artists would find completely confusing. Everybody has their own way of doing it and designing your own brushes can often spark ideas for paintings and images that you might not have considered had you simply downloaded somebody else’s tools.
Less is more, so if you have 100 brushes in your main brush set, see if you can’t whittle that down to 50. Keep the old set on your computer and save to a new set so you can always go back and retrieve any you wish you’d kept. Create new brushes, make changes to old ones, keep them organized and never be afraid to improve on the old standbys and eventually you’ll wind up with a brush set that is uniquely yours.