How to make brushes in Photoshop- A step by step guide


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Making and using brushes in Photoshop can be a bit confusing at first but once you get over the learning curve at the beginning using them will open up a world of possibilities with your digital images. I have always surrounded myself with art and I used to draw and paint. I have since abandoned painting in favor of digital photography but I have always looked at one day possibly combining the two disciplines. Over the past few months I have been teaching myself various techniques within Photoshop and one of those was the making and use of brushes within a digital project in the program.

First off I am no expert however through trial and error and plenty of failures I finally have the technique down to make high quality, High resolution brushes. I am offering up my way for making the brushes and hopefully this will help people who have been asking about how I do this! A few things to remember are….As of CS5 and CS6 Photoshop allows you to make brushes 2500 pixels by 2500 pixels and the program will define the brush on a grayscale. While you could use colors to make your brushes the easiest way is to use white paper with black paint, ink, watercolor, etc. The reason why you want to do this is because the brushes are defined on a grayscale and your paper is white, Once you define the brush in Photoshop the program will turn any white pixels transparent and keep the black ones making a perfect brush without any complex cutting out of your brush shapes whether it be paint spatter or tiny small particles of ink or paint.

1. The first thing you want to do is start out with a nice, quality white paper. I use a heavier gauge watercolor paper, A 140 pound paper because it can handle the paint without warping and crinkling too much. Watercolor paper can be expensive but I found some at 5 bucks for 12 sheets. What I do is cut the sheets in half so each 12 sheet pack I buy will yield 24 brushes and if you are really thrifty you can use the other side of the paper when your first brushes dry to get 48. You can also tape the sheets down with painters tape to mitigate the warping of the paper even more or you can use the watercolor technique of pre soaking and drying the paper so it can take more liquid without warping. I have even gone down to 90 pound sheets which work ok as well and are really cheap…About 3 bucks for 10 sheets of watercolor paper.

2. when making the brushes and in this case it will be paint spatter remember to work from the center outward. You want the brushes to be random without having a square appearance as the bits of spatter hit the edge of the paper. Remember too that before I import into Photoshop I will bring my images into Lightroom and tweak the files using the spot healing tool to fine tune my spatter.

3. For the paint I use Liquitex of Golden acrylic black paint for a number of reasons. This paint is cheap, (roughly about 5 to 6 bucks for a 4 ounce tube), Is readily available at most hobby or craft stores, you can mix it with water for consistency purposes, you can mix it with various acrylic mediums to produce different effects, And it cleans up easily with water so if you make a mess or spill it really is no problem to clean. For basic spatters I just mix the paint with water and there is no hard and fast rule here. Use you best judgement on the consistency to give you good spatters. For the more stringy, poured, long paint spatters I add in an acrylic medium. Liquitex calls there’s String gel (the gel mediums are bit more expensive at 10-15 dollars but worth it). What it does is make the paint stringy so you can get nice and long paint spatters that are thin like string. Again there is no rule here…You have to experiment and see what ratio of paint to medium to water is best for the results you want. Remember there is no mistakes either. Paint spatter should be very random in appearance so anything you do will be acceptable.

*Tip- The more water you add to the paint the more the paper will want to crinkle and warp.  Be careful too when adding in the gel medium. Once dry the paint will have a tendency of sticking if you stack other sheets of paper on top of it. I have also made really small particle brushes on regular copy paper with really watery paint, You just have to be careful how much paint you put onto this type of paper!

The paint and acrylic medium that I use.

The paint and acrylic medium that I use.

4. Once you have made your brush set and the paint is dry it will be time to scan them into your computer and there will be some necessary tweaking of the image file. I like to scan my files in as Tiff’s at 300 dpi..Just a preference but I want the biggest file I can get. There is no point in making a small brush or one that is less than 2500 pixels. When you go to use a small brush on an image you will see what I mean….If you try to upsize that brush it will begin to look pixellated and you lose the nice detail which you have been trying to achieve. Better to make a huge brush and make it smaller in the brushes palette than to start off with a small, crappy brush.

5. All you need is a decent quality scanner to make this work. I have an old combo HP printer scanner. The printer is not working but the scanner is just fine for this purpose. First I scan in my spatter and in the scanning software I will crop to what I think is the best looking spatter. Sometimes there will be dots of paint you don’t want to include an remember at this point don’t worry if you cut off some spats of paint…You can fix this later in Lightroom with the spot healing tool. What you don’t want is for your brush to look square or have any edges to it. (Hard to do with the smaller particle brushes) At the bottom of this image here you can see my cropped scan before I finalized it with its measurements…Not quite 2500 pixels on the long side. Don’t worry because that’s were the resize function comes into play.

As you can see from the second image what the input and output dimensions are. What I will do is change the long side dimension to 2500 pixels and the software will automatically upscale the image. All you’re looking for here is the shape of the spatter, Not its texture. Your going to be filling it in with color in Photoshop later anyways. The third image shows the new dimensions after I changed the height to 2500 pixels. Once the image is finished scanning I look at it and sometimes the output will be like 2501 or 2503 pixels. I then just crop the image down a tiny bit to 2500 or just below 2500. After the file is scanned and imported into lightroom then we will tweak this file…Do not worry at this point if the file looks off, we are going to fix it!

The initial scan with my cropping. Notice the size is not quite 2500 pixels.

The initial scan with my cropping. Notice the size is not quite 2500 pixels.

Image size before I change the height measurement to 2500 pixels.

Image size before I change the height measurement to 2500 pixels.

Once I change the output height to 2500 pixels the measurements are changed.

Once I change the output height to 2500 pixels the measurements are changed. Notice the height is now 2500.

6. In the image below here is the file after import into lightroom with no edits. The only edits we are going to make are with the Highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks sliders. That’s it…Nothing else will be needed to prep this image file.

Unedited image imported into lightroom.

Unedited image imported into lightroom. It looks like hell right now but sit back and watch the magic happen!

7. Here is the image after I performed my three simple edits. Notice to the right that I changed the Shadows to -100, The whites to +100 and the blacks to -100. Sometimes you may have to mess with the highlights slider but in this case I did not. Now I have set the stage to make a brush in Photoshop. The whites are clearly defined and you have the paint spatter shape. The detail is unimportant here…I don’t want to see the texture of the paper or the paint, I am only after the random shape.

The image after my edits. Just about ready to be turned into a brush!

The image after my edits. Just about ready to be turned into a brush! Here we need to fine tune the shape of the spatter with the spot removal tool. Photoshop will make transparent everything that is white and keep all of the black!

8. In this image I am showing the before image and the after image with the spot removal tool active in Lightroom so you can see where I cleaned up the image. This file is now ready to be brought into Photoshop to be made into a brush! From here I will export into my computer…Again as a tiff file at 300 dpi. It is just personal preference to work on these files as Tiffs…You could use them as Jpegs to save on space but I have more flexibility to work on them as Tiffs.

A comparison image so you can see the before and after. The after image has the spot healing circles where I removed some of the spatter to my tastes.

A comparison image so you can see the before and after. The after image has the spot healing circles where I removed some of the spatter to my tastes. You can really see the difference between the two images. The after image is ready to be filled with whatever color you want in Photoshop!

9. Now comes the fun part! In Photoshop click File/ Open… and choose your brush image or images. Next click Edit/ Define Brush Preset… and a dialog box will pop up asking you to name the brush. Name the brush, Hit OK and your new brush will now be in the Brush palette!

A single image of paint spatter to be used as a brush file!

A single image of paint spatter to be used as a brush file!

10. When making these brushes I always do 10 to 20 different ones because I want to make them into a set and save the file as such rather than individually. Remember that while we have created our brush it is not yet installed into the brush preset folder so if we exited out of Photoshop at this point the brush would be deleted and we would have to do this every time we wanted to use it. I save my brush sets as a group and then save into Photoshop as well as a backup .abr file just in case on a separate drive. To save these brushes as a group I open up the images I am going to use and define them in the above steps one by one. Once I have my group defined and in the brush palette I open the brush palette and in the top right corner you will see a really tiny arrow. Click the arrow and in the drop down menu choose preset manager. A new window will pop up with all the brushes currently in the palette including the ones you just defined. Click on the first brush in your new set and holding shift click on the last brush. You should see a black box highlight each one. Now all you have to do is click on save set and I do this twice…Once into Photoshop’s brush preset folder and once into a separate folder on my computer as a backup.

Choosing the preset manager in the brushes palette.

Choosing the preset manager in the brushes palette.

The chosen set of brushes to save as a group in the preset manager.

The chosen set of brushes to save as a group in the preset manager.

Well there you have it, A brush set all ready to use in Photoshop! You can see in the photo above this one some of the brushes I have that were free ones on the internet. Now that I have created a few sets of my own I can transition out of using these and using my own for commercial purposes one day. It’s been quite a fun experience creating these brushes and now that I am building my own sets it feels much more satisfying creatively to use the brushes I created on my own photographs. I am no expert in Photoshop and I am sure there are a million ways to do this however I wanted high quality high res brushes and this is may particular way. One last thing….The brushes I made here were paint spatter but you could make a brush out of any thing or any shape you wanted to.  Brush away!

P.S….Sorry for some of the crappy smart phone images!

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