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Design

Digital Painting Tips: How to Pick the Right Brushes

Today we're bringing you some digital painting tips to help you get started in Adobe Photoshop! Learn the importance of knowing which brushes you should use for your next digital masterpiece.

Which Brush Should I Use?

The top questions on anyone's mind always deal with brushes. Whether it's which brush you should use, the size or the setting, brushes are hugely important to the outcome of your digital painting.

Brushes Available in Adobe Photoshop
Brushes come in all shapes, sizes, and textures. Try them all out to see how they work!

But Does the Brush Really Matter?

Yes and no. Brushes are just tools. Sure, you can achieve a variety of effects with them, but you still have to know how to use them.

Brush Misconceptions

Having a certain brush or brush set doesn't guarantee a particular look or quality. You're not going to go from beginner status to an advanced artist just because you've downloaded a popular brush pack.

Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid the necessity of building your foundation skills. So make sure that you're taking the time to understand basic art principles as you also grow to understand these tools.

What They Are Actually Used For

To get a better handle on painting with brushes in Adobe Photoshop, it's a good idea to understand what they're actually capable of.

With Photoshop brushes, you can:

  • use them for both sketching and painting
  • fill in large areas with color (like the Paint Bucket Tool)
  • create beautiful gradients of transitioning colors
  • do general shading using dark tones, mid tones, and highlights
  • add realistic texture to your piece
  • paint patterns to save time
  • finely tune the details of your painting

Why You Need a Pen Tablet

Even if you have Photoshop, you might still be missing one key element—a pen tablet. Pen tablets allow you to digitally paint by using a stylus and pad which imitate the experience of drawing on paper.

Can you paint in Photoshop without a pen tablet? Yes. Will it be easy? Not at all.

Because they're connected to Photoshop, pen tablets allow you access to additional settings within the Brush Panel. Without one, you won't be able to simulate that painterly feel.

Personally, I've gone through about eight tablets that all varied in size and cost. But no matter the cost or brand, as long as the tablet allows access to Pen Pressure, it's always good in my book.

The Holy Grail of Brushes Is Pretty Standard

Part of the reason why digital artists have such a hard time giving advice in this area is because so many of us use only one brush, the Standard Round Brush. 

So when an artist tells you that they use a "round brush", this is what they mean.

Standard Round Brush in Adobe Photoshop

Believe it or not, you can actually achieve so many different textures and effects with just one brush, as long as you know how to take advantage of the brush settings. Essentially, this one brush becomes the equivalent of having dozens of brushes on hand, simply because the settings make it so versatile.

Just changing the Hardness from 0% to 100% alone gives you several completely different brushes.

Brushes with Varying Levels of Hardness in Adobe Photoshop
From left to right, you have a Standard Round Brush with Hardness levels at 100, 50, and 0%.

Brush Hardness, Size, and Opacity

As a general rule of thumb, always change the Hardness, Size, and Opacity according to your painting needs. If you need a soft feel, go with a soft brush, and if you need crisp edges, go with a harder brush.

Whenever I feel stuck, the first thing that I do is adjust my brush settings. If you get stuck on one setting for too long, your painting tends to look one-dimensional and not very interesting.

Brush Settings for Opacity Hardness and Size in Adobe Photoshop
Opacity, Size, and Hardness are the more important features you'll need to know about the Brush Tool. Right-click to access this smaller panel for a much easier workflow in Photoshop.

Different Brush Settings for Each Stage

Welcome change when you're painting. Change your brush settings often, so that you make this a part of your habits and routine. In case you need a little help getting started, here are some settings I like to use depending on the stage I'm working on.

Sketching

As straightforward as it seems, some people don't realize they can sketch right into Photoshop. Even if you feel more comfortable with paper and pencil, you should always sketch in Photoshop to get more familiar with brushes.

When sketching, avoid soft edges at all costs. They'll make things really blurry and hard to see. These are the settings I like to use best for crisp, elegant details.

Brushes for Sketching and Drawing in Adobe Photoshop
Notice how the ends taper? Whenever you drag your pen across the tablet, these settings allow for a beautiful flick at the end that will instantly make you feel as if you're drawing on paper.
  • Brush Hardness: Always 100%.
  • Spacing: Keep under 30%.
  • Brush Size: The smaller the size, the cleaner the sketch. I like 5-10 pixels.
  • Shape Dynamics: Set Size Control to Pen Pressure (for tapered ends).
  • Transfer: Set Opacity Control to Pen Pressure.

These settings will help you create line art like the examples below. The key to clean line art is to take your time making fluid, deliberate strokes. You don't always need the Shape Dynamics option on, but if you want to make your sketches look more traditional, then it definitely helps.

Drawing and Sketching in Adobe Photoshop with the Brush Tool
Although both sketches have the Pen Pressure option selected, the second is much cleaner because I've taken more time to perfect the lines.

Base Colors and Blocking Out Tones

Once the sketch is finished, the next stages of your painting will include filling in the base colors and carving out the shadows, mid tones, and highlights. These steps are all about throwing paint on the canvas fast, so don't worry too much about blending.

Soft versus hard brushes in Adobe Photoshop
Laying in the initial tones is all about speed. Feel free to use either soft or hard brushes to help you understand the overall direction of your painting.
  • Brush Hardness: Varies on the effect. Soft brushes create realistic shadows while hard brushes help to sculpt. I generally stick to 30-50%.
  • Brush Size: Bigger is better for fast application.
  • Shape Dynamics: Remember to turn the Pen Pressure Off after sketching, or the brush strokes will be tapered and hard to apply.

No matter how harsh this initial step may be, the blending phase will help to smooth any details out.

Digital Painting Steps Art by Melody Nieves
No painting starts off with incredible detail. Notice that as the painting transitions to the second step, all you really need is a few soft colors and tones to begin mapping out where you need to place further detail.

Blending

Whether you're painting skin or a beautiful sky, eventually soft brushes come into play. And the harder the brush, the harder it is to blend. Start with the lowest setting for Hardness in order to gauge whether or not you need to increase it. The style you're going for will make this step purely subjective, so experiment to see what works best.

  • Brush Hardness: Start with 0% and increase according to your needs.
  • Brush Size: Large brushes cover more area so you'll rarely need to use tiny brushes.
  • Shape Dynamics: Pen Pressure should still be off during this phase.
Study skin to understand blending in Photoshop
One of the best ways to master blending is to study skin. Use soft brushes for the center of the face, and harder brushes for the edges and details.

Detailing

Digital Paintings are best painted at high resolutions. But the bigger they get, the harder it is to paint details because the file size becomes massive. Try to combat brush lag so that you can paint in those details for the best quality painting.

  • Brush Hardness: Maintain between 60-100% for crisp details.
  • Brush Size: Depends on your painting resolution. Generally speaking, use smaller brushes to help you get into the nooks and crannies of your paintings for better details.
DIgital Painting Details in HIgh Resolution
Even though the left side is the size that your audience will see the final painting at, it's still important to zoom in and use smaller brushes to carve out the details. This is especially important when setting up paintings for printing.

Specialty and Texture Brushes

Everyone loves brush packs. Why draw a bunch of leaves or fur by hand if I have a brush that can do it for me?

The main reasons why you would choose texture and specialty brushes is to either create a certain effect, add texture of course, or simply convenience. You can save a lot of energy and time by using a brush that creates an effect in a matter of seconds.

Texture Brushes for Digital Paintings
Here I used two different brushes for texture. A standard round brush for the hair and random dots, and a chalk brush for the texture on the clothes.

Although specialty brushes are helpful, try not to depend on them too much. Keep the variety going by experimenting with different brush effects.

Don't Forget to Paint With the Eraser Brush

Yes, you read that correctly. You can also paint with the Eraser Tool (E). What I mean by this is that you shouldn't limit your view of an eraser as something that you only need when you make a mistake.

In traditional art, artists use erasers to create highlights in their charcoal or pencil drawings by lifting up the dark color in those areas. The same theory applies to digital painting. If you put too much paint on an area by mistake, switch over to the Eraser Tool (E) and take some of the color away. Another great thing about this is that you can use it to clean up or soften edges depending on the tool's Hardness setting.

Eraser Tool in Adobe Photoshop
You can use the Eraser Tool in two ways. The first way is to completely omit a section, and the second is to gently lift color for a nice effect.

Conclusion

Instead of asking "Which brush should I use?", try asking yourself, "What am I trying to paint?"

The answer to this question will guide you in selecting the right brushes for all your digital paintings.

I hope this has helped you gain a little more confidence working with brushes in Photoshop. For more tutorials and help in this area, feel free to ask me questions in the comments, or check out these tutorials below!

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