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Design

Quick Tip: Painting With Hard vs. Soft Brushes in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
Quick Tip: How to Blend With the Brush Tool for Digital Paintings
Quick Tip: Painting With Layer Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop

To know digital painting at any level, you need to know the best workflow while using the software. In today's quick tip, we'll tackle Hard vs. Soft Brushes in Adobe Photoshop. I'll show you the difference between the two, and the common painting scenarios that work best for each brush.

But I Can Already Draw...

Naturally, if you can draw on paper you should be able to paint in Photoshop, right?

Well, not really.

I've seen many great traditional artists struggle when transitioning to a digital medium. And the truth is, digital painting requires more than just basic drawing principles. It requires a complete understanding of the software you use and the limitless potential of its tools.

You see, to paint digitally you must reprogram your mindset into believing that you can change your painting at any time. Once you get to know the tools better, this realization truly comes to fruition.

Hard vs. Soft Brushes

Hard Versus Soft Brushes in Photoshop

So what are hard and soft brushes? Well, the Hardness of a brush directly pertains to how crisp the edges are. The more you increase the Hardness percentage, the cleaner the brush stroke. For a more diffused edge, simply decrease the Hardness.

Opacity also plays an important role in defining the Hard or Soft nature of a Standard Round Brush. The higher the Opacity, the more paint you're applying.

These are the settings that I consider for a Hard or Soft Brush.

Hard Brushes

  • 50–100% Hardness
  • 50–100% Opacity

Soft Brushes

  • 0–50% Hardness
  • 0–50% Opacity

You'll notice that there is a happy medium where the brush's edges aren't too much of either extreme. 50% Hardness becomes a great setting to paint in many details without worrying about the brush edges being too soft.

To show you which settings work best according to different painting scenarios, let's take a look at these examples.

Sketches

Let's start with the sketch. Sketches should always be made with a Hard Brush—typically at around 100% Hardness. Sometimes you'll see artists adjust settings for a more tapered end, but this option just allows the brush strokes to have a traditional feel, like a normal pencil sketch.

By keeping the brush edges solid, your sketches will always be nice and tidy.

A Sketch Made with a Hard Brush

In contrast, a Softer Brush will make it harder for you to notice certain details, especially because the diffused edges will cause areas to blend together. 

Sketches Made with Soft Brushes

Blocking in Colors

When artists "block in colors", they are setting the general color scheme or tonal value to their painting. Usually this process involves using a Hard Round Brush (50–100% Hardness) to lay the colors onto the sketch first.

Then they follow up by blending with a Soft Round Brush (0–50% Hardness).

Blocking in Colors with a Hard Brush

In this same scenario, if you start out with a Soft Round Brush you'll notice that the colors will muddy up together. You'll also have to spend more time applying many layers of colors just to get the same effect as a Hard Round Brush.

Blocking in Colors with a Soft Brush

Not only that, but most things in nature have some texture or weight to them. And it's much harder to convey this idea when you're only painting with a Soft Brush.

So think of digital painting like building a beautiful sculpture. Carve out the essentials with a Hard Brush first, and then smooth out whatever is necessary with a Soft Brush.

Finishing Details

Visually, a piece of cotton and a diamond stone are two very different textures. But most details you paint will need some form of a crisp edge—like a diamond stone.

Increase Hardness and Opacity for Finishing Details

Whenever you see yourself getting close to the finish line, kick the Hardness and Opacity up a couple notches. Use a heavier, more solid brush to paint in those final details.

So Basically, I Should Only Use a Hard Brush?

No, but you definitely want to be way more comfortable painting with a Hard Brush versus a Soft Brush. Consider the Soft Brush as a sidekick that helps polish everything up for the Hard Brush. Try to find a happy medium (literally, 50% Hardness) and always adjust according to what's right for the painting.

Hard vs. Soft Brush Mental Checklist

If you're experiencing problems and you feel like your painting just doesn't look right, it might be the brush edge. Keep a mental checklist as a reminder of what kind of details work best under these settings.

Hard Brushes Are Great For:

  • nature: general landscape and details like grass, rocks, trees, etc.
  • clothing and accessories
  • general face features
  • hair
  • shaping any other organic or inorganic materials

Soft Brushes Are Great For:

  • nature: the sky, clouds, smoke, fog, etc.
  • creating smooth skin
  • polishing textures
  • general blending (after color blocking)

Depth of Perception

The only other time you might use Soft Brushes heavily is when dealing with Depth of Perception. Depth of perception is that really cool effect where objects seem either closer or farther away from us according to which details are blurred.

Use Gaussian Blur Instead of Soft Brushes for Depth of Perception

But honestly, you can get away with this same effect by utilizing other tools, like Gaussian Blur. Don't worry, we'll cover incorporating different tools into your digital painting workflow in another lesson!

Conclusion

To succeed with your digital paintings, pay attention to the basics. Most of the headache you'll encounter can be easily managed by simply adjusting a tool's setting. Always try to take a break often so you can see your work with fresh eyes, and allow your paintings to tell you exactly what they need. Good luck!

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