1. Design & Illustration
  2. Tools & Tips

Automatically Define Photoshop Brushes by Using Actions

Scroll to top
Read Time: 8 min

In this tutorial we'll see how to automatically define a Photoshop Brush through an Action. Using a shortcut we'll be able to Save a Layer and/or a PSD document into a perfect and clean brush ready to be used in our projects. This Action is useful because it allows you to save time during the definition of a Photoshop Brush and put together a versatile brush collection. Let's see how!



Brushes are incredibly useful when it comes to grunge effects, silhouettes, paint effects, bubbles, stars and more uses. Sometime ago a friend of mine asked me how can I have such a huge collection of Brushes and Shapes in my Photoshop. I thought of the time I spend in saving a PSD or a Layer as a Brush.

Well I don't spend much time on this. This is because I created an Action which transforms a Layer into a Brush and does the job for me, which saves a lot of time.

First, I'll explain to you how to create the Action we're talking about through an example and then I'll show you another sweet application.

For this tutorial I used this nice photo of a set of buttons (thanks nkzs), and some really cool silhouettes uploaded by a mzacha at

Let's start by opening the buttons set in Photoshop and visualize the Actions Panel via Window > Actions (Alt + F9). This panel allows you to record some events and then to apply them by pressing a Shortcut: that's what is called Action (IMO that's awesome). Think of all the work you must do frequently: you can record that process and repeat it...the software does the job for you. Let's see how the Actions Panel works (look at the image below):

  1. Stop button: stop the playing or recording of an action.
  2. Record button: records the actions.
  3. Play button: plays an action
  4. New Folder button: create a new folder to group the same types of actions.
  5. New Action button: creates new action layers.
  6. Delete button: delete an entire action or a step of an action.

There are some Default Actions in Photoshop: if you never opened this Panel do some experiments by just pressing the Play button on an Action. Notice that everything the Action does is also recorded in the History Panel. That could be dangerous because if the Action is very long and includes numerous events, then it's possible that you can't restore your original PSD file to the previous status. Just some suggestions to avoid this:

  • Save the PSD before playing the Action so you can always close the document without saving and reopen it.
  • Duplicate the Layer and apply the Action on that Layer Copy.
  • Create a Snapshot in the History Panel.

These last ones are just useful suggestions to know about Actions, but not really necessary for this particular tutorial.


Step 1

After this short introduction to the Actions Panel, let's begin the real tutorial. Let's suppose that we have a document with many Layers or, such in this case, an image on which we want to create new Brushes. Now, rarely would we need these buttons as Brushes, but I thought this source image was perfect for the exercise and as a demonstration. In this situation the usual path which should allow you to create a New Brush Preset is:

  • Select a button using the Elliptical Marquee Tool.
  • Command + C (to copy it).
  • Command + N (to create a New Document of the same size of the area you just copied).
  • Command + V (to paste it).
  • Go to Edit > Define Brush Presets...
  • Finally close the document without saving (or yes it's up to you ).

Well, let's say you need about one minute to do this procedure for every single Layer that you want to Save as a Brush: it's too much time! In the next steps we will record this definition of a new Brush and we'll be able to apply it to every Layer we'll want now and in the future.


Step 2

Before recording our Action we need to isolate one button, just as a dummy object, nothing more (you could also use a white Layer). Using the Elliptical Marquee Tool select one button, then Command + J to duplicate it here in this document directly on a New Layer.


Step 3

Now in the Actions Panel create a New Set (Special Actions) click on New Action, name it Auto-Brush and choose your favorite shortcut (I choose F11) and then click Record in this Dialog Box. From now on take care with what you're doing since everything is being recorded: if you make a mistake press the Stop button, Delete the unwanted step(s) and then click the Record button again to restart recording the Action. Proceed carefully!


Step 4

Right-click on the Layer's thumbnail (button) and Convert it To Smart Object. Yes that is a Smart Object: we can Open it a New Document which is the exact Size and Resolution of the button's Layer by Double-Clicking on its thumbnail. The opened document is "button.psb". Often check if you're really recording!


Step 5

Now this step is optional: apply an Auto Levels adjustment to adjust the contrast pressing Command + Shift + L. Since the Brush will be in greyscale, it's important to have the maximum contrast to obtain a better definition of the stroke and the image details.


Step 6

Now go to Edit > Define Brush Preset... and call it Auto Brush, then click OK. Why Auto Brush? Because we're recording an Action which is generic so also the name of the Brush has to work with that. Finally close "button.psb" without saving (Just click NO in the Dialog Box). If you applied the Auto Levels it's very important not to Save because we don't want to modify the original Layer.


Step 7

Right-Click on the Layer's name and choose Rasterize Layer. The Layer is exactly as it was before. Finally Click on the Stop button in the Actions palette.


Step 8

We have a new Brush in our set! Now imagine a normal situation which you're working on a document full of dozens of Layers. Let's imagine that we want to Save as Brushes some of those Layers. Now with this Action it becomes quick and easy.


Step 9

For example let's suppose we're working on these gears and chains and we want to save some of these gears and elements as brushes because we think they can be useful in the future. So we should: Create a New Document of the same size of the gear we want to save, drag it inside the New Document, save it as a Brush, name it, and close the Document.

Do you really feel you want to do that more than once? I'd skip and not save anything as a Brush because it's time consuming. But with this new Action we just created just press F11 and a Layer become a Brush! Perfect and so fast! Think about all the Layers you just touch during a project: everything can be saved as a Brush quickly.

If you're asking yourself: "Why not just going to Edit > Define Brush Preset? Why do I need this Action?" Well it's because everything behind it will be saved within the Brush...and that's bad! It is absolutely necessary to isolate the Layer or you'll just have a big Brush with all your document inside and not the Layer alone!


Step 10

We created these gear Brushes in seconds. If we change our mind we can always erase a Brush from the set by Alt-clicking on the unwanted Brush. A pair of mini scissors appears and we can erase one. I strongly suggest to do this frequently to keep your library clean. If you get used to this Action you'll have an outstanding set of Brushes in a very short time, without any waste of time while working on your projects.


Step 11

Another advantage of using an Action is that we can apply it to a Batch of stuff. Let's suppose that we have some of mzacha' silhouettes opened in Photoshop. Each one in a single document. Let's see a fast way to Save them all as Brushes in a few clicks, while avoiding clicking F11 for every document. Yes, because we're lazy (I mean efficient).


Step 12

The fastest way is to use the Automate Tool is to go to File > Automate > Batch.


Step 13

We just need to apply these settings and...



done!! A lot of new Brushes added to our collection!! But I want to underline that this Action is mostly useful while working: saving new Brushes is so fast and easy! By just opening images in PS, and then Automating the Auto Brush Action, it will save you a lot of time.

If you want to apply actions to other activities you do in Photoshop, then review the tutorial "Batch Editing and Automated Processing in Photoshop" here on Psdtuts+

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Design & Illustration tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Start your 7-day free trial*
Start free trial
*All Individual plans include a 7-day free trial for new customers; then chosen plan price applies. Cancel any time.