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Create a Painterly Apple with Illustrator CS5’s new Bristle Brush

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Read Time: 9 min

The new Bristle Brush in Illustrator CS5 gives you the best of both worlds: The painterly effects of real media and the control and flexibility of a vector drawing. We'll use another new feature in CS5, the "Draw Inside" drawing mode, which will let us do what every artist likes to do — color outside the lines. Let's get started!

Step 1

A photographic reference is not absolutely necessary; you can use a sketch or just draw from life. But it can help when adding highlights and shadows, and you can sample color from it. Plus, you get to eat your subject after you're done! Place the photo in your document by going to File > Place. (Photo by Sergii Rodymenko)

Step 2

We'll sample some color from the apple photo with the Eyedropper tool and make a new color group. Draw a series of small squares. Select the first one, then click the Eyedropper on the lightest yellow part of the apple. The square will fill with that yellow. Select the next square and click on a darker yellow. It will speed things up to select the Eyedropper first, then hold down the Command key (PC: Control) to select the next square, then release to get back to the Eyedropper and sample the next color. You can get a rhythm going.

Do this a few more times with the reds, and then the stem. Select all the squares, and click the New Color Group icon at the bottom of the swatches panel. Choose "Selected Artwork" as the source, and name the group if you like. This method, of creating squares and filling them, is much faster than sampling, then dragging the swatch from the Color panel into the Swatches panel, then repeating that ten times.

Step 3

Lock the apple layer and add a new one above it. You can now trace the outline of the apple with the Pen tool, or to speed things up a bit, try this: Draw an ellipse (L) about the size of the apple. Now take the Warp tool (they've hidden it under the new Width tool) and push the path so that it conforms to the shape of the apple. Don't worry about the stem for now. Tip: Adjust the size and aspect ratio of the tool by holding down the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging.

Step 4

To access the different drawing modes (Normal, Behind and Inside), click their respective icons at the bottom of the Tool panel. If you prefer to arrange your tools in a single column, there's a flyout menu there. You can also press Shift + D to cycle between the modes.

Select the apple shape, then choose Draw Inside. The shape will now have dotted-lined corners around it to indicate that this is the clipping object. Draw Inside essentially makes a clipping mask from the object before you draw. Whereas in earlier versions, you might draw some objects, then place another object on top to make a clipping mask, Draw Inside lets you work more intuitively, and see your clipped items in real time. As with a regular clipping mask, it can be released by going to Object > Clipping Mask > Release, or by using the keyboard shortcut Command + Option + 7 (PC: Control + Alt + 7).

Step 5

Now we're ready to paint. Leave the apple layer turned on, and move the outline object to the side, so you can see the photo for reference. If you're the type of person who likes to dive right in to a new feature, read on. If you'd like to familiarize yourself with the tools more before proceeding, jump to the "Tips" section at the end of this post, then come back to Step 5.

Create a new Bristle Brush by clicking the New Brush icon at the bottom of the Brushes panel. Choose Bristle as the type, then select the Round Fan. We want to go for a light wash effect, so make the size 10mm and adjust the opacity to somewhat transparent.

Now just start drawing strokes on the yellow part of the apple. This will be the "underpainting". Since Bristle Brushes contain transparency, it is possible to build up nice layers of texture. Note that different brush strokes will interact in this way, but if you just use one brush and scrub back and forth, it wont build up. In other words, a single brush stroke does not interact with itself.

Step 6

Choose a darker yellow and keep building up the tone. Switch to a light orange and begin painting in the reddish areas. To increase or decrease the brush diameter, press the left and right bracket keys.

Step 7

Feel free to "color outside the lines." Since you're drawing inside the apple shape, it's easy to add darker strokes to the edge of the shape, to give the apple some dimension. Just paint slightly outside the apple's path, so that just a little bit of the brush stroke shows through. Continue painting in the reds. If you want a darker stroke, you can change the opacity on the fly by using the numeric keys: 1 for 10%, 2 for 20% and so on.

Note: You can double-click any Bristle Brush in the Brushes panel to edit it. If the brush you are changing is already in use in your file, you'll get this warning. Unless you want every brush stoke to update with your changes, click "Leave Strokes" to leave the existing brush strokes unchanged.

Step 8

At this point, you might want to change the stroke on the apple outline to none, to get a better idea of how the final image will look. If you simply click on the object with the Selection tool, you won't be able to modify the stroke, since you'll be selecting the clipping mask and its contents. Use the Direct Selection tool (white arrow) to carefully select the outline and change its color to none.

Step 9

Once the color is modeled to your liking, add some highlights. Paint with white in the highlight areas. Again, you can paint outside the lines of the apple shape.

Step 10

Create a new Bristle Brush (or modify an existing one) that's smaller and denser for the part of the apple surrounding the stem. Choose a brownish color and paint a few strokes going from the center top to the edges of the apple.

Step 11

Use the same thinner brush to dab some dots on the apple with a lighter yellow color. Adjust the size and/or opacity as needed, using the keyboard shortcuts.

Step 12

Once the apple is finished, create the stem in the same way. Draw an outline of the stem with the Pen tool, then choose Draw Inside as the drawing mode, and paint with various shades of brown. Important: Be sure you are finished with the apple before proceeding. Once a different object is targeted for Draw Inside, the previous one loses that capability.

Step 13

Because all of the Bristle Brush strokes are vector paths, they can be modified just like any other path. Here's where you can fine tune your illustration. Use the Direct Selection tool to select individual paths. You can change each path's opacity (in the Transparency panel), color or size (even though Bristle Brushes only go up to 10mm, you can change the stroke size in the Stroke panel). Changing the size in the Stroke panel can lead to some happy surprises and a more painterly effect.

Since the brush strokes don't always fall exactly along the path, it may be difficult to tell what stroke is actually selected. Switch to Outline mode to more easily select strokes, and view the Transparency panel to get the thumbnail preview of the selected stroke.

Step 14

Add a shadow and background. For the shadow, I started with an ellipse, then applied a Fan Bristle brush to it. Again, since it's a vector path, you can adjust the width and shape of the path to get a painterly effect to match that of the apple. I added a couple of strokes with the "Ink Splats" Art Brush to add to the overall painterly look.


Vector drawing that resembles natural media. Who would have thought? But the Bristle Brush has something that traditional painting — and raster painting for that matter — doesn't have: The ability to modify individual strokes, as with any vector path, without loss of quality. So splash some paint around to your heart's content!


In order to get the most out of the Bristle Brush, it's best to understand the brush settings. It's also important to note that to get the full benefit of the Bristle Brush, you must use a Wacom Intuous 3 or higher tablet and an 6D Art pen. The tablet and pen combination will respond to tilt, bearing, rotation, and pressure. A mouse alone will only respond to movement. I'm just using a mouse for this tutorial.

View the Brushes panel (F5). Click the new brush icon at the bottom, and choose Bristle Brush in the dialog that appears. Now you have quite a lot of options. Let's break it down:

  • Name: Self-explanatory.
  • Shape: There are 10 styles. Each one attempts to mimic a real-life brush.
  • Size: This is the diameter of the brush. When you buy brushes in an art supply store, their size is measured at the point where the bristles meet the handle, so this measurement refers to that. Use the slider to change, or enter numerals from 1mm to 10mm.
  • Bristle Length: Measured from the bristle tip to the point where the bristles meet the handle.
  • Bristle Density: Has to do with the number of bristles in a brush. 1% is basically one bristle, but unlike a real-life brush, that one bristle will be the diameter of the brush as it is set in the Size field.
  • Bristle Thickness: Use the slider or enter numbers in the field.
  • Paint Opacity: 1% is translucent and 100% is opaque.
  • Stiffness: I like to think of Stiffness as the "squirly-ness" of the brush. That is, the lower the stiffness, the less the stroke will conform to the path you actually draw. This can be good for random strokes and surprises.

Keyboard shortcuts

Pressing the bracket keys ( [ and ] ) while painting decreases and increases the brush size, respectively.

Use the number keys while painting to set the opacity:

  • 1 = 10%
  • 4 = 40%
  • 0 = 100% etc.

If you type two numbers rapidly, 2 then 8, for example, the opacity it set to 28%.

The best way to become familiar with the Bristle Brush is to experiment. First create a brush. It will now be listed in the Brushes panel. Paint a simple stroke. Now double-click on the brush thumbnail in the panel to open the dialog box. Click the Preview button and make changes to the brush settings. Choose a different type of brush and watch how it affects your stroke.

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