The Brush Tool is the most important tool for a digital artist, but it's also one of the trickiest ones. When you're just starting, you get this feeling that you need a separate brush for every effect you want. The default brushes in Photoshop don't seem too useful for this purpose, but professional artists often share their palettes, so you can always download something more powerful.
The problem is that the more complicated the brush, the harder it is to use it properly. And if you observed these professionals at work, you'd see they use a simple round or slightly textured brush most of the time. You could give them this default brush set and they'd still paint a beautiful artwork with it. Why can't you?
Using Photoshop is not really about "pressing buttons" and waiting for the program to do something for us. You can't just take a brush, try to paint something with it, and search for a new brush when you fail. This isn't about brushes, but about the person who's using them!
In this tutorial I'll show you how to create a basic set of brushes. It will be smaller than the default set, and definitely less confusing. I'll also show you how to use them in the process of creating a detailed artwork. This way you'll understand how to create freely, without trying new brushes all the time.
1. Create a Textured Brush for Sketchy Ideas
Before we start, open the brush menu (where you select your sets) and click Reset Brushes. Don't forget to save your current set before this!
Create a New File. Take the Polygon Tool and set Sides to 3. Then draw a black triangle with it.
Create a New Layer. Draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (U) in Pixel mode.
Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Select Gaussian and drag the slider to the maximum.
Clip the noise rectangle to the triangle with Control-Alt-G.
Resize the noise layer with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to make the white areas more apparent.
Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. We're going to use it as a part of our more complex brush, so don't worry about the name.
Go to Brush Settings (F5). Select Chalk from the list of default brushes. Set its size to 30.
Select Transfer, Noise, and Smoothing.
Check Dual Brush. Find our triangle on the list and select it. Then set its options as shown below:
Save the brush by hitting the white card icon. Name it Texture Sketch.
This is my favorite brush, a very universal one. It's chaotic and precise at the same time. You can use it in the first stage of drawing to sketch an idea before even realizing what you're drawing. Starting a picture with a loose sketch is the best way to create something out of nothing, without planning, which makes the result more natural.
2. Create a Brush for Detailed Sketches
Select the Hard Round brush. Change its Size and Spacing, and check Transfer.
That's all! Save the brush with the name Sketch Detail and test it.
This brush is best used as a normal pencil. The less confident you are, the more transparent the lines, meaning the mistakes are easy to fix. It feels very comfortable and natural, and it's great for detailed sketches.
3. Create a Brush for Blocking Shapes and Lighting
Create a New File and use the Polygon Tool with 6 sides to draw a hexagon. Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset.
Go to Brush Settings and set the Spacing to 1%. Use a big Size.
Check Transfer. Make the Opacity dependent upon Pen Pressure.
Save the brush as Block.
This brush is big and bulky, so it's impossible to paint details with it. Which is just what we want! It's great for blocking shapes or defining light and shadow areas. It's hard, but at the same time it allows a subtle blending.
A Blending Tip
A lot of brush sets have a "blending brush". It's used to hide borders between colors and shades. However, it's important to understand that blending is all about details! If you shade your creature and then blend the shading with something soft, you automatically make the surface smooth as plastic. When painting non-smooth objects, don't blend with a big brush. Instead, use the Texture Sketch brush to paint big details by picking the colors/shades from both sides of every border.
And don't worry if this phase takes a lot of time. This is normal!
4. Create a Brush for Inking, Sharp Details, and Clipping Masks
Once again select the Hard Round brush. Make it smaller and smoother.
Check Shape Dynamics and make the size dependent upon Pen Pressure.
Save the brush as Ink.
The purpose of this brush is quite obvious. You can draw clean line art with it, or define a hard outline without half-transparent spots. Here I've used it to erase the area outside the bird by painting with the brush on Layer Mask. This brush is perfect when you're sure about what you're drawing and you don't want any surprises or even creative mistakes.
5. Create a Brush for Coloring and Masking
Select the Soft Round brush. Make it quite big, and make sure Shape Dynamics is turned off.
Select Transfer. Make it active only for Flow.
Save it as Soft.
This brush is present in every set, but it's not really as useful as beginners tend to think. You can use it for blending on a Layer Mask, selecting in Quick Mask Mode (Q), and coloring.
In my case I've used a copy of the base to create a Clipping Mask for the colors, set the Blend Mode of the grayscale layer to Multiply, and painted the colors below. It makes nice gradual changes between tones. If you want to color some part separately, select it using the Lasso Tool (L) or by making a mask. It will give you a more natural effect than coloring with a harder brush.
A Coloring Tip
You can easily change the colors of light and shadow with Blending Options, without selecting these areas manually. Duplicate (Control-J) the grayscale layer twice and put the copies above it. Use Control-B to make the first of them yellow, and then double click it and make the dark areas transparent by adjusting the Blend If slider. Then change the Blend Mode to Soft Light.
Do the same with the other copy, this time regarding shadow. Make it blue, hide bright areas, and set the Blend Mode to Hue.
6. Create a Brush for Details
This will be easy—we'll just create a modification of the Texture Sketch brush. Select it, and then check Pen Pressure and make its size variable.
Save it as a new brush, Rendering.
This brush feels small, no matter which size you choose. This way you're forced to draw details with it instead of covering big areas, which is the number one reason for flat objects.
Use this brush on a separate layer. Pick colors from the illuminated area, make them brighter, and paint fine details there. Don't paint these details in the shadow!
Then create a New Layer, again pick the colors and make them brighter, but this time paint on the opposite side. Leave a dark area between the main light and this secondary light. Use Control-B to make these details bluer, and lower the Opacity.
When your main work is done, you can find additional applications for the brushes. For example, you can create a brightening outline with the Ink brush...
... and a glow below the creature with the Soft brush to make it stand out.
7. Make Your Basic Brush Set More Accessible
These are the brushes you should use the most. You can have hundreds of others, but you'll probably use them occasionally. This is why this set should be more accessible and easy to find.
To have all these basic brushes within your reach, you can save them as Tool Presets. Open this panel by going to Window > Tool Presets. Then remove the default ones.
Select a brush from the palette and click the white card icon. Give the preset a name and hit OK.
Do the same with every brush you want to have on this quick-access list. Now, even if you load another set of brushes to the right-click palette, these will stay with you! You can finally keep your specialized brushes in separate sets, loading only the one you need at the moment, without losing the basic ones.
Awesome Work, You're Now Done!
Now you have your basic set of brushes that you actually know how to use! Of course, it doesn't mean you are not allowed to use anything more, but I suggest you stick to them for the learning phase. In this case less is more!
Believe me—all professional artists have this basic set of three to ten brushes they use 90% of the time, and these sets are nearly identical for all of them! Don't run in circles trying to find a perfect set for you; just master the one you already have.
Just to summarize it all:
- Texture Sketch: elusive ideas, creativity-inducing scribbles, "sculpting" shading, big details, fur, fluffy feathers, natural textures
- Sketch Detail: sketching, planning, erasing, deliberate details
- Block: blocking big shapes, planning values, general lighting
- Ink: fine details, line arts, deliberate lines, cleaning up, "hard" (non-blending) color, outlines
- Soft: creating masks, coloring, smooth surfaces
- Rendering: texture details
Give this set a chance. Practice, have fun, and feel free to modify the brushes to make them fit your style.