Create a Set of Art Brushes You Can Use to Make a Linocut-style Illustration

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
Learn how to create a completely vector illustration that has the look of a handmade linocut or woodcut, in Adobe Illustrator.
To find out even more about brushes in Adobe Illustrator, check out my course Mastering Brushes in Illustrator, here on Tuts+.
When creating a linocut print, artists use special tools to carve designs into a linoleum block. The raised (uncarved) areas of the block form the image. The carved linoleum block is covered with ink, then printed onto paper or fabric. Because the artist removes material from the block to create the image, this is called a "subtractive" or "reductive" process.
linocut tools
Typical linocut tools – knives, chisels and gouges
A linoleum block (below) and the resulting print. Credit: Flickr user Collierwilson
We want to mimic the shapes of the cuts that a gouge tool makes. Then we'll use those shapes as the basis for a set of Art Brushes. To create the shapes, choose the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and double-click it to bring up its options.
Input the settings shown below. Note: If you are not using a graphics tablet, the Pressure setting will not be available. Don't worry, you can still create the shapes. An "Accurate" Fidelity setting will result in more detailed and rougher shapes, which is desirable for a hand-carved look. The Variation in size will allow you to draw a stroke that varies in size,  depending on the amount of pressure you use with your graphics pen.
Blob Brush Options
The Blob Brush Options dialog. Yours may look slightly different, depending on the version of Illustrator you are using.
Draw three or four strokes with the Blob Brush Tool, pressing down harder on one end and using a lighter touch at the other (if using a graphics tablet), resulting in a tapered shape. If using a mouse, double back on one end to make the resulting shape thicker. You can also adjust individual points to modify the final shapes. The Blob Brush is not technically a brush, but it's great for quickly drawing loose vector shapes.
blob brush shapes
The shapes will be the basis for a set of Art Brushes.
Select one of the shapes you just created, then click the New Brush icon at the bottom of the Brushes panel. Alternately, you can drag the object into the panel.
new brush
Select an object and click the New Brush icon
Choose Art Brush as the type.
In the dialog box, give your new brush a name, then enter the following settings: The Width can be set to Pressure if you're using a tablet, or left at Fixed if using a mouse. If set to Pressure, you can vary the width based on the percentages you choose in the two sliders. Choose Stretch to Fit Stroke Length in the next section. Below that, make sure the directional arrow begins with the wide part of the shape and ends at the narrow part. Lastly, set the Colorization method to Hue Shift. This is important, because we will be changing the color of the brushes in a later step. (For more on how Colorization works.)
art brush options
Repeat Steps 3 and 4 with the other shapes to create more Art Brushes.
We'll now create a thin brush to look like it was carved with a v-shaped gouge. Choose the Line Segment Tool (\) and draw out a horizontal line. Increase its weight to about 4 points. From the drop-down menu in the Control Bar, choose Width Profile 3. You can also access width profiles from the Stroke panel.
width profile
Choose a Width profile to create a sharp gouged brush
Create a new Art Brush from this new stroke, as you did in Steps 3 and 4.
Keep this stroke selected and apply a Roughen effect by going to the Effect menu to Distort & Transform> Roughen. Enter the settings below.
roughen settings
Once again, drag this object into the Brushes panel to create a new Art Brush. At this point, your Brushes panel should look something like the image below:
brushes panel
So far, we have six Art Brushes
Many linocuts have marks in the negative space. That is, the area around the main subject matter. We can simulate this effect with a few more Art Brushes. Using the Pen Tool (P), draw some simple shapes like the ones in the image below:
negative space brushes
Create simple shapes like this, then turn them into Art Brushes to use in the negative space of the illustration.
As before, create new Art Brushes from these shapes.
Unlike a real printmaker, we don't have to make each mark by hand. We can create Art Brushes that contain multiple strokes, and use them to apply texture to larger sections of our illustration. Using the Blob Brush, Pen Tool or any other drawing tools you prefer, create a few groups containing multiple objects. Then create Art Brushes as before. Below are some examples:
texture brushes
Each one of these groups will be turned into Art Brushes and used to apply texture to the illustration.
Let's create one more Art Brush, for a lighter texture. Start by double-clicking the Pencil Tool (N) to bring up its options. Use a fairly smooth setting, and click the Fill new pencil strokes option.
pencil tool options
Now draw out several quick, simple strokes. Drag this group to the Brushes panel to create another Art Brush
pencil strokes
When you set the Pencil Tool Options to Fill new strokes, you can quickly create shapes like this.
Your Brushes panel should now look something like this:
brushes panel with art brushes
The Art Brushes
Relief prints, such as linocuts and woodcuts, can only produce one solid color at a time. There is no way to get a tint or shade of a color in a one-color print. To create highlights, relief printmakers use crosshatching, or a series of small, repeating strokes. For this technique, we'll create some Pattern Brushes.

Draw a few pencils strokes as you did in Step 13 above, but this time, make them vertical.
vertical pencil strokes
Take the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and connect the pencil strokes at the bottom. The result is one shape, as in the image below:
connect the strokes
Use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift+B) to connect the Pencil strokes, forming one object
If we were to use this shape as it is to create a Pattern Brush, there would be space between the individual components:
pattern brush not so good
The spacing between the objects is undesirable
To fix this, draw a rectangle around the shape, and trim off a clean line on the bottom and sides. The quickest way to do this is by using the Shape Builder Tool (Shift-M). Hold down the Option key (Mac) or Alt key (Windows), and remove the excess.
shape builder tool
Draw a rectangle then trim off the excess using the Shape Builder Tool (Shift+M)
Just as you did with the Art Brushes, select the object and click the New Brush icon at the bottom of the Brushes panel. Or just drag the object into the panel.
The Pattern Brush Options should look something like the image below. You only have to concern yourself with the Side Tile (highlighted). Tick Stretch to fit, and be sure to use Hue Shift as the Colorization method.
pattern brush options
Optional: In Illustrator CC and later, you can choose automated corner tiles for Outer and Inner Corner Tiles. We probably won't be using too many right angles in the illustration, so if you're using an earlier version of Illustrator, don't worry about it.
automated corner tiles
Illustrator CC can automatically generate corner tiles for your Pattern Brushes.
Now that you've put a lot of time into creating all these brushes, you can save them to use in any Illustrator document. Click the flyout menu on the top right of the Brushes panel and choose Save Brush Library. You will then be taken to the Brushes folder inside the Adobe Illustrator folder, where you can give the set a name and save it. It will save as a native Illustrator (.ai) file
save brushes
When you want to use these brushes in another document, click the Brush Libraries Menu at the bottom of the Brushes panel, or click the flyout menu at the top right, and choose Open Brush Library > User Defined, then choose your brushes.
open brush library
Since a linocut is a reductive process, I'm going to start with a black shape, then apply the brushes in white, so they look cut out of the black. The remaining black areas will "print."
I'm using this Creative Commons photo as a reference. You can of course use your own photo or sketch. Draw a simple branch shape, using the Pen Tool (P). Even though my reference photo does not have a branch, I'm going to add one for more visual interest. Make another path that follows the top edge of the branch shape. This will be the highlight.
branch shape
Draw a simple branch shape, plus a single path for the highlight.
Select the highlight path and apply the Pattern Brush to it by clicking its thumbnail in the Brushes panel. Change to stroke color to white.
branch highlight
Apply the Pattern Brush to the path and change its color to white to create a highlight.
If the stroke is too big or too small, you can change its point size in the Stroke panel. Alternately, you can click the Options of Selected Object icon at the bottom of the Brushes panel and change its size from there. This lets you fine tune the appearance of the selected path.
option of selected object
stroke options
Adjust the size of the selected object to fine tune the appearance of the path.
You may be wondering why we didn't just create white brushes to begin with, rather than having to change the color to white. Simply because it's very difficult to see white brushes in the Brushes panel. In fact, if you prefer a lighter user interface, you would not be able to see them at all!
white brushes
White brushes are only barely visible in the Brushes panel when using a dark interface. With a light interface, they cannot be seen at all.
Important: If you are unable to change the color of the stroke, you do not have the correct Colorization method selected in your Brush Options. Double-click the brush in the Brushes panel and select Hue Shift as the method.
Draw two more paths inside the branch shape. Apply one of the texture brushes to give a woody texture. If necessary, adjust the scale of each path. Keep it simple. The finished branch is below.
branch done
Draw two more paths and apply Art Brushes for texture.
Draw a silhouette of the bird. Fill it with black. You can do this quickly, using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) or Pencil Tool (N). It doesn't have to be precise, because we're going for a hand-drawn look. Lock the silhouette shape.
Draw a loose silhouette of the bird.
Just as you did with the branch, draw a line for the highlight of each leg. Adjust the scale of the stroke if need be. In the example below, the width of the stroke is 0.5 point, and the scale (in the Stroke Options) is about 90%. Note: To change the scale to an absolute value, you'll have to choose Fixed from the Scale drop-down menu.
bird legs
Start adding some white strokes to the head of the bird. Remember to think like a printmaker: By adding white strokes in Illustrator, it's as if you're removing sections of the black shape to create white (non-printing) areas of the print.
bird head
Adding white strokes in Illustrator is like scraping away black sections of the linoleum block in printmaking.
Using some of the texture brushes you created in Section 1, Step 12, draw some strokes inside the wings. We're not trying to draw every single feather here, but just create a nice texture.
wing texture
Use a simpler brush on the lower sections of the wing, where the feathers are longer.
wing section
Here's the wing in Outline mode:
wing outline
It doesn't take very many strokes to create the wing texture.
For the tail feathers, use the Pattern Brush we created in Section 3. You can use the Width Tool (Shift-W) on any kind of stroke, including Pattern Brushes. In the image below, I am making the top of the stroke wider:
width tool
Using the Width Tool (Shift+W), drag the handles at the top end of the stroke to make it wider.
Here I've used the Width Tool to make the other end of the stroke more narrow. After you adjust the width, you can add more points to the stroke to make it follow the contour of the feather shape.
width tool
As you did in Step 4 above, draw some textured strokes for the breast feathers. Try not to make all the strokes look alike. You can click the Options of Selected Object icon on the Brushes panel, then tick the Flip Across button for a different look.
breast feather options
Adjust the options of individual strokes to get some variation in appearance.
Add some of the lighter texture brushes to the upper part of the breast.
lighter strokes
Use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) to paint a white area near the top of the breast.
blob brush
Add some black strokes around the outline of the bird, to break up the smooth surface of the silhouette.
black strokes
Using the negative space brushes you made in Section 1, Step 10, add some strokes around the outside of the bird. This will add some "process marks" and give the illustration a more handmade look.
process marks
Adding tiny marks around the outside of the bird give a more handmade look.
Now we'll add a watercolor wash to the bird's breast. Click the Brush Libraries Menu icon at the bottom of the Brushes panel. Navigate to Artistic> Artistic_Watercolor.
brush libraries
Paint a loose, curved stroke with a thick watercolor brush. Make the stroke color Orange.
watercolor wash
Experiment with the stroke weight. You'll find that a thicker stroke gives a more abstract effect. Change the Blending Mode to Multiply in the Transparency panel.
stroke weight
Increase the stroke weight and change the Blend Mode to Multiply.
Copy (Command-C) this watercolor stroke and Paste in Front (Command-F) three or four times for a more saturated look.
watercolor saturation
Copy the watercolor stroke and paste in front several times to increase the saturation.
Using the Rectangle Tool (M), draw a rectangle around the illustration where you want to crop it. Copy the rectangle. Select All and go to the Object menu to Clipping Mask> Make.
clipping mask
Paste the rectangle you just copied in front. Apply any of the linocut brushes to create a frame around your "print". Add some more small marks around the edges and in the negative space for a more authentic look.
The final "linocut print," with frame.
Now that you've built and saved the set of linocut brushes, you can use them to create similar illustrations. Just remember to think like a printmaker and remove the non-printing areas with white brushes. Working with vector brushes in this way has an advantage over traditional media: you have complete control over the vector paths, and you don't get your hands dirty!


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