Digital Painting 101: Get to Know the Brush Panel


Are you new to digital painting? Today we're going to go over basic features in Adobe Photoshop's Brush panel to introduce you to this incredible medium. Learn the essentials before becoming a master, or use these tips to refresh your memory.

Get to Know the Brush Panel in Photoshop

Let's name it, "Jack". Every digital artist needs a Jack in their life. In fact, without Jack digital paintings just wouldn't be the same. I mean, imagine walking around life knowing you only had one brush to work with. No give or fancy textures—just a plain, boring brush.
Sounds pretty devastating if you ask me.
Well, I do too. But have you ever felt limited by traditional art? For many years I felt like no matter what I made, nothing turned out the way I imagined. That is, at least, until I started digitally painting.
You see, Jack's got a lot going for him, but when people first meet him they're often intimidated, especially traditional artists. They find him tricky and complicated, even finicky at times. They think there's no way in the world they'll ever understand a Brush panel like Jack. 

Jack the brush panel is very very sad

... Keep it together Jack.
In Digital Painting 101, we're going to battle all your concerns head on. Because if you're truly interested in digital art, half the battle is simply getting to know the software. 
Let's meet Jack's friend, "Bob,"—the Pen Tablet

Bob the Pen Tablet

Now these two are pretty close—you could even call them "besties." They go hand in hand in creating some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen. And even though digital artists can certainly make do without the likes of Jack and Bob, it's never a bad thing to have a little extra help. 
If you want to be successful with your digital paintings, you should definitely get to know your Brush panel. After all, Jack's pretty cool.
Here are some of the top features you need to know:
First things first. For your own convenience, memorize these keyboard shortcuts:
  • Hit F5 for the Brush panel.
  • Hitting B on the keyboard selects the Brush Tool.
  • Hit D to paint with the Default Foreground and Background Colors (Black and White)
  •  or ]  to Decrease or Increase the Brush Size (respectively).
  • { or } (Shift-[ or Shift-]) to Decrease or Increase the Brush Hardness.
  • Holding Alt while the Brush Tool (B) is selected will bring up the Eyedropper Tool (used for blending).
  • Right-click while the Brush Tool (B) is selected to bring up a mini panel forBrush Presets as well as Size/Hardness.
Generally speaking, the main brushes you use are all just some variation of theStandard Round Brush. Unlike the boring, static brush I mentioned in the beginning, the Standard Round Brush can be customized to your painting needs.

Photoshop Standard Round Brush

By changing the settings you create an infinite amount of painting possibilities with just one brush.
Brush Presets is the home for all your brushes. Apart from the Standard Round Brush, Photoshop also includes a variety of shapes and textures for you to enjoy.

Photoshop Brush Presets

Brush Tip Shape is where to find the main settings for your brushes, like Size, Hardness, Angle, and Spacing. Get familiar with these settings and experiment with a couple of different strokes.
Now I know what you're thinking, Brush Size is pretty self evident right? Well, it may seem obvious to use a smaller or larger brush whenever you need it, but we all need reminding. Large brushes are great for blocking in colors and applying atmosphere, while smaller brushes are essential for details and refinement. 

Animation showing painting with a large and small brush size

0% Hardness makes brush edges soft and fuzzy like a warm sweater. On the opposite side of the spectrum, 100% Hardness creates a hard edge perfect for detailing.Here's a tip: no two brush effects are alike. Constantly change the hardness of your brush according to your needs. 

Adjust the Hardness for Soft and Hard Brush Edges

1% Spacing creates a seamless stroke perfect for your default brush settings. Increase the spacing for a continuous row of one brush. See how Tuts+ author Rowena Aitken used this method to create a string of acorns for her Winter Scene Line Art Tutorial.

Change the Spacing for a Seamless Blend

Rotating a brush is fairly easy. Simply adjust the Angle. Always remember to return to the original angle when you're finished.

Rotate Brush Angles Using Brush Tip Shape

Remember Jack's friend, Bob, the Pen Tablet? The beauty of using a pen tablet is that not only does it give you greater control than a mouse, but you can also tap into the Pen Pressure settings on the Brush panel. With the Shape Dynamics option checked, select Pen Pressure from the drop down menu next to Control. 

Select Pen Pressure to Taper Brush Ends

This option creates beautifully tapered ends that are perfect for that traditional sketch effect. Personally, I try to use this option strictly for sketches and finishing details because it can slow your computer down a bit.  
Not included but equally important are: Painting Mode, Opacity, and Flow. These settings automatically come up on the top toolbar whenever accessing the Brush Tool (B). 
If you're already familiar with Layer Blend Modes, then you'll understand how Painting Mode could be used to create interesting color effects. As a rule of thumb, however, always set the default mode to Normal.

Painting Mode for Brushes in Photoshop

Opacity controls the "opaqueness" of your brush and Flow controls the speed at which the brush builds color. For beginners, concentrate your focus on only adjusting theOpacity while your Flow is set to 100%. Opacity and Hardness go hand in hand with achieving certain effects like fluffy clouds and smoke. Constantly experiment with these two settings while asking yourself this question: "What kind of details can I paint at these settings?"

Opacity and Flow in Photoshop

You can make do without knowing many features of the Brush panel for quite some time. In fact, the reasons for using other settings are often purely circumstantial. 
Let's say you want to create a cool Bokeh effect. Sure, you could plant every circle on the screen yourself, but after a while that would get annoying. By adjusting Scatter andCount on the Brush panel, you can achieve a randomized scattering effect without all the hassle. 

Select Scattering for Bokeh Effect

Texture Brushes come in many different styles, from dirt and grunge to paint splatter and custom shapes. Once you get familiar with the more standard brush settings, working with textures is a breeze. 

Create Texture Brushes in Photoshop

There's no limit to the number of brushes you can paint with. Search far and wide online to experiment with new textures or even create your own. At Tuts+ our instructors have already built a great selection of tutorials for Photoshop Brushes Made From Scratch.Here are just a few:
Trust me, the Brush panel is not as scary as it seems. And for the most part, you adjust the same core settings throughout the duration of your digital painting. Just knowingSize, Hardness, and Opacity alone is more than enough to get you very far in technique. 
Stay tuned for more tips with Digital Painting 101. Next up, we'll cover blending with the Brush Tool! Good luck!

Illustration of pen tablet and Brush panel


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