There's More Than One Way to Skin a Cat in Vector

It's a common occurrence when you're reading a tutorial that probably matches or is easier than your skill set and you think, "That's not how I'd do it." I know this has happened to me several times. I go with the tutorial, though, because I know that in vector, there is more than one way to do things, and perhaps someone else's workflow may expose me to other techniques I hadn't considered.
There's a phrase in the UK that goes: "There's more than one way to skin a cat." OK, it sounds foul, but it basically means there is more than one way to do something and achieve the same result. This is the basis of today's tutorial.
It all started when I was in the back garden and I was looking for inspiration for a new article... and, well, it did come up, and that was 9 Tips and Tricks to Render Anything in Vector. The premise of the article was to show people how to get into the mindset of seeing in vector. 
I decided to test myself and look for things I'd render in vector and how I'd go about it, and my eyes were drawn to a very vectorable thing... a garden fence.

A curved garden fence

I want you, the novice or the expert vector artist, to take a beat and imagine how you'd render that fence in vector. How would you start? What tools would you use? I can place a bet that not everyone would construct it the same way.
To make things a bit easier, let's remove the background, foreground and perspective, and look at it in a simple way as a stock image from PhotoDune

Stock image of a fence

So let's imagine we're aiming for this end result... but let's remove all colour and think of it even more simply as a silhouette. 

Silhouette of a fence

I'm going to go over a few ways in which you could render it in vector. For each method, I'll explain how you'd do it, list the pros and cons, and give examples of when you might opt for that method.
I've opened the black and white stock image in Adobe Illustrator and then runImage Trace with the following settings.

Apply Image Trace

As an optional step, you could click on Expand to turn the Image Trace into a vector path. You could then recolour, should you require it. And you're done.

The fence created using Image Trace

  • Super quick: took less than a minute, even after playing with settings.
  • Despite playing with the settings, I couldn't find a way to make all of the edges straight. So although it's an accurate representation of the JPG, it's perhaps not the most clean-looking end result. 
  • Quite simply, Image Tracing an image feels dirty... well at least for me!
  • When the fence is a small detail of your design, perhaps something in the background
  • When you need to present something in minutes and quality isn't an issue
With Smart Guides (Control-U) enabled, use the Pen Tool (P) to trace around the first set of vertical planks. This will give you 90-degree corners where required and help you line up the points accurately.

Trace around the image using the Pen Tool

When the first group is complete, select them all and then with the Selection Tool(V), hold Alt and move your first group over to the next place to duplicate it.

Duplicate the first group

Then by pressing Control-D, you can duplicate your last action to accurately place your third group.

Duplicate the third group

Use the Pen Tool (P) to draw the top vertical plank. Then using the Selection Tool(V) while holding Alt, duplicate it to the bottom plank.

Create the top and bottom planks

As a final step, but not completely necessary, you could use the Pathfinder panel > Unite to combine all the shapes together. And you're done.

Finished fence vector illustration using the Pen Tool

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Points are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • It took longer than the Image Trace method, perhaps five minutes, but this is still relatively quick for a fence silhouette. 
  • As the shapes are all straight sides, you don't need to be a Pen Tool master, as you don't need to play with handle bars!
  • If you're not careful with Smart Guides, you may misclick a point and would have to undo or use the Direct Selection Tool to adjust your points.
  • Spaces between the planks are not equally spaced.
  • When the fence is a small detail of your design, perhaps something in the background
  • When you need to present something in a short amount of time and quality isn't an issue
Again with Smart Guides (Control-U) enabled, use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw the first post. Draw the plank a little higher than the tallest plank.

Draw a rectangle

With the Selection Tool (V), Alt-drag the plank to the end of the first set to duplicate it.

Duplicate the rectangle

Select both rectangles and create a Blend (Control-Alt-B). While selected, go toObject > Blend > Blend Options and change the Spacing to Specified Steps and the value to 5, as there are five planks between the two you've already created. 

Create a Blend

Use the Pen Tool (P) to create the shape which will trim the top of the edges of the fence. When you're drawing it, ensure the right side is flush with the next section of the fence. Then select this new shape and your blend and create a Clipping Mask(Control-7).

Use a Clipping Mask

With the Selection Tool (V), select the clipping mask group and Alt-drag to duplicate it, keeping the right side edge of the shape flush with the next group. Then use Control-D to duplicate your previous action to create the third group.

Duplicate the clipping mask group

To ensure we've got the same width, go into the blend group and duplicate one of the planks.

Duplicate a single plank

While selected, go to Object > Transform > Rotate and rotate the vertical plank by 90 degrees to make it horizontal. Then, using the Free Transform Tool (E), stretch the shape and put it in the correct place. Use Alt-drag with the Selection Tool (V) to duplicate the shape.

Create the horizontal planks

As an additional step, you could use Pathfinder > Unite to combine the shapes, but as is, here is the end result.

The finished fence

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Rectangles are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • Due to using Blends, the planks are all uniformly shaped and have equal spacing.
  • A little more time-consuming than the previous methods, perhaps 10-15 minutes.
  • Due to accuracy, you could use this method in most scenarios. 
Create the initial planks using the same method as before, with the Rectangle Tool(M) and Blend (Control-Alt-B). Duplicate one of the planks for use as a horizontal plank for later on.

Create a Blend

While selected, go to Object > Expand to expand the blend into fills. With the shapes selected, create a Compound Path (Control-8).

Expand the Blend

Create the shape for the section using the Pen Tool (P) and with that and the compound path, use Pathfinder > Intersect to trim the shape.

Use Pathfinder  Intersect

Using the duplicate of one of the original rectangles, Rotate it 90 degrees and use the Free Transform Tool (E) to resize the length so it is flush with the first plank of the set, and then the start of the second set as shown below. Then duplicate it using the Selection Tool (V) and Alt-drag.

Create the horizontal planks

Select all of your shapes and go into the Brushes panel and select New Brush, then Pattern Brush. I've used the default settings below. Because the shape is one colour, I've changed the Colorization Method to Tints, should I wish to change the colour of the fence later on.

Create a Pattern Brush

Using the Line Segment Tool (/), draw a line and apply your new brush.

Draw a line and apply the brush

And here is the end result from using the brush:

Pattern Brush final

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Rectangles are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • Due to using Blends, the planks are all uniformly shaped and have equal spacing.
  • Can be reapplied with a couple of clicks along a path, should it be required.
  • A little more time consuming than the previous methods, perhaps 10-15 minutes.
  • It's not a duplicate of the original image—if you wanted to duplicate the original image you'd have to take it a step further and create a clipping mask, which would add time to the process.
  • Any time when you need to reapply the fence in any size, length, or colour. 
There are many methods, and not just the ones I've shown you, that you could use to create the fence. I'm sure there are some advanced vector users who will want to point them out in the comments, and I encourage you to do that. 
So which is the right way to go about it, given all the methods shown? Well, as with most vector tasks you undertake, it completely depends on the way in which you're intending to use the graphic. This will dictate which is the most efficient and most appropriate way to render it. Consider the following to decide:
  • How relevant is the element to the entire graphic? Is it a small detail in the background or is it the entire graphic?
  • How much time do you have to create it?
  • Will you need to edit the element in the future?
  • What is the purpose of the graphic? Is it going to be an icon, an illustration, a pattern?
Once you've considered those, then you'll know which is the right way.

How to Create Custom Brushes to Render Fur in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image

What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial we'll create a small set of custom brushes from scratch and learn how to render animal fur with them. We'll focus on rendering a fox tail in grayscale, using custom brushes and the Smudge Tool to create both soft and coarse fur, and use Blending Modes to add color and warmth to the rendered piece.
Open Adobe Photoshop, create a New Document, and create a New Layer. Using the Brush Tool (B), choose the default Hard Round brush from the Brush Presets panel.
  1. Draw a series of dots in different sizes. The size of your brush will determine how large your custom brush will be. 
  2. Keep the dots spaced out slightly, but don't bother to keep the formation uniform.
  3. Either keep the dots within a circular or oblong formation.
We'll call this brush style the "dot brush".

Create your first custom brush

Create a New Layer or move to a free space within your document. The next brush style starts with the default Hard Round brush with Noise selected in the Brushespanel. Lower the Opacity and Flow to 60% or so (you can also experiment with both settings). Make sure Pen Pressure has been selected in Brushes > Shape Dynamics > Size Jitter so the ends of the default brush taper.
  1. Consider this brush to be like a tuft of fur.
  2. Draw overlapping lines that curve inward on either side.
  3. Layer them up on each other so the length and opacity varies.
We'll call this brush style the "fur tuft brush".

Draw a tuft of hair for a simple pre-rendered brush style

This is one of the main brushes that we'll use to create and render the fur. Using the default Soft Round brush, draw spaced out dots of varying sizes in a circular formation. Do this with Noise on and off (so do it twice) to create a soft fur brush and a coarse fur brush.
We'll call these brushes the "soft fur brush" and the "coarse fur brush".

creating a soft and coarse fur brush

Finally, use the default Hard Round brush again, with Build-Up and Smoothingselected in the Brush panel, to create short fur or grass-like sections that will become brushes to be used later in the tutorial. Vary the size of the Hard Roundbrush in order to create variations in thickness of each piece of fur.
We'll call these brush styles the "short fur brushes".

Create short fur brushes

Using one of the Selection Tools, select around one of the custom brush shapes that we created earlier in this tutorial. Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and give your new brush a unique name (or don't if you're experimenting with brush shapes and styles). You'll find your newly saved brush in the Brush Preset panel or in the Options bar when you have the Brush Tool selected.

Save your brush to the brush preset panel

Try out each of your brushes with the Brush Tool. Play with variations in FlowOpacity, and the settings within the Brush panel. Try sweeping each brush across your document as well as using stippling techniques in order to see how each brush works for painting and adding texture to an area.

Try out your new brushes

Create a New Document and a New Layer within that document. Starting with the default Hard Round brush, we're going to build up the values of our fox tail or swatch of fur. Consider the rest of this tutorial an exercise in becoming acquainted with your newly made custom brushes.
  1. Build up values of light grays. Note the white at the end of the tail.
  2. Concentrate darker grays at the top of the tail.
  3. I'm ending this step with medium gray at the top of the tail. This gives you a good idea of what the tail's base should be.

Build up the values of your fur swatch

Switch from your current brush to the Coarse or Soft Fur Brush, both of which we created earlier. Note that I've set the Spacing all the way to the left at 4% and selected Build-Up and Smoothing. I've also enabled Pen-Pressure for the Size Jitter under Shape Dynamics, as I'm using a graphic tablet during the entirety of this tutorial. Digital painting can be quite difficult without a pressure-sensitive tablet of some sort.

Switch to your coarse or soft fur brush

Let's continue adding texture and value to our swatch of fur.
  1. Starting at the top, build up medium and light values of gray with the Softor Coarse Fur Brush.
  2. Note how the size of the brush will determine the look of the fur of the tail. Size your brush accordingly. You may need to experiment a bit to get what's right for you.
  3. I've started using the Coarse Fur Brush at the top and the Soft Fur Brush at the bottom just to create variations within the look of the fur.

Lets continue adding texture and value to our swatch of fur

  1. Play with other brush textures. You'll notice there's more variation in the color of my fox tail now. The little spots around the tail were created by using one of the dot-like brushes around the top and sides of the tail.
  2. Start to bring lighter gray back into the bottom of the tail. Consider how the fur may have highlights within sections of the tail itself.
  3. I've decided the upper right contains the darkest shadows and strands of fur.
  4. I've also decided to repeat the dark gray on some parts of the sides of the tail. Keep layering colors and use photo references if you need to see what animal fur can look like in terms of value.

Layer up various shades of gray to create depth and value

Let's set up our Smudge Tool.
  1. Select the Smudge Tool from the Toolbar.
  2. Set the Strength to 77%. You can, of course, vary your Strength settings as you go. You may find more or less will be better for your design.
  3. Within the Brush panel, choose a more densely created Fur Brush. Make sure Shape Dynamics aren't checked and Smoothing is.
  4. Finally, set the Spacing to 10%.

Set up your Smudge Tool

Let's get to softening the tail.
  1. Using the Smudge Tool, start at the top of the fox tail. Carefully begin to smudge strands of fur in a downward motion.
  2. Vary between stroke lengths.
  3. Also make sure you're mainly going in one direction. At this point I've gotten to the center of the tail.
  4. Continue moving your way down the tail, smudging various sections of the tail. Note how the top half has softened up.

Smudge strands of fur along the length of the tail

Continue smudging sections of the tail.
  1. Move as though you're sketching in small chunks of fur, rather than working through the entire length of the tail at once. Also allow your computer to catch up with the tool. Sometimes it may lag and you'll have to wait it out.
  2. Start pushing strands outward at their ends. This allows the fur to look a bit shaggier and less contained.
  3. Note how the end here is quite soft-looking and the ends taper. Any sketchy lines drawn previously should taper down to sections of fur.
  4. Soften darker sections of fur so they move together in the same direction.

Continue smudging sections of the tail

Let's Zoom (Z) in further on our design (to be frank, I usually zoom in and out quite a bit on my work, but for the sake of this tutorial have shown each step as a whole).
  1. Note how the fur kicks out at the sides. This is entirely due to downward and diagonal strokes from the Smudge Tool.
  2. Create a New Layer. Using a small, hard brushTuft of Fur Brush, or Short Fur Brush (the latter two of which were created earlier in this tutorial), draw or stipple on darker, defined strands of fur within the design.
  3. Note how these darkened strands help define the spaces between larger sections of soft fur. Experiment with their size, placement, and value.

Zoom in and work on small details

At this point we're no longer using the custom brushes (aside from final touch-ups later). We're focusing solely on adding layers of color to the fox tail.
Create a New Layer and use a default Soft Round brush with its Opacity set to 75% or so. Set the Foreground color to dark ruddy brown and brush over most of the tail.
In the Layers panel, set the Blending Mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 32%.

Create a layer of overlayed brown

Create a New Layer and use a default Soft Round brush with its Mode set to MultiplyOpacity set to 28%, and Flow set to 75%. Set the Foreground color to a ruddy brown and brush layers over most of the tail.
In the Layers panel, set the Blending Mode to Color Dodge and Opacity to 67%.

Create a layer of lighter brown set to color dodge

This next step is one I find quite fun. Once again, create a New Layer in the Layerspanel.
  1. Using a tapered soft brush, brush layers of dark brown, yellow, orange, and ruddy brown along your tail. Feel free to Blur the layer slightly (Filter > Blur > Blur).
  2. Set the layer's Opacity to 55%.
  3. Set the layer's Blending Mode to Overlay.

Add layers of color to your tail

  1. Create a New Layer once again and use a soft round brush to brush over yellow-orange, orange, yellow ochre, and brown tones. Then go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur with a Radius of anywhere from 10 to 50 pixels, or so.
  2. Set the layer's Blending Mode to Soft Light. This should add a soft glow of color to your tail.

Add a soft glow to the tail

I've zoomed in again to show you the details of this final layer. Note how textured the fur looks. I've changed the spacing on the Coarse Fur Brush to a higher percentage in order to add more texture into some of the design.
You can either paint over the tail with yellows, oranges, and browns, or paint under the color layers with light grays. Play with other highlight and shadow details now that you're at this nearly completed stage of rendering.

Add additional textures to the fox tail

Finally, an optional step in order to add a bit more texture to the tail. This step requires the layers to be Merged (Control-E), so if you'd like to maintain your layers, Group (Control-G) them together and create a Duplicate of the Groupbefore Merging together.
Go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask and enter the following values for a result like the one seen below:
  • Amount: 180%
  • Radius: 8.0 pixels
  • Threshold: 19 levels

Sharpen the final tail design

Take the techniques you learned above (brush creation, rendering, smudging, and coloring) and push them further by rendering an animal head or the entire creature! Below, I've done just that with a cute fox spirit mask. Like the tail we worked on together, the fox mask was worked up in the same series of steps, but I kept the fox head's shape and planes in mind when rendering.
Share your results from this tutorial or with similar creations using the brushes you've made to render animal fur in the comment section below!

Final fox face using the custom brush set made previously

How to Create Custom Hand and Foot Print Brushes in Adobe Photoshop


Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Hand and foot prints are a fun way to add a human element to a digital design. They are instantly recognizable, yet every one is completely unique. Hand prints are iconic and often symbolize intimate control. Foot prints tend to be seen as representing guidance or travel. Having a set of brushes for these can open up new opportunities for your design work.
Capturing these prints isn't difficult, and can be a lot of fun, although somewhat messy! In this Quick Tip I will share my technique for creating and capturing fun and usable prints.
While it may seem fairly straightforward, obtaining a good quality hand print with no smudges can be more challenging than expected. Not every medium or surface holds a print well enough to translate into a digital resource. But once the correct combination is found, the process is simple and rewarding.
The materials recommended for this project are easily found in any arts and craft store:
  • water soluble ink of any color
  • linoleum block 
  • ink roller
  • heavy duty paper or cardstock
I found the lino block, ink, and roller all together in a Block Printing Kit at my local arts and crafts store.

Block Printing Materials

The most important resource: hands and feet! It is possible to use your own for this project, but it is much easier to use an assistant. I found that a pair of eight-year-old daughters are more than happy to help!

Hands and Feet to make the prints

Squeeze some of the ink out onto the linoleum block

Ink the block

Use the roller to spread the ink around the block. The intent is to cover the roller with ink, not the block.

spread the ink with the roller

Carefully "paint" the hand using the roller. Work to get good coverage inside the cracks of the fingers and slightly around the edges of the palm.

Spread the ink on the hand

Firmly press the hand onto the heavy paper. Check to make sure that the tip of each finger is making good contact with the paper surface.

Press the hand onto the paper

When the hand is lifted up, the paper will stick to it. Carefully peel the paper from the hand to see the result.

Result of the handprint

To create a fuller print, before peeling the paper off, press on the opposite side of the paper to make sure it contacts the hollow areas of the hand, like the palm and where the fingers connect.

A fuller style hand print

Repeat the process, gathering several shots of various pressures and finger positioning.
The foot prints are captured in much the same way. But there's the additional challenge of finding some way of getting to the sink to wash the ink off without staining your floors! I will admit that using the foot of a lightweight eight-year old girl made this a rather simple task.
Ink the foot in the same way as the hand. Try not to tickle the helpful assistant—they don't appreciate it!

Ink the sole of the foot

Step onto the paper—try to avoid wiggling the foot, as it will smudge the ink.

Step on the paper

Peel the paper off the foot and evaluate the print. Our feet don't have nearly as much fine muscle control as our hands do, so it might take a few tries to some good surface contact with the paper.

Look at that arch

Once you've got some experience working with the ink, roller, and paper, look around for other items that might generate an interesting print. 
I thought a shoe print might be a good alternative to the bare footprint. But I didn't want to ruin the sole of a good shoe with ink, so I chose some footwear that is easy to wash: a snow boot!

das boot

Use the same process for inking the bottom of the boot and printing it onto the paper.

Ink on the sole of the boot

Evaluate the print and repeat as needed.

Boot Print

With several prints to work with, it's time to clean up the ink (see why it's important to use water soluble ink?) and spend some quality time with the scanner before transforming these prints into a custom Photoshop Brush.
Scan in each print using a high dpi setting. I recommend at least 600 dpi to generate a good high resolution brush. If your scanner has a setting for black and white, use that instead of the color setting. 

Scan Screen

Open the scanned image in Photoshop. Increase the contrast of the image by going to Image > Adjustments > Levels. Pull the outer handles inwards until the print is a crisp black against a stark white.

Increase Contrast

Use a large, soft edged brush with white paint to make certain that the edges are all 100% white.

paint edges white

Look closely at the scan and if there are any stray marks, ink drops, splatters, or smears. Paint them out with the same white.

Clean any stray marks up from the scan

Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to create a selection around the print. Then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. Give the brush a recognizable name and hit OK. Photoshop now adds this brush to your library.

Give the brush a name

While I fully encourage you to follow along and create your own custom hand and foot print brushes, I realize that not everybody has the time or opportunity to craft their own brushes. So I've provided an assortment of free custom brushes for you to use!

Hand and Foot Print Brush gallery

Download the attached file for this tutorial, HandFootBrushes.abr. Then go to Edit > Presets > Preset Manager. In the Brushes section, use the Load button to navigate to the downloaded file.

Preset Manager

This will add nine new brushes to your Brush Presets library.
Go be amazing! Now use your smashing new brushes to produce some digital artwork with hand and foot prints that you didn't have before.
Can't get enough custom creative brushes in Photoshop? Check out my previous tutorials on creating custom brushes for Coffee RingsSmoke TendrilsWater Drops, and even Water Splashes! Hungry to learn more about how to use custom brushes in photo manipulation projects? Check out my profile of courses and tutorials here at Tuts+ and find all that, and much more!
Creating your own library of digital resources pulled from real-world practical effects is a skill that will pay off exponentially in the future. Instead of searching stock sites for interesting textures, try creating some for yourself! I'd love to see them in the comments below.


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