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


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