Custom Brushes in Photoshop - getting started

Have you ever tried building your own brushes in Photoshop? If you have, this tutorial is designed to let you explore the two concepts of designing your own texture brush and your own shape brush. I'm basing the tutorial on a pattern extracted from a fake-leather photo, used as the main element for your new brushes. If you have no idea really of how to design custom brushes, I suggest you first go through my tutorial "a rough line", where you will design a basic brush and get to know the controls and settings.

Custom brushes are probably not the right way to go if you need a pattern for one image only, but a good set of your own brushes can help you in your day-to-day design work. Custom brushes is a somewhat unexplored feature with lots of potential.

Over to the important stuff.
In this tutorial I will go through the process of designing a pattern that you can use as a base, in different ways, for your new brushes. The two brushes covered here (variations of the same idea) are good for discreet leather textures. Just painting it over a brown surface won't do the trick, but combined with layer blending, color mixing and a few additional brush strokes, you can produce really neat results.


Preparing a pattern

To have something to work with we take a reference image of some sort (in this case a photo, but it might just as well be a painting or a sketch). The important thing here is the pattern. We extract the pattern by reducing colors and tweaking the contrast heavily, until all that is left is a grayscale image (I leave this to you since there are different ways to do it, depending on the image). Next step is to make the pattern tile. I prefer working with "Filter/Other/Offset..." but you can also try out the "Pattern maker" in Photoshop CS. We then copy our pattern layer and make it transparent (black on transparent). Easy solution is to simply copy the whole layer and add it as a mask to a completely black one. The final preparation is now to create a selection circle around an area and use "Select/Feather..." on the edge (a setting of 5 pixels was used for the brush below). After we have deleted everything but the selection, the basic brush shape is ready for action!


"Bumpy leather" - Texture brush

0. Define Pattern

First of, we need to add our tiling pattern to Photoshop's pattern gallery. The images in that gallery are the ones you can access in the "Texture" setting for a custom brush. We select the image (make sure you select the edges just right, so the tiling behaves perfectly) and go to "Edit/Define Pattern..." in the main menu. Now we have what we need for the first brush.

1. Brush Tip Shape

This brush will mainly use the "Texture" settings to achieve the desired effect so here we will simply select a normal rounded brush tip, with a fair amount of soft edges. What the tip really will define is not how large the actual pattern will be when you paint, but instead how much of it that will appear when you draw your brush strokes (think of it as painting a mask for the pattern).

2. Shape Dynamics

Nothing much to see here. We will use these settings only to get the pressure effect you need when using a stylus or "stroke path". Depending on how you plan to use this brush, you might not even want the pen pressure control activated. For example, if you use a pattern of a brick wall, you might just go for a nice and large brush so you can paint your texture with a few, quick, brush strokes.

3. Texture

Time for the most important part of this brush. We will open up the texture choice box and select our new, beautiful texture. In this tutorial the texture is a grayscale image, so you can use any color you want, but you could also create a more photographic texture and paint it on, in full color!

Scale - Create a new layer in the document you have open, and try out a few strokes. Is the size about right? Now we will fine-tune the size. Use the scale setting and try different sizes. For now, all we need is a general size. When you use the brush later on you might want to change the size depending on the resolution of the image file you will paint in.

Mode - Check the preview window for the brush and try different modes. I want the stroke to be exactly as the texture I used as a base, and that result is best achieved with "Subtract".

Depth - For the result to show (for this bumpy pattern) we will have to set the depth to 100%. If not, the texture will blend with the normal round brush tip we based it on, and the texture effect will disappear.

Done! The texture brush is now complete and ready to use. Before you do anything else though, remember to save it! Go to the "Brush" settings menu (triangle at the top right corner of the brush window) and choose "New Brush Preset...".

"Bumpy leather" - Shape brush

0. Define Brush Preset

This brush has a few more settings than the texture brush. We will create it in pretty much the same way as the standard brush in my first tutorial "a rough line". The main thing though is that instead of using a default brush head (brush shape) we will use the pattern we built earlier. Remember the last thing we did in "Preparing a pattern"? Yup, a circle brush shape with a soft edge. To use that now, select the shape (the one with black on transparent) by making a circle around it or CTRL-click (COMMAND-click in mac) the actual layer to select everything in it. Now go to "Edit/Define Brush Preset..."
and name the brush.

1. Brush Tip Shape

As we open the custom brush window it will use the shape as your new brush's basic shape. The size will be the amount of pixels your selected image was, but you can easily change that here. As you can see I've chosen to tilt the angle somewhat for a better pattern and change the spacing until the shapes blend nicely into a long consistent stroke.

2. Shape Dynamics

As usual, I do what I always do here: Set the control to "Pen Pressure". The end of the stroke now look much better. Continue with the next step...

3. Scattering

Time to get some irregularity into the brush. Instead of having a straight line of exactly the same pattern, we here scatter the bits around a bit. When you paint there will still be a nice and simple pattern but the shape and fade of it will be much more "noisy" and for now, painting with the brush will make the pattern overlap and very fast turn completely black. We'll get to that.(More info on scattering in "a rough line".)

4. Dual Brush

We will now shape the line some more by using a dual brush. We select a standard brush head namely "Soft Round" with pixel dimension 200. This soft brush will burn away some of the edges by using the mode "color burn". This head is actually a sort of soft, faded noise, with a low spacing and a very high scatter effect.

5. Other Dynamics

Here we max both values. We do that so that the pattern will shift nicely when we paint it. This way, it won't just be a black and white pattern, but instead an interesting grayscale depending on how slow you you draw your lines and if you return and repaint an area. If you just doodle with a stylus (well, or your mouse), the texture will grow and get darker as you progress. Notice the "Pen Pressure" setting I did here to change the flow. All in all, the stroke will be much thicker if you paint by mouse (compared to a stylus) and you will loose some of the fine control this brush use.

6. Final setting and save!

We will use the airbrush setting as a final touch. You can always activate or deactivate this option in the brush settings (top bar) but save the brush with the setting you enjoy using the most.

And just like that, the second brush is done as well.
Once again, remember to save.

The tutorial would normally end here, but I'd like to show you some additional info on managing and sharing your brushes. Move on to page 3!

Using a brush set

1. Edit and save

So far, you've saved your brush in your basic set (it appears by the end of your standard brush listing). To get a little more control over it and to save a whole set you can use something called "The Preset Manager". Access it by going to "Edit/Preset Manager..." in the menu. In this new window, you can manage, rename, save and load your brushes (as well as other things in Photoshop, like patterns or gradient). Make sure you have "Preset Type" set to "brushes". You will see a complete list of your current ones. Rename any you think aren't right, and then select the new custom brushes you've made (only yours, not the rest of them). Click "Save Set..." and choose what to name it and where to put it. Photoshop will create an ".abr" file which contains your selected brushes. This way, you can create a set for a specific type of texture, a set of traditional art brushes, one for patterns or effects etc. And, the good thing is, you can move it between computers, or share the sets with your friends or colleagues.

Note: Creating sets in Photoshop CS and then trying to load them in Photoshop 7 won't work. I Haven't found a converter for it either, but if you know a way around this, let me know. The hard way is to check the CS brush' settings and then recreate it in version 7.

2. Loading brushes

When you want to load your sets, enter the menu for the brush tool. I will go through the most important choices in this menu:

Reset Brushes - This will replace all the brushes you have with the standard set. You will get a dialogue box asking if you want to "append" (the default set will be added after your current set) or simply just replace it (all your custom brushes will then be GONE so don't do it if you haven't saved your brush set!)

Load Brushes - Here you load you custom brushes into the standard list. They will be added after the standard brushes. This choice is what I recommend when you load your own brushes.

Save Brushes - Will save all available brushes (just like you did in the "Preset Manager" with the difference that here it will save them all, not just the selected ones).

Replace Brushes - This is the other way of loading your brush set. All your current brushes in the list will be deleted and the set you load will be the only choice you have. Good if you have a special set with a couple of standard brushes together with a bunch of texture brushes, and you don't want Photoshops long default list clogging up your workspace.

That's it!
Now you have two pattern brushes if you ever need a bumpy surface, you know the difference between a custom shape brush and a texture brush and you know how to manage your sets.

This might have given you some additional ideas of how you can use custom brushes, and hopefully a whole lot of ideas on brushes you'd like to create for your own.

Good luck with the creative process!


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