User Submission: Nuke's Introduction to Brushes

Started by Rob, January 18, 2010, 05:23:41 AM

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Today's article is submitted to the site by David Emerson (known on the site as Nuke) who makes the wonderful comic; Underling.

Nuke's Introduction to Brushes

The usefulness of brushes in photoshop is often overlooked, even in the webcomics community. With a little fiddling, brushes in photoshop can be used to mimic brushes on a canvas to give your comic a unique and hand-painted feel. Even in comics with heavy line weight and cartoonish features, using an interesting brush can lend an eye-catching texture to objects and help direct the readers' focus on the screen. It also has a million and one smaller uses, from creating a good looking grassy field to putting the leaves on a tree to putting the stars in a sky. On top of all that, they'll even save you a lot of time!

This article assumes you have a working tablet with pressure and hopefully tilt sensitivity, and know the basics of using it. You can use brushes with a mouse or the pen tool, but a great deal of the functionality will be lost. I'm also using photoshop cs4, but the brush tool hasn't changed horribly over the years, so this article should help if you're using 7 or above. If you don't know the basics of using a brush at all, there are helpful tutorials on the internet. There will be a demonstration/tutorial at the end, if you want to just skip to that, too.


At any rate, let's start with the foundation. Brushes work by following the movement of your pen and applying the shape to the canvas at high frequency. A basic line from the brush tool is actually a string of circles really close together. Changing the shape of a brush thus changes the shape of its line. Modifying the brush will apply the shape in a variety of ways, from scattering it away from where your pen is pressing to making each instance of the shape partially see through.

Now, this counts more as tablet advice than brush advice, but let's start with getting control of your brush. If you're having trouble getting your lines or textures smooth with a tablet but don't have that problem with pencil/brush and paper, you should know that there's a couple differences. The tablet not only has a different surface texture, but traces the movements of your pen tip extremely minutely. Which means that if you have a shaky hand - like I do - you actually want to speed up your hand rather than slow down. With that in mind, there are two main factors in getting a nice, smooth stroke. First off, zoom in. Second, use fast and flowing strokes. It takes practice to not only get this down but get down drawing basic shapes with it, but it's necessary. Practice will get you there, if you're willing to spend time!

Now, on to the brushes themselves. You can open up the brush menu by hitting f5 or going to Window > Brushes. Feel free to select various default brushes and mess around with them. You'll notice that the lines you draw will take on different characteristics with each different brush. You've probably already noticed that some of the default brushes will change based on how hard you're pressing down against your tablet.

But you don't paint with lines, now do you?


There's a million and one modifiers you can put on a brush. For painting effects, it's good to raise the 'jitter' options to give your brushes a randomized, human element. Raising the spacing setting will make the brush effect less cluttered when you make strokes. Giving it an opacity jitter especially will help it look like it came from a paint brush. The best advice I can give you is to start fiddling with settings, and observe how it affects your strokes. You'll want to change the CONTROL settings, as well, to see how you can change textures dynamically by changing how hard or at what angle you're holding the pen. Unfortunately, I won't go through every single setting one by one. But *you* should! Go through the 'Shape Dynamics', 'Scattering', and 'Other Dynamics' tabs specifically, and observe how the settings affect your brush.

Here's what those same strokes from the last section will do with a little modification:

Holy cow, right? The spatter could be used as died blood spatter or rust, and chalk brush could make for good bushes or tree leaves. We've made the basic default brush into a calligraphic pen for unique linework. Any of those could be used to make a nice soft noise in the background of your comic. Instead of leaving your trees a nondescript puff of green with a little shading, make it a texture! Little things like that create soft background noise that greatly help the look of an image.

Don't forget to save your brushes, either! You can make pretty textures at the drop of a hat by just having a variety of home-brew or downloaded brushes ready.


But modifying these brushes will only take you so far. The default brushes can only give you so many textures and so many shapes. You can make a brush shape, or preset, from scratch for ultimate creative control. Brushes are also available for download, but I won't cover that here. A simple google search will net you hundreds of brushes - just be sure to check out the license agreements for each brush! Making custom brushes will give you a texture for anything you can imagine, from clouds to leaves to grass to sand to stars to fire and beyond!

You can create a brush by making a new document, creating a simple black on white shape, and then going to EDIT > DEFINE BRUSH PRESET.

Black and white are the only colors you use to make a simple brush. It takes the color from your pallet when you use it later, so don't worry. It also determines opacity with grayscale. Basically, where it's pitch black, the brush will be solid. Where it's dark grey, the brush will be see-through. Where it's light grey, the brush will barely be visible. You don't need to worry about filling up the entire canvas, either, as photoshop will do all the cropping work for you. Helpful!

Heck, here's a simple shape that you can practice turning into a brush. It's super easy! Just open this image in photoshop, then go to EDIT > DEFINE BRUSH PRESET.

Here's an example of my super simple homebrew brush and what you can do with it by changing the scatter and angle jitter and brightness jitter and size jitter:

Making your own brushes for textures takes a lot more intuition than just modifying the defaults. You need to consider how you're going to modify a brush before you bother to make it. An intricate texture might require a complicated brush OR a simple brush with complicated modifications. You'll have to use a lot of trial and error to get your own painting brushes looking the way you want.


Well, now that we know the basics of making brushes, let's apply them to an image. I'll make an imaginary comic panel and guide you through how I could brush it. I'll start the way I always do - having something big and terrible trying to kill my main character.

Notice that I haven't bothered to ink the leaves - those are going to be brushed in. Right now, in fact! I'll use a default photoshop brush to make this easier to follow along. I've selected "Chalk 23 pixels" and then changed the settings to look like this:

Now, I changed the brush to be green and made it into a leafy tree.

You'll note that I drew leaves behind the tree and shaded them, then drew and shaded again on another layer over the whole tree. It helps make the tree look a little more complex. You could add a stroke to that to make it look like you bothered to draw it out, even! Now let's add grass. There happens to be a default photoshop brush for this, but if you try to use it, you'll notice that, one, it's huge, and two, it seems to just randomly change colors! No, they're not using scripting or magic - they just changed some settings. You can do cool stuff like that to your own brushes! For now, let's just go in and turn off that function by unchecking some things. We also need to size it appropriately for the image.

Now, I scribbled along the horizon and under the roots and character's feet to make it look like they're actually in the grass. I did the shading by simply scribbling around in a light color, then scribbling over that with the first color a few times.

Okay, let's do one more change to make the background look complete - poor characters will go unshaded today. This is an easy one! Select 'airbrush pen opacity flow 19'. Not how the lines you draw change in transparency as you change pen pressure. Let's use that make a nicely shaded tree trunk. Very lightly draw along the middle with a brighter color and then press down harder the closer to the edge you go. Do the same with a darker color. It'll look like this:

And now we have a nice, painted-but-still-appropriately-cartoony background.

To conclude: brushes are awesome, and you should be using them.


Wow, I was really impessed by that first tree you made.  My only concern with this is that the parts you made with modified brushes don't really mesh perfectly with the rest of the image that have a black outline.  You mentioned using a stroke, which I think might remedy this, and which I would have liked to see.

I suppose adding shading to the rest of the image would have made it seem more blended as well.  And on that note, I would love an article on shading sometime! ;)


Oh, I do love shading XD Um, I do see what you mean about the lines - I did the image a little hastily just to demonstrate what I meant. Actually the chalk brush doesn't do strokes too well because the edges are a bit soft. That brush I made might do a little better with that. Thanks!

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