Guest Post: Heidi Black and Making Photoshop Brushes

This post is late, but with good reason.  Its definitely worth the wait!

One of the most common Google search results that lead viewers to my blog would be for "Photoshop brushes". Unfortunately, I don't know how to make them. But my friend and fellow artist, Heidi Black, does. Actually, Heidi knows how to do a lot of things, and in case you missed it, she's putting out a fabulous artbook to teach the rest of us how to do these things too. I asked my friend, Heidi, if she'd be sweet enough to write up a tutorial on how to make Photoshop brushes, and she very kindly agreed. I say kindly because she agreed to make the tutorial on a day where I had a migraine and would miss an update, and very because she herself was suffering from a kidney stone. In case I haven't said this enough, Heidi is the best.

Making brushes in Photoshop!

This tutorial covers making custom shaped brushes in Photoshop – how to create the brush shape, then edit it once you  have it to create a useful brush.  This was done with Photoshop cs3 – the newer versions have more advanced brush rendering engines, but this is what I have.

Note: When I say impression, I mean a single brush tip.  This is basically if you sat your mouse down and clicked once without dragging.  A stroke gives you multiple impressions – often as much as each pixel you move your pen or mouse. 

First, you want to create a new document.  While Photoshop supports making brushes of 2500 pixels (or more), my suggestion is 1000 pixels or smaller. 

Now that you have a canvas, draw the custom shape you want on it, using black and white.  Black areas will be full opacity, while white areas will not be part of the brush.  Grey areas will be transparent parts of the brush.

When you are happy with your shape, save it as a brush by going to the edit menu on the top menu bar, and selecting “define brush preset.”  Name your brush whatever you'd like.

You now have a brush made out of your shape, but its not a very interesting brush.  It doesn't have any size variation to it, or color variation, or anything like that.  So lets fix that.

In your brushes palette (if its not up by default, go to window → brushes, or press f5), the first option is your brush tip shape.  Diameter determines how large or small the brush is (and you can change this later), flipping x or y will reverse the brush along one of those axis (or both, if you like) so it can go different directions.  The strange circle with the arrows allows you to rotate the direction of your brushes, or to squeeze them.  This is useful when making a calligraphy style brush.

Spacing is one of your most important settings.  A small spacing gives you a smoother brush, with no gaps.  Unfortunately, it also tends to require a little bit more processing power, but definitely worthwhile.  Larger spacing sets each brush impression far apart, and this is great for making scatter brushes.

Shape dynamics!  Again, this is a very important setting.  First up is your size.  Size jitter is a random algorithm that makes your brush impression smaller or larger, which again creates very cool scatter brushes.  Underneath this slider says “control” - for those of you with tablets, this is what determines what aspect of motion will change the size of your brush.  The most often used one is “pen pressure.”  Minimum diameter is more or less what it sounds like – it determines the smallest the brush will be when you press the lightest, or the smallest it will be in the jitter algorithm.

Beneath your size settings are your angle settings.  Like size jitter, angle jitter rotates each impression of the brush randomly.  The control setting allows you to change what angle the brush tip draws at, and this has a lot more options.  Pen tilt and initial direction are very cool to play with.

Finally, your roundness.  The jitter setting here will change how squished each impression of the brush is, and you can again change the roundness with elements like pen pressure.

The flip x and y jitters will randomly throw in reversed impressions of the brush.  Again, this is great for scatter brushes.

Scattering!  I keep talking about scatter brushes, and here's how you make one.  By setting the scatter to both axes, then raising the percent to a high level, you will get a brush that makes impressions randomly as you draw.  This is great for elements like stars, dust, leaves, trees, grass – anytime you need to make a whole bunch of an object randomly, and quickly. 

Texture is a cool setting to add to brushes that you want to emulate traditional media, or even that you want to give an extra dimension to.  Photoshop has a lot of textures you can add to a brush.  Next to the picture of the texture, click the down arrow, then the arrow that points right in the following screen (unfortunately, photoshop wouldn't let me take a screencap of this part).  The bottom of this dropdown menu has several different groupings of textures photoshop comes with, or you can create your own. 

Texture each tip is a cool setting, as it allows you to give each impression a separate texture, rather than an overall texture to the brush.

Unfortunately, dual brush didn't do much to this brush, but its awesome for some of my other brushes.  This is another way to add a texture to a brush, or in a sense create a brush within a brush – brushes that use the shape of the first brush to define the texture of another brush, and so forth.  To see it in action, load Photoshop's “dry media brushes.”

Color dynamics!  This is one of my favorite settings to add to brushes.  Color dynamics are a great way to add some depth to a drawing by subtly varying the color each impression is.  Hue, saturation, brightness, and purity jitters will all subtly change the color from whatever your foreground color is.  Foreground/background jitter will cause the brush to randomly change between your foreground and background color, and many colors in between.  Adding the control of pen pressure will allow you to press lightly and draw with your background color, then as you press harder it fades into your foreground color.  This is a great setting if you want a brush that blends.

Last, your other dynamics.  I almost always turn these to pen pressure in my brushes, especially the flow.  Flow and opacity differ in that flow affects each individual impression of the brush, whereas opacity affects the brush as a stroke.  Flow will allow you to  see more texture and color variation with your strokes, and if you set the flow setting at top to a lower percentage, the brush will still go to 100% opacity, but each impression will cover less.  Opacity sets the overall limit for the brush – setting the brush opacity to 50% means the darkest the brush will get, no matter how hard you press, is 50%.  I suggest playing around with these to find what works best for you, but generally when I draw I leave the opacity at 100% (not the opacity jitter, the brush opacity, which is changed in the top status bar of the program) and set the flow anywhere from 20-80%.  This generally gives my brush a nice painterly feel to it, like being able to control how much my paint blends with whatever was painted beneath it.

The bottom five settings – noise, wet edges, airbrushing, smoothing, and protect texture – change various aspects of the brush.  Noise adds some noise to the edge of the brush, especially if you have a brush with grey edges.  This is like the “dissolve” layer blending mode.  It can be a nice way to add in some random pixels and keep your brush from being too smooth, but this brush already has some texture to the edges. 

Wet edges is really cool, as it gives your brush a watercolor-like effect, where the color pools at the edge of the stroke.

Airbrush changes how the brushstrokes layer on top of each other, though I've never noticed much difference of it on or off.

Smoothing is a setting specifically for if you use a mouse.  This keeps your brush path from being jagged and stiff, smoothing the movement of your mouse out somewhat.

I'm also not 100% sure what protect texture actually does, as I don't touch it much.  If you play around with it and find a significant difference of it off or on, let me know.

Now that you've made a brush, its time to save it so you can use it again!  Go to the dropdown menu on your brushes palette (far right), and select “new brush preset” (again, photoshop wouldnt let me screen cap this process.)  Name your brush whatever you want, and voila!  You have your very own custom brush!

Now, use your brush to draw something!

I made three different brushes out of this particular shape, and you can download them.  Once they are downloaded, in that same brush dropdown menu you used to save your brush, select “load brushes.”  Open the .abr file, and if Photoshop asks if you want to replace or append the brushes, choose “append.”  (this allows you to keep all your other brushes, and just tacks these on at the end.)


If you're interested, a copy of Heidi's brush from this tutorial is available for download.


  1. This is a great brush tutorial! Thank you for sharing it. I hope you don't mind, I shared a link for this over on my weekly blog feature, Tutorial Thursday. Thank you for putting this information up!


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