Brushes and Brush Settings – Adobe Photoshop

Brushes and Brush Settings

Almost every tool that uses a brush cursor can be elaborately configured using the Brush Settings panel. Those configurations can be saved in the Brushes panel (formerly called Brush Presets). Configuration means choosing (or creating) a brush tip and adding behaviors to it. Note that some settings leverage stylus and tablet input devices, especially those that are pressure-sensitive. Also, when creating Brushes (aka presets), these can be designated as tool-specific or can be used by any brush-using tool. There is also a vibrant marketplace of Brushes from and for illustrators and artists.

This section examines brush settings usable by any of those tools, although I usually illustrate their use with the intuitive Brush tool. Many of the desktop settings discussed here can be applied to use on an iPad, and are especially aided by use of an Apple Pencil. In following sections of this chapter, we’ll look at the Brush tool and others individually.

Brush Tips

Brush tips are the algorithms or bits of raster artwork that describe what comes into contact with our canvas. Some brush tips are generated by the software (the algorithmic ones) and have parameters like Size, Roundness, and Hardness. Others are actual pixel-based images, which can also be scaled and skewed, but, like any image, need to be of sufficient resolution if they’re to be used at large sizes.

The list shown in the Brush Settings panel (when Brush Tip Shape is highlighted) comes from all those tips used by presets in the Brushes panel, making this discussion a bit circular. For any tool that can use Brush Settings, there’s a button in the Options Bar () to toggle the Brush Settings panel. That panel has a Brushes button to toggle the Brushes panel. Both panels are, of course, listed in the Window menu.

To have all types of tips, open the Brushes panel menu and choose Converted Legacy Tool Presets. Many work best with tablets and pens that sense the tilt and rotation of the pen and the pressure applied to the tablet (a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet with an Art pen, for example).

Brush Tip Parameters

Depending on what kind of tip you select, you will see different parameters. The choices are derived from the brush presets that are currently loaded.

Standard: Round and Raster Image–Based Tips

These two types of brushes share almost all the same parameters. The only exception is Hardness. Bear in mind that raster image–based brushes have an original sample size, and if exceeded, it can cause a brush stroke’s edges to look blurry or pixelated.

Size From one pixel to 5000 pixels across. For image-based tips, there’s a button to the left of the Size field that resets the size to its original sampled size. Size can be changed by tapping the bracket keys (the left bracket [ for smaller, right ] for larger).

Flip X and Flip Y Flips (mirrors) a brush tip horizontally (X) or vertically (Y).

Spacing A brush stroke is not a continuous flow of color, but is a series of (usually) overlapping dabs of the brush tip. A stroke looks smooth and continuous with tighter Spacing (low values). A value of 100% produces a stroke in which each dab is laid down perfectly adjacent to the ones on either side.

Roundness and Angle The Roundness setting squishes a brush tip. The Angle control rotates the tip. With harder round brushes, these controls yield nice calligraphic brush tips that produce strokes that naturally alternate from thick to thin. Angle can be changed by tapping the left or right arrow keys ( or ). Add Shift to change angle 15º at a time.

Hardness For standard round brushes only, this controls the sharpness or fade of the edges of the brush tip, and therefore strokes made with it. Change the Hardness in 25% increments by holding down Shift and tapping the left or right bracket keys ([ or ]).

To visually change the hardness or size, summon the HUD: control-option-drag (Mac)/Ctrl-Alt-right-click-drag (Windows) vertically to adjust hardness or horizontally to adjust size.

Airbrush Tips

An airbrush sprays paint, sometimes with spattering. Control that and other parameters by highlighting Brush Tip Shape in the Brush Settings panel.


Bristle brush parameters allow you to emulate traditional paintbrushes: you determine the number, length, thickness, and stiffness of the bristles, and the angle of rotation of the whole brush tip (especially important for flat brushes). To simulate real brushes, there are many shapes to choose from in the Shape menu. With a stylus and tablet that detect twisting (rotation), you can actually twist the bristles while you paint.


Erodible tips work best with tablets and pens that sense the tilt of the pen as well as the pressure applied to the tablet.

The various erodible shapes attempt to emulate drawing with charcoal or pastels that erode as they’re used. Whether you choose Erodible Point (a pencil) or Erodible Round (a dull crayon), the tip will get duller, especially if you’ve chosen a high Softness value.

Loading and Saving Brushes

Brushes are presets that capture brush tips (discussed above) and behaviors configured in the Brush Settings panel. Of course you can and will make your own brushes, but a good way to get some brushes that are close to what you would build is to load some that Adobe provides.

Use the Brushes panel menu and choose Get More Brushes…. This will take you to a web page from which you can download brushes whose behaviors you can study and customize. This has the additional benefit of adding their brush tips to the list in the Brush Settings panel.

To create your own brush, choose Edit > Define Brush Preset…; or go to either the Brush Settings panel or the Brushes panel and click the Create new brush button (); or use the panel menu and choose New Brush Preset… to name your preset and set a few options.

Image to Brush

If you want to use an image up to 5000 pixels across as a brush tip, be aware that Photoshop will use only its tonal (grayscale) values. Black will be the opaque parts of the brush tip, white will make no mark at all. Open such an image and then choose Edit > Define Brush Preset…. The initial preset will have no behaviors. Set those behaviors with the Brush Settings panel, then create another more useful preset as described above.

Brush Behavior

The Brush Settings panel is where you choose brush tips and imbue them with behavior—that is, how the tip interacts with the canvas. Most of the behavior options have many settings to choose from and configure, while others are just toggles.

The iPad app Adobe Fresco enjoys many of these features too. If you master them on the desktop, you can take them on the road as well!

Common Settings

Many of the settings (Dynamics and Transfer, for example) have a Jitter setting to randomly alter the behavior. Fade is an option that causes the behavior being edited to diminish over the duration of a brush stroke. It requires you enter a distance (in multiples of the brush tip width) over which the fade occurs.

Many behaviors can be controlled with a tablet’s pen/stylus. You can decide whether the pressure applied with the pen, its angle to the tablet, its rotation in the hand, or other attribute is what controls the behavior. Note that not all tablets and pens support all of those options—higher-end versions are usually required. But since many tablets support pressure control, the Brush tool, the Pencil tool, and a few others have shortcut buttons in the Options Bar that let you quickly allow a pen’s pressure to control the tool’s size and/or opacity.

Shape Dynamics and Scattering

These two are often used together to cause a brush tip to become art that is sprayed playfully across the canvas as you paint. The Shape Dynamics illustrated here make heavy use of randomness, or ”jitter.” Size, Angle, and Roundness are all being somewhat randomized here to some extent, as well as an occasional mirroring of the tip (Flip X and Flip Y). To prevent it from being too random, I also set values for Minimum Diameter and Minimum Roundness.

If I intended to use a stylus that supports tilt controls, I may have used Brush Projection too. This distorts the tip in a way that mimics a flexible object being pressed to the canvas, giving a kind of perspective skew to it. Each attribute (Size, Angle, and Roundness) has a Control menu. From these, you can choose to have your stylus’s pressure or rotation, for example, control attributes like tip size or angle.

Scattering is exactly what it sounds like: the sprinkling of the brush tip to either side of the brush’s path (and forward and back if Both Axes is enabled). A broad scatter may make the brush tips too spread out, so we have a Count control to multiply their number.

Texture and Dual Brush

These settings allow either a pattern (Texture) or another brush tip (Dual Brush) to blend with your brush stroke. The biggest factor in how these blend with your brush tip is the selected Mode (as in blend mode: see “Blend Modes” on page 172).

The Texture pattern can be made bigger or smaller, brighter or darker, and more or less contrasty to better interact with the brush tip. The Depth slider controls how strong the interaction is. The tip chosen in Dual Brush can have its own dynamics and scattering.

Color Dynamics

This one is straightforward: the color with which you paint varies, either stroke-by-stroke or tip-by-tip (if Apply Per Tip is enabled). When painting with the Brush tool, the Foreground Color is used. Using Foreground/Background Jitter, this is alternated with the Background Color. How much so is controlled by the percentage you choose. Similarly, the other jitter sliders alter the hue, saturation, and/or brightness of the stroke or tips. Purity is another word for saturation, and the slider affects the saturation of the entire affair.

Controlling Transfer: Opacity and Flow

The most common use of the Transfer controls is to assign a brush’s opacity to the pressure one exerts with a stylus. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how useful this is when masking adjustment layers, gradually painting in (or out) adjustments to areas of an image.

If you’d like to build up paint (effect) density by brushing over the same area during the same brush stroke, use Flow rather than Opacity. Otherwise, they’re pretty much the same.

If you don’t have a stylus, buy one! Or you can choose Fade from the Control menu to have a stroke change its opacity over the distance covered by a specified number of tips. Tighter spacing means a more rapid fade. Wetness is for use with the Mixer Brush tool only.

Brush Pose

When a brush could benefit from a tilted stylus, but you don’t have a stylus that supports tilt, you can use this setting to impose a tilt. Of course, it’ll be static. This is also useful if you don’t want your stylus’s tilt to play a role and you do want a static Tilt (or Pressure or Rotation).

Tilt X is side-to-side tilt, and Tilt Y is fore and aft tilt.

Noise, Wet Edges, and Build-up

Noise adds a slight random texture to a brush stroke. This can be helpful when printing to devices that don’t preserve a brush’s wispiest edges.

The Wet Edges setting causes the center of the stroke to be translucent with the edges holding more of the effect.

Build-up, when enabled, will cause a stationary brush tip to continuously add more paint in the manner of an airbrush continuously spraying onto the same spot.


Smoothing can help produce silky strokes from even the most jittery mouse use. In the Options Bar, you’ll find a setting for the amount of Smoothing to apply. Next to that setting is a gear icon that reveals Smoothing Options, which are methods that can be employed to do the smoothing. Some work together. For example, Adjust for Zoom allows less smoothing when zoomed in, enhancing precision work.

Pulled String Mode

Imagine the brush tip is a load at the end of a string you’re pulling. A longer string (higher Smoothing setting) will produce a smoother curve when you make a tight turn. If you “back up,” you have to take up the slack before the brush moves again. I find this a clever way to get really elegant brush strokes.

Stroke Catch-up

Imagine chasing a dog who knows it’s being chased. It will run a serpentine path to avoid you, but your path will be less volatile as you try to catch up. Unlike when I chase a dog, the brush does a better job of catching up to the cursor. Releasing the mouse (or lifting the stylus) stops the stroke before it catches up—unless the next setting is enabled.

Catch-up on Stroke End

When the mouse is released (or the stylus is lifted), the brush stroke, which had lagged somewhat behind the cursor, will suddenly catch up to the cursor’s location. Higher Smoothing settings mean more lag and a greater catch-up distance.

Protect Texture

When locked (the padlock icon to the right enabled), this will ensure that settings that use a pattern for texture (Texture and Dual Brush) retain their patterns when you choose another brush preset.