Get more from custom Photoshop brushes

Discover how using custom brushes can enhance your workflow and boost creativity.

Custom Photoshop brushes Remko Troost

Remko Troost encourages transferring techniques from one medium to another: you might be pleasantly surprised by what you can achieve!

There are thousands of Photoshop brushes online to help you add beautiful artwork to your creative resumes. The things that can be done with your brushes inside Photoshop's Natural Brush Media window are almost endless! I discover new possibilities almost every day, both at home and in the workplace.

It's amazing how you can manipulate your brush to create patterns, textures, hair, skin, that painterly feel, happy accidents and so on. If my work assignment requires a realistic finish, I try to avoid using photo references.

I'm aware that photographs can help you become familiar with a subject, but I prefer to approach my subject afresh. I'm then free to create and use suitable brushes on the fly.

I must admit that it's easier to take this approach with character design, compared to a complex composition featuring perspective, atmospheric depth and so on. But it's good practice to work without being dependent on a particular set of references.

Custom Photoshop brushes Brushes

Remko's "Metal Damage" brush (top) and "Paint On!" brush (bottom) help him create damaged metal or leather borders and painterly effects, respectively

My interest in brushes started when doing my first speedpaints. I soon learned how the right brush can make the difference, when I had to create a precise and readable visual in a short amount of time without the use of photos.

Further investigation revealed the endless possibilities they offer and today they're 
a key part of my workflow. And of course, it's fun using new custom brushes! I've supplied 65 of my own with this workshop, for you to try out.

Download your resources!

01. Research and development

Custom Photoshop brushes

Before I start painting I like to explore and sketch around my subject to get the ideas flowing. Sometimes I do this using pen on paper, sometimes directly in Photoshop using a basic hard round brush with both Opacity and Flow set to 80 per cent. I eventually develop a clearer idea of what I want to paint.

02. Base and values

Custom Photoshop brushes

Painting in black and white gives me better control over my values. It also enables me to concentrate on the shapes, light and shadows. For the skin I use my first custom brush: the mighty Spickel brush!

I use it to create skin texture on areas such as the nose, cheeks and chin. I work on a separate layer and use effects such as Drop Shadow or Bevel and Emboss.

03. Introduce colours on different layer modes

Custom Photoshop brushes

Once I'm happy with my values I start applying colours on layers set to Overlay, Multiply, Color Dodge, Darken and so on. I try to vary my colours and pick new ones several times in the Color window. Because my character has yellowish skin, I use greens, browns, oranges, yellows and even some cyan.

Then I drop my layers and keep on painting normally. Finally I draw some tattoo-like shapes on one side of her face, before flipping them to the other side. I consider turning these tattoos into custom brushes for later use.

04. Painting with pattern brushes

Custom Photoshop brushes

I introduce a few designs using some custom pattern brushes. I create one by taking a graphic, transform it into a brush and then play around with the settings within the natural Brush media window (Brush tip shape>Spacing and Shape dynamics>Angle Jitter set to Direction).

Such brushes are ideal for creating clothing patterns, tattoos and scales, for example.

05. Apply the Hexagon brush

Custom Photoshop brushes step 5

I use my simple custom Hexagon brush in three distinct areas for three different effects. First to create a chest plate, then to make some facial chains and finally to introduce some futuristic-looking texture on her chest and shoulder armour.

Using it on different layers enables me to create a mask of my patterns, so I can paint inside them to depict dirt or worn edges.

06. Using what's already been done

Custom Photoshop brushes step 6

Reusing elements that you've already painted will save you time. Here I take the stone from her forehead to create a flying spy-bot collar (of course!).

I select the stone using the Lasso tool and then copy-paste it on to its own layer using Shift+Ctrl+C and Shift+Ctrl+V. I repaint the highlights and shadows by hand to avoid the copy-pasted feel.

07. Build up her collars

Custom Photoshop brushes step 7

I use several pattern brushes to create the illusion that my character is wearing a lot of collars around her neck. These brushes are so easy to create and will save you a lot of time.

I used them when working on Assassin's Creed 3 and Unity to make most of the patterns on the many costumes, like the yellow embroidery on Louis XVI's ornate outfit.

08. My Rorschach Techno brushes

Custom Photoshop brushes step 8

My happy accident Rorschach brushes can be tricky to create and calibrate, but they're just amazingly fun! Create a technical-looking shape and transform it into a brush.

Then in the Natural Media brush window put it on Dual Brush with another graphic-shaped brush and play around with the different sliders to get random shapes popping out of your brush.

09. Putting Rorschach to the test

Custom Photoshop brushes step 9

I create some random marks on the canvas. No matter what comes out, I try to see something interesting in the resulting shapes.

Then I double them, flip them, rotate them, and manipulate them with the Transform and Warp tools to generate something that look like either a helmet or a mask that my character would wear.

Custom Photoshop brushes step 9 B

This approach also works well when quickly concepting sci-fi vehicles, ships or robots. Once everything is in place, I often finish either painting my figure or using the rectangular Lasso tool to work out my shape into something that's more readable.

Finally, I make a mask out of my shapes and start painting inside and outside of them to incorporate them into my painting.

10. Refining the headdress

Custom Photoshop brushes step 10

I take a rake brush with a rust texture inside it and paint lights and shadows so that the headdress matches the rest of the painting. You can make your own textures to put inside your brushes by opening a texture photo and then selecting Edit> Define Pattern. It now appears inside your texture tab in the brush preset window. Reduce Flow to better integrate the texture.

11. Depicting folded cloth

Custom Photoshop brushes step 11

For my character's kimono outfit I create a simple rake brush. Then I set Angle Jitter to Pen Pressure and add a dirt texture in Color Dodge mode.

I give it a dual-brush setup with a simple Hard round brush, select Other Dynamics and choose Pen Pressure. Now my rake brush spins around itself in an irregular way – perfect for painting realistic folded cloth!

12. Paint, smudge and erase

Custom Photoshop brushes step 12

Custom brushes can be used for painting, but also for smudging, erasing, dodging, burning and so on! For example, you could paint a decoration on the clothes with a pattern brush and then erase inside your pattern using another pattern brush to achieve more cool effects and patterns. Dodging with a dirt brush can also be a great way to obtain realistic metallic surfaces.

13. Putting those final touches to the painting

Custom Photoshop brushes step 13

I drop all my layers and duplicate my background. Then I add a noise effect to the layer above (Noise set to 400 per cent). I repeat my noise effect a couple of times and then set the layer to Overlay with between 2 and 5 per cent Opacity.

I also use Gaussian Blur and Filter> Other>High Pass to adjust focus throughout my image. Then I drop all my layers again and then go to Channels. I move the red, green and blue channel each one by one pixel. This creates a pseudo 3D effect. Finally I play around with Color Balance to do my final colour tweaks.

Watch the full tutorial

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 119.

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