Make better images: Textures and brushes

Try out new tactics for creating depth and texture across your portfolio. You can also get hold of great free Photoshop brushes online.

01 Use contrasts
One thing that's really important in textures is contrast - and not only the contrast between light and dark. Always try to include as many opposites in your work as possible. Maximising contrast between blurred and sharp elements of the texture can be a possibility too. There are plenty of potential contrasts that can add depth of field to your artwork.

02 The top layer
Using a texture over your work can give the work more soul. You can try different blending modes, particularly Soft Light and Screen, to see what looks best. Combining different textures and blending modes can look amazing, too.

03 Mix it up
Rik Oostenbroek says: "At one point I created every piece in Photoshop, without using anything else. After discovering things like my scanner, Adobe Illustrator and Cinema 4D, though, I realised you can come up with really cool new things if you mix up your media and apps." Importing elements such as self-brushed textures or new vector shapes can improve your usual style, and might give you new ways to express yourself and add a unique edge to your work.

04 Make some noise
Adding noise is a quick way of giving your image a grain effect, and can even be deployed to give 3D objects and gradients a 'real' look and feel. The Film Grain options box in Photoshop yields several options; play around with the amount of grain, the highlight area and the overall intensity of the effect but be careful not to overdo it.

05 Experiment for interest
Scanners are a great means of experimenting with textures. Using two layers of protective acetate sheet or cling film, you can 'sandwich' anything from paint and ink drops to rusty metal or even foodstuffs to create intricate textures on separate layers without damaging your kit.

06 Get real
Everywhere you go there are textures ripe for creative use. Take your camera out and capture some interesting surfaces such as walls or pavements. Import them into Photoshop, clean them up a bit if necessary, and experiment with varying blending modes to add a tactile look to the texture.

07 Rough and ready
Using photocopiers and fax machines may seem antiquated, but they can yield some thoroughly usable texture effects. If you can get your hands on one, try printing your image out, then re-scanning it. Import it back in to Photoshop where you can then use it as a background layer with a Multiply blending mode to add an underlying texture.

08 Texture and lightning
We all work with shapes from time to time, but the only way to make our work more unique is to put some extra effects in it. Maybe blend old paper textures with your shapes to give them a sense of textural realism. Placing a gradient overlay over the shape could work well too. Pick the black-white basic gradient and set its blending mode to Overlay. Soft brushing some edges with darker and brighter colours can do the trick, too.

09 Add in adjustment layers
Try incorporating adjustment layers when you're close to being finished. It can vastly improve the final version of your piece. "The layers I use most are Color Balance, Brightness/Contrast and Selective Color," says Rik Oostenbroek. "I especially enjoy the Color Balance layer, as it can change the entire feeling of an image in a matter of seconds."

10 Warp Transform tool
The Warp Transform tool is especially interesting to use with textures. Experiment with the tool for warping stock images into the direction and perspective that really works for your pieces.

Follow our advice for getting to grips with the most crucial of illustration tools

01 Get a tablet
To fully make use of the brushes in the major applications, you really need a tablet. Once you have a tablet hooked up, all the various brush options like pressure sensitivity, opacity, colour dynamics, shape and scattering become accessible. It also enables you to create work in a more intuitive way.

02 Take note of default brushes
It's easy to forget that applications like Photoshop, Painter and Illustrator all come with brush libraries that have been created as default toolsets. Basic round head, soft, calligraphic, natural, wet and dry brushes are all useful, and for many jobs they are all you really need, so don't overlook them.

03 Rotate brushes
It's an oft-overlooked ability in the Brush presets, but simply changing the rotation of a brush can produce some dramatic effects. It's a feature worth playing around with if you're looking for something new, although it's obviously far more effective with brushes other than the basic circle tip!

04 Get blending
For more realistic painting, your digital paint can be blended to produce soft transitions of colour. Corel Painter currently has the largest selection of brushes that replicate traditional media, blending paint in possibly the most realistic fashion. Photoshop CS5 has introduced some new bristle brushes that accomplish a similar effect and, in older versions of the program, using the Smudge tool with a low opacity also works well.

05 Manage your brushes
Many people are so busy downloading or creating custom brushes that they don't see their brush library becoming a chaotic nightmare. Try to house your most used brush types in a default brush library, and create new brush libraries for the others. Name the library files in a way that will enable you to swap libraries in and out with ease for the job you are working on.

06 See beyond the Brush cursor
The Brush cursor is usually set by default to the standard outline of the brush tip, which changes size as you increase or decrease the brush size. For the most part this is a fine way to paint, but occasionally, for detailed work or when you're zoomed in, this display of the brush can get in the way. Temporarily switch over to the cross hairs of the Precise cursor by hitting the Caps Lock on.

07 Download custom brushes
If you feel unsure about the process of creating your own brush or are too pushed for time, there are plenty of sites dedicated to sharing brushes that others have created. Most are free for personal or commercial use but some do require a credit, so check what you download. Most brush repositories enable you to search for what you're after using basic filtering, so it can be a quick way of finding a new effect.

08 Make custom brushes
Applications like Photoshop, Painter and Illustrator give you the ability to make a new Brush preset quickly, fine-tune the opacity, stroke and pressure, then save it for further use. Textures, marks from other brushes, photographs - these can all be made into new brushes to breathe life into your work.

09 Add a layer style
When painting on layers, your brush strokes can be given an extra dimension with the addition of a layer style. Simple brush marks can adopt a variety of effects that can remain editable throughout your workflow.

10 Ditch the Dodge and Burn tools
Many creatives use the Dodge and Burn tools. Most do so with subtlety, although some act as though they're wielding a sledgehammer. Instead of jumping straight to these tools, try the brush but change its mode to Color Dodge or Color Burn. It will work best on a very low opacity and flow, and instead of using a colour to paint - which can have some undesirable effects - try using a mid-range dark grey.

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