How To Use The Brush Tool In Photoshop (Complete Guide)

There are specific tools in Photoshop that are staples in most projects, and one of those is the Brush Tool. You can use this tool to paint colors onto the canvas, and with other tools and functions, such as while masking. Knowing how to use the Brush Tool properly is essential for anyone who plans to use Photoshop regularly. Here’s a quick glance at how the tool works at a basic level:

To access the Brush Tool in Photoshop, press B on your keyboard. Right-click on your canvas to open the Brush Tip Preset window to choose the desired brush type, feather, and brush hardness. To begin painting with your active foreground color, simply click and drag over your canvas to paint.

Now the Brush Tool has many functions and settings that affect how the tool works on the canvas, and understanding these helps you use the tool to its full potential. While painting with the brush tool is relatively simple, I will show you the various types of brush tools that Photoshop offers, but you aren’t likely to use them as often. 

Then we’ll get into the relevant settings to get the most out of the tool. You will also learn how to customize the tool and import brushes into Photoshop, along with an excellent site for free brushes.

How To Access The Brush Tool

To access the Brush Tool in Photoshop, select the Brush Tool icon from the Toolbar. You can also press B to access the tool.

If you can’t see the Brush Tool icon on the toolbar, it may be because you previously selected another tool from the group, so look out for icons for the Pencil Tool, Color Replacement Tool, or the Mixer Brush Tool.

Once you select the tool, you can start painting immediately or adjust the settings to change how the tool behaves.

How To Paint With The Brush Tool

If you are ready to use the Brush Tool immediately, you can start without changing settings. However, there are a few things you do need to check or change before painting. First is the color that the brush will paint. 

Once you’ve selected the tool, the brush paints whatever foreground color is selected. To check or change the foreground color, look for the color blocks in the Toolbar. The color block in front is the foreground color, and the one at the back is the background color.

To change the foreground color, double-click on the color block to open the Color Picker dialogue box. In the Color Picker, select the color you want to use by choosing it from the Color panel or providing the Hex code, RGB, CMYK, HSB, or LAB numbers.

Once you select the color, click OK. Then adjust the brush size by opening the Brush Preset Picker from the Options bar and moving the slider left or right or adding a pixel value into the box. You can also decrease the brush size by pressing [ or increase the size by pressing ].

Then make sure you have your desired brush selected, choosing from the options in the same panel where you change the brush size. There are several brush groups you can choose from, including default brushes from Photoshop, any brushes you make yourself, and imported brushes which I will explain later.

Open a group and choose the brush you want to use. I will open the General Brushes group by pressing the arrow and then choose the Hard Round brush. A blue block indicates the brush you select.

Now that you’ve selected the brush color, size, and type — I will show you the more complex settings later — you can start painting on your canvas. To paint using the Brush Tool, click and drag the brush on the canvas to draw what you wish. Every line you create is a brush stroke.

To undo brush strokes, press Control + Z (Win) or Command + Z (Mac). If you want to keep the brush straight while drawing to make straight lines, hold the Shift key while you draw. 

Types Of Brush Tools In Photoshop

The Brush Tool explained above isn’t the only brush-type tool you can use in Photoshop; there are three other types of brush-type tools. While the method of using the tools is the same, the outcomes are different.

1. Brush Tool

The Brush Tool is the most commonly used tool in the group, and you can use it to paint lines and shapes on the canvas or image. The brush tool is also used on layer masks to add to the mask or remove from the mask.

You can use the Brush Tool, as explained in the section above. However, if you’d like to use the tool along with the layer mask, the process is primarily the same, with a few differences. For instance, if you are given the following design as a JPEG and want to paint out the background using a layer mask, you can do so with the Brush Tool.

First, add a layer mask by clicking the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Then select the Brush Tool (B), and change the foreground color to black. When using the Brush Tool to alter a layer mask, remember that painting with black hides the sections of the layer, and white reveals the sections of the layer.

Then, create a selection of the background using any quick selection tool to make things easier, and click and drag the brush to hide the layer’s background.

Continue painting, then press Control + D (Win) or Command + D (Mac) to deselect the selection. You have now removed the background using a layer mask and the Brush Tool.

Use the Brush Tool for instances where you are adding or removing parts of a layer mask or to draw lines on the canvas. However, you can also use these brush strokes to get creative with images.

For example, adding brush strokes over an image with a different Blend Mode. To do this, change the Blend Mode of the Brush Tool in the Options bar. For this example, I will use Color Burn.

Then draw over the image on your canvas. The brush stroke is now added with the Blend Mode you have chosen. You can only change the brush’s Blend Mode before drawing with the tool and not after you have made the stroke.

2. Pencil Tool

The Pencil Tool is very similar to the Brush Tool, although it creates hard-edge lines on the canvas. This tool makes strokes on the canvas the same way as the brush strokes.

To use the Pencil Tool, click and hold the Brush Tool icon until the fly-out menu appears. Then select the Pencil Tool.

You can adjust the settings as explained in the Brush Tool section and click and drag the pencil over the canvas. However, you can’t change the Flow with the Pencil Tool. The result looks very similar to the brush strokes.

To demonstrate the difference between the tools, I will need to change the brush type to a soft brush. The Pencil Tool doesn’t produce fuzzy edges even when you use a soft brush. As you can see, the second line looks almost identical to the first line drawn using a hard brush.

The Pencil Tool can be used to draw hard-edged lines and is an excellent tool to use along with a graphics tablet to create calligraphy lettering.

3. Color Replacement Tool

The Color Replacement Tool is next in the fly-out menu in the Brush Tool group. This tool replaces the color that you brush over. While the brush isn’t the most accurate method of changing color in Photoshop, it is a helpful solution for quick color changes.

To use the Color Replacement Brush, select it from the fly-out menu.

Then, set the foreground color to the new color you want to paint your object.

You can adjust the settings in the Options bar. The most significant settings to change are:

The Mode: Choose between Hue, Saturation, Color, or Luminosity. The brush will replace the properties of the Mode you select without affecting the other properties.

The Sampling: Choose between Continuous, which samples the color to replace as you brush, Sample Once, which only samples the first color you select and replaces that color only, or Background Swatch, which uses the background color as the one to replace on the image.

Once you’ve chosen your settings, paint over the object to replace the color using your selected color. You can adjust the Brush Size to paint over smaller or larger areas.

The small plus sign inside the brush circle indicates which color you are replacing. You must always keep the plus sign over the color you are changing. The circle of the brush can extend beyond the color to help you paint the object’s edges.

Keep brushing over the entire object to change the color. You will notice that the color replacement matches the highlights and shadows of the original color.

The Color Replacement Tool is best used when changing the color of small objects that are different from the background color. It’s harder to change the color of objects on similar colored backgrounds because the brush will likely begin changing the background color too.

4. Mixer Brush Tool

The Mixer Brush Tool is similar to the Brush Tool. However, it gives you a more realistic painting experience. This tool allows you to mix colors on the canvas, change the brush’s “wetness,” the amount of paint loaded in the brush, and more.

To use the Mixer Brush Tool, select it from the fly-out menu under the Brush group.

You can then paint on the canvas as you would using the Brush Tool.

However, you see the magic of this tool when you adjust the settings. To start, you can change the color of the brush. To do this, click on the color block in the Options bar and choose a new color from the Color picker.

Now, if you paint using the new color and paint over parts of the old color, the two colors mix on the canvas as an actual paintbrush would do.

Other necessary settings include:

  • Wet: this determines how “wet” the paint is. 0% wetness means that the colors won’t mix. In contrast, 100% indicates the colors mix well.
  • Load: The load determines how quickly the paint “dries out” or how much paint is loaded into the brush. A low load means the color runs out after small amounts of painting, while a high load percentage results in continuous paint flowing out the brush.
  • Mix: Sets the ratio that the two colors mix.
  • Flow: Determines how much paint comes off the brush for each stroke. A low flow number means the paint looks faded, while a high rate gives a full brush color.

The Mixer Brush Tool creates realistic painting elements on an image to mimic actual brush strokes from a paintbrush. This tool allows you to add creative features to your work.

Brush Tool Settings Explained

You can play around with numerous settings when using the Brush Tool. However, here are the most noteworthy settings to ensure you get the most out of this tool.

1. Brush Tip

When using the Brush Tool, one of the first things you should do is select the right brush tip for your project. Photoshop has several brush presets that you can choose from for your projects. You can also create or import new brushes into the program, which I will touch on later. 

To access the various brush tips, select the Brush Tool (B) and open the Brush Preset Window by clicking on the arrow in the Options bar. The block at the bottom contains the preset brushes.

The default preset brushes and any brushes you create or import into Photoshop are separated into folders. You can navigate through the folders to choose the brush tip you need for your project.

To demonstrate the various brush tip options, I have cut the subject of my image out of the background and added a layer between the foreground and background. I can now add cool effects using the brushes.

First, I draw a line behind the subject using the Hard Round brush. The hard brush has well-defined edges and is best when you need solid and obvious brush strokes.

Then, I can draw another line after switching to the Soft Round brush. This brush creates a feathered line and is an excellent brush tip when working with layer masks. The soft brushes blend colors and masks well.

You can also move away from the general brushes and try one of the brushes from the Special Effects folder. These brush tips are more creative such as spatters.

You can now choose the best brush tip for your project.

2. Brush Size

You can adjust the Brush Size while you paint to create smaller or larger brush strokes. The first way of changing the brush size is to use the Size slider in the Brush Preset Window, sliding left to decrease or right to increase the size. Or you can press [ to decrease the size or ] to increase the size quickly while you work.

You can adjust the size of the Special Effects brushes for a different creative effect. Using the same brush as earlier, I can create larger spatters by increasing the brush size to 5000.

3. Brush Hardness

The Brush Hardness determines how well-defined the edges of the brush stroke are. This setting doesn’t work on all the brush presets, such as the Special Effects brushes. The preset brushes in Photoshop generally have a pre-defined hardness value, with the Hard Round brush (100% Hardness) being harder than a Soft Round brush (0% Hardness).

You can adjust the Hardness of a preset brush by adjusting the slider in the Brush Preset Window. 

You can adjust the hardness to create various effects. Softer brushes make a feathered effect, whereas harder brushes have definite edges. For instance, using a brush set to 100% hardness to create a circle around the subject of the image looks very different from using a brush set to 50% or 0% hardness. 

Note: Clicking once using the round brush preset creates a circle rather than a brush stroke.

4. Flow

The next setting in the Options bar to consider is the Flow slider. This slider determines the speed at which the paint flows from the brush. This slider allows you to paint faded brush strokes and increase the intensity by brushing over a spot multiple times. Adjusting the Flow lets you add elements to your images, such as light and shadows.

To demonstrate the flow of a brush, I select the Hard Round Brush preset and set the flow to 100%. When I draw a straight line, the color is bold.

Then, I reduce the Flow to 10% and draw a diagonal and another straight line. You can see how the lines are much lighter than the initial line. More importantly, even though I didn’t let go of the mouse while creating the lines, the color darkened where the lines overlapped.

The darkening of the lines when they overlap mimics when you use a paintbrush on a piece of paper, which is the key difference from the Opacity setting.

Now, you may be wondering how this setting is practical. There are many uses when adjusting the flow; one is adding subtle highlights and shadows to an image. By adding a blank layer over your photo and changing the Blend Mode to Soft Light, you can use black and white to paint highlights and shadows over the image.

Set the Flow to a low percentage, such as 10%, and set the foreground color to white. Then, paint over the areas to highlight in the image. You can build the effect up as you brush, mimicking a paintbrush. Then, switch to black and paint over the shadows.

You will notice the highlights in the hair have brightened, and the darker areas are bolder.

5. Opacity

The Opacity setting determines how much transparency is in the brush stroke. You can use this setting to create semi-transparent brush strokes. 

The main difference between Opacity and Flow is that if you keep brushing over the stroke with a low opacity, it won’t darken as the Flow setting does. You need to let go of the mouse and paint a new stroke over the original if you want to darken the stroke a bit more.

Using the Soft Round brush, here is a stroke with the opacity set to 100% and then to 50%.

6. Smoothing

The Smoothing setting is helpful to reduce hand-shake, especially when using a mouse rather than a pen and graphics tablet. The Smoothing is set to 10% by default, but you can easily adjust this when you need a smoother stroke.

Remember that increasing the Smoothing percent results in a slower brush stroke to keep the line steady. Here I will draw a straight line (without holding in Shift) while the Smoothing is set to 10%. Then compare it to a straight line drawn with Smoothing set to 100%.

While the second line still isn’t perfect, you can see how much the Smoothing reduced the hand-shake that’s obvious in the first line.

How To Customize Your Brush Settings

The Brush Tool settings in the Options bar are not the only ways to adjust the tool. You can also use the Brush Settings panel to customize your brush for your project.

To access these additional settings, open the Brush Settings panel. If you can’t find it in the docked or stacked panels, navigate to Window > Brush Settings to open it.

The Brush Settings panel offers the settings I have already gone over and much more. You can use this panel to choose a brush tip, adjust the size, and change the brush’s hardness.

You can then customize the brush further by adjusting the following:

  • Angle: works on shaped brushes to change the direction of the brush
  • Flip X and Y: flip or rotate a brush tip on a vertical or horizontal plane
  • Roundness: determines how square or round the brush tip is
  • Spacing: sets the amount of space between each brush tip

You can play around with these settings to see how they work, but the interesting one is the spacing. This setting changes how far apart the brush tips are, allowing you to create a scattered line or a smooth stroke.

You can also navigate through the various tabs on the side of the panel to adjust settings such as scattering, texture, jitter, noise, and so much more. This panel gives you several options to customize the Brush Tool for your unique project.

How To Import & Use New Photoshop Brushes

Despite having so many options to create unique brushes, you may be unable to make the actual brush you need or not have the time to do it. While you can make a custom brush out of an object or image, this still takes up your time. Instead, you can easily find plenty of free brushes online that you can download and import into Photoshop for your projects.

The first step is to find a free brush set online, such as this Free Lightning Photoshop Brushes 2 set from Brusheezy. Then download it using the download link on the page.

Unzip the folder if necessary by right-clicking and clicking the Extract All button (Win) or double-clicking on the folder (Mac).

Then, in Photoshop, open the Brush Preset Window, click the settings gear icon and select Import Brushes.

This option opens your File Explorer or Finder window, letting you find where you saved the new brushes. Click on the ABR file and click Load.

Your brushes are now in Photoshop, ready for you to use. You can find them at the bottom of the Brush Preset Window in a new folder.

Select your new brush and try it out on your image to see the epic new effects you can create. 

P.S: I added the new brush strokes to a new layer and changed the Blend Mode to Divide to create this effect.

The Brush Tool in Photoshop is one of the most valuable and versatile tools in the program, and with the full view of what it’s capable of, its potential is limitless!

Happy Editing!

Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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