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Coming from a lifetime of using oil paint on canvas I feel strange to be talking about painting in PS. They are fundamentally different things. Most traditional painters place value on the materiality of the paint, that is to say that they want their paint to look like paint as well as looking like the thing that it is being painted. PS painting is a very different matter. It will never have a materiality other than pixels (and maybe as a print onto a sheet of paper), but that is it’s strength. With PS we have the ability to ability to get inside the skin of the photograph and to be as immaculate as the photograph itself.


Don’t even think about digital painting without first getting a Graphics Tablet. Painting with a mouse is like trying to dance whilst wearing Wellington boots. Though there are a number of companies who manufacture them, but the only real contender in the field is Wacom. I would recommend a Wacom Bamboo. They are the smaller ‘consumer’ versions, with a lesser pen sensitivity range than their bigger cousins. However, they are perfectly serviceable and hold down less desk space than the pro versions. I find all tablets a bit 'slippery' to the feel. To counter this I usually tape an A4 sheet of cartridge paper over the drawing surface. I have been told that this lessens the life of the pen but life is cheap.

Tablet settings

In my experience, the tablet becomes a lot easier to use if a few settings are changed in its preferences. The default way that the movement of the pen is mapped across the screen can feel strange and might benefit from being edited. However, they are called preferences for a reason... it is up to you.

In Mac OS the driver can be found in the System Preferences under the Apple menu. In Windows it can be found in Control Panel. There is a chance that the driver software is not there, yet the tablet appears to work. However, do NOT be tempted to carry on using it. The functionality that comes without appropriate driver support is limited at best.

In the driver the default mapping setting for the pen will be ‘Pen’ mode (below)

Painting 01.png

Change it to ‘Mouse’ mode.

Painting 02.png

Whilst you are there tweak the ‘Acceleration’ and ’Speed’ settings until you are happy with them. These settings will depend upon the size and resolution settings of your monitor and on your personal taste. Now you are good to go. Using a pen mouse might seem strange at first but you will eventually get used to it.

Constrained lines

Constraining a line limits it to painting straight lines. To do this: click once where you want the brush mark to begin, then click where you want it to end whilst holding down the Shift key. This method, paradoxically, is useful for getting reasonably accurate curves (which can be built up from many small, straight lines).

Flow rate vs transparency

Flow Rate controls the ‘speed’ with which the paint comes from the brush and for shadows and suchlike it can sometimes be set as low as three or four. But sometimes even a setting of one isn't low enough. To deal with this you can increase the Spacing setting (in the Brush Pallet). This gives the impression of an even lower flow rate.

Why didn't you instead play with the Transparency settings of the Brush? Here’s why:

Painting 03.jpg

The scribble on the right was made with a brush set to a very low flow rate (2 in this case). The scribble on the left was made with a brush set to a Transparency of 20 (Transparency and Flow are not equitable). No matter how much I scribbled I could not build up an opacity.

Painting 04.jpg

The only way I can get any change is to stop the brush stroke and start a new one. Here you can see five separate brush strokes on top of each other. Notice how they accumulate an opacity. Moral: be careful how (and if) you use transparency with a brush.


Brushes are common to the Paint, Clone, Blur and a whole bunch of other tools. Familiarity with the brush is really important to PS use. A digital brushstroke has a tendency to look 'stuck on' and flat. This is often a result of its lack of texture and overly defined edges. Try these tips-n-tricks to give your brushwork more 'vavoom'.

  • Change the Size and Hardness of the Brush (I am constantly doing this).
  • Use the Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools to change the tones and color of the brushstroke (useful for small, local areas).
  • Use Levels, Curves or Hue Saturation to adjust tones and colors (useful if you want to change entire areas).
  • Use Edit / Fade Command. This command fades the last thing you did (usually). You can also use this to change the Blend Mode of the brushwork.
  • Blur using either Gaussian Blur (entire areas) or the Blur Tool (small, local areas).
  • Use Quick Mask (Q) to quickly paint on a selection just so you can adjust that bit.
  • After painting your stroke, re-size it to become very small. Then re-size again to large. If you repeat this a few times the pixels of the brushstroke become ‘stressed’ and take on a natural looking unevenness.
  • Selectively erase parts of it.
  • Use a really low Flow Rate (below 10).

The Brush Pallet

The best way to get an interesting brush is through its settings in the Brush Palette. This can be a bit confusing to navigate. It has three faces:

Brush: Brush tip shape edit

Painting 08.png

This changes the Hardness and Softness of the brush (also available through the Contextual Menu). Also the spacing. Most importantly the 'stamp shape' of the brush. For most purposes the default round stamp is fine. Some painters make a big deal out of specialist stamp shapes but most painters can get by without them quite happily.

Brush: parameters

Painting 07.png

This offers the ability to change the way that your Brush behaves: making it change it’s shape, flow, transparency etc according to how hard you are pressing the stylus, how far the brush has traveled etc. It is not as important as you might think and, personally, seem to be able to get by without using it much. The only settings that I would use on it are those found in:
Shape Dynamics
The settings here are useful for getting the brush mark to get fatter if you press the stylus harder, just like in a real brush. If you want to make realistic hairs this is the place to go, although a hair brush will also require its Transfer parameters played with (see below). One important setting easily overlooked in the dynamic control pull-down menu affiliated with the Angle Jitter.

Painting 11.png

In the image on the left above the Angle Jitter Control is switched off. This is fine for painting things like stamp trees. In the one on the right is is set to Direction. This is more suitable for hair or beard stubble that is intended top follow the direction of the form.

A brush mark is not made from a solid line of (digital) paint. It is made from lots of separate instances of the brush tip shape. Spacing places these instances further apart. Scattering does what you would expect it to. I have used this on a number of occasions when I want to make things like entrails and stalactites (and stalagmites).
Useful for getting organic edges to your brush, though not hugely useful. Pretty good results can be had just by choosing one of the default Spatter brushes from the Brush Menu or from playing with the scattering settings.
Color Dynamics
varies the color properties of the brush. These are tied to the Foreground and Background colors that are set in the Toolbox.
This is where they hide the Opacity and Flow settings. Good for getting a brush mark to fade away. These setting should be changed if you are trying to paint a fade out line such as those that are needed for painting hair.

Painting 05.jpg

These three brush marks were achieved by playing around with Scattering, Shape Dynamics and Other Dynamics. All of them use basic style, round brushes.

Painting 06.jpg

This brush was made using a combination of the settings above and a shaped brush (in this case one that is shaped like a hair). The big difference between shaped brushes and ordinary brushes (apart from that they are funny shapes) is that the hardness is not adjustable on shaped brushes.

Brush Presets

Painting 09.png

Here is where edited sets of brush shape and brush parameter can be stored. Not as wildly useful as you might think (in fact in any new installation I delete half of these).

Define brush

A brush is, at heart, just a stamp that is being repeated very quickly. The spacing between this stamps can be adjusted in the Brush Tip Shape pallet. Though there are 1,000,000s of brushes online and in the default install, I have found that it is perfectly possible to get by with just a few (in fact I delete a whole lot from the default set). However, it is sometimes needful to make new brushes that respond to particular needs. A good example is a 'leaf brush', that can be used to make leaves on a tree (though they are not suitable for really close inspection).

From the Edit menu such a custom brush may be defined from a selection of paint. Two things must first be ensured:

  1. That the paint that constitutes your new brush shape is against a transparent background. Sometimes, if you are working on a new file, it is easier to make a new PS doc rather than switch off 100s of laters to get to the transparency.
  2. The brush shape is defined from a grey paint thin / thickness only. So... no colors will register in the new brush, and any non-opaque areas of the stamp will remain as such (e.g. a thinly painted area).
  3. The selection that is drawn round the brush shape must be from the Rectangular Marquee Tool (from the Toolbox).

Painting 10.png

The funky colored ants above have been made with a custom brush and the following settings adjusted in the Brush pallet:

  • Shape dynamics (Size Jitter, Minimum Diameter, Angle Jitter)
  • Scattering (Scatter, Count)
  • Color Dynamics (Foreground/Background Jitter, Hue Jitter, Saturation Jitter)

Cutting in

This hand is to be masked out manually. The sharp edge folds in the cloth and the small negative shapes are very hard to paint inside of.
Here is a poorly painted mask (junk mask shown as green). Its edges are very 'rounded'. The temptation is to refine the mask using a tiny brush (laborious and inaccurate).
The solution is to employ the 'cutting in'® method. Stage one: paint-out with a black, ignoring the fact that you are overpainting.
Stage two: cut-in with white:.
Stage three: bake until cooked.

Obviously cutting in is as useful in RGB painting as it is in mask painting.