Not Your Typical Round Brush

Brush Settings

Reader Dan recently emailed me with this:

[I] think it would be a great idea to share some of your discoveries in the realm of brushes. I have been experimenting since I got my Wacom but still would love to hear what you have to say about things like opacity, flow, jitter…

So, in this tutorial, I’m going to give you a tour of the brush palette and some other simple brush settings. Working with just the standard round brush, I’ll show you how a few little tweaks can help get a more natural feel in your digital artwork.

The Pre-requisites

If you are trying to draw on the computer, the first thing you’ll need is a graphics tablet. If you’re trying to use a mouse, go spend a few bucks on a Wacom, then come back.

The Basics

Open up Photoshop and select a round brush. Where do you go from here? First, get to know the bracket keys ( [ ] ). They control the size of your brush, and you will use them often. Now, notice the settings at the top of your screen.

    Brush Properties

  • Mode – You will want this set to “Normal” most of the time, but you can get some cool effects with some of the other settings. Play around with them if you have the time.
  • Opacity – Lowering the opacity of your brush will make it more transparent, or lighter. You can also control this setting with the number keys. Press “5” for 50%, “3” for 30%, etc.

Now, on to the brush palette. If you can’t see it on your screen, go to Window–>Brushes. The different settings are listed on the left side. Navigate through them by clicking each of the names. As you can see, there are lots of things you can do to your brush.

For general drawing purposes, there are two settings you are always going to want to set when you select a new brush.

  • Shape Dynamics – Set the Size Jitter control to Pen Pressure. This makes it so that the radius of the brush changes with the amount of pressure you put on your pen, so you can get some thick/thin lines going on.

    Shape Dynamics Size Control

    Also note the Angle Jitter setting. You will sometimes want to set the control to Direction, depending on the brush you are using, With the round brush, this will make no difference.

  • Other Dynamics – Set the Opacity Jitter control to Pen Pressure to make the lightness/darkness of your brush strokes be affected by your pen as well.

    Other Dynamics Opacity Control

Some people don’t like having these both set at the same time, but you will almost always want one or the other. These two settings alone will make your drawing experience much more natural on the computer, so always look at them when you select a new brush.

Let’s Make It Interesting

The key to making your digital brushes look more natural is to add some “randomness” to them. Opacity and Shape Dynamics are a good start, but here are a few other options you will want to use often. These settings are all found in the brush palette.

  • Texture – I almost always have a texture applied to my brush while I am painting. Simply choose a pattern from the drop-down menu. For the best effect, you are going to want to scan in your own textures to use here. Find out more about this process in my texture tutorial.


    You will want to pay attention to the Mode of your texture. These can be fun to play with, but to make things simple, you probably only need one or two of them. The default setting is Color Burn, which creates a kind of dry-brush effect. Another mode I use often is Multiply. It’s hard to explain the difference between these two modes, but the painting experience is slightly different. Experiment with them to see which one you like.

  • Texture Mode

  • Color Dynamics – To see how this effect works, select two bright, very different colors for your foreground and background colors. Now, go to your brush palette and move the Foreground/Background jitter slider up and paint. Notice that the brush paints with both of the colors. With some more subtle colors and careful setting, this can be very useful for creating some color harmony in your painting.

    Foreground/Background colors Color Dynamics

    Foreground/Background Jitter

  • Wet Edges – Create a few overlapping strokes with this setting turned on. You will see that the individual brushstrokes are slightly lighter, with darker edges. This setting is most useful when trying to create a watercolor-like effect.

    Wet Edges

  • Scattering – Move the “Scatter” slider up. The brush will randomly place the shape of your brush tip along your stroke.

    Scattering Scattered Stroke

Some Sample Brushes and Their Settings

Here are some simple brushes to get you started. Experiment with changing these settings to your own liking. All of them were created with the basic round brush!

    The Ballpoint Pen

    Size: Very Small, 5-10px
    Opacity: 100%
    Mode: Normal
    Shape Dynamics: Size control set to Pen Pressure
    Other Dynamics: Opacity control set to Off
    Texture: None

    The Ballpoint Pen

    The Watercolor Brush

    Opacity: 50% or lower
    Mode: Multiply
    Shape Dynamics: Size control set to Off
    Other Dynamics: Opacity control set to Pen Pressure
    Texture: Use a rough paper texture, with mode set to Multiply
    Wet Edges: On

    The Watercolor Brush

    The Acrylic/Oil Brush

    Opacity: 100%
    Mode: Normal
    Shape Dynamics: Size control set to Off
    Other Dynamics: Opacity control set to Pen Pressure
    Texture: Experiment with using some high-contrast textures of canvas or gesso; set the mode to Multiply

    The Acrylic/Oil Brush

Once you are done experimenting with your brush settings and are becoming familiar with all the different effects, start experimenting with different brush shapes. Playing with Photoshop’s brushes can take away hours of your time (trust me!), but don’t get intimidated by the endless variety available to you. Just remember that you only need to keep a few simple settings in mind to really get started. Happy painting!

Questions? Comments? Additions? Leave a comment at I’d love to hear from ya!