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The Brush Tool

More features than you can shake a stick at...

Brush Tool The brush tool is one of the most useful tools in Photoshop Elements, with an excellent range of features available. This also means it has one of the most comprehensive option bars in the program though, and it's easy to feel a little bit lost, or simply overlook many of the features available.

I'm aware of the length of this article, but there are so many hidden 'gems' concerning the brush tool, that I really wanted to bring some of them to light. So my advice? Wait until you've got five minutes free, and then sit down with a steaming cup of your favorite beverage, and an open Photoshop Elements window on the side, and read this article from start to finish, experimenting as you go. :)

This article explains both the basic use of the brush tool, and what all of the extra options do, in a simple and easy to follow order. When explaining the options, I will move along the options bar from left to right.

For reference, the options bar for the brush tool is shown below, along with some of the panels that appear when you click on certain parts of the bar. Click the image to see an enlarged version.

Brush Tool Options Bar

A Blank Canvas

The best way to absorb the amount of information on this page is to use it straight away, so open up Photoshop Elements, and pull up a blank canvas by clicking 'File - New - Blank File'. To begin with, also set your palette colors to black and white, by clicking the tiny black and white squares at the bottom left of the palette.

Start From The Beginning

It's best to start with the absolute basics. Using the Photoshop Elements brush tool is really very simple. Select the tool, and click and drag around an empty canvas to see the effect. Assuming you've got a default brush selected, you should get a circular brush mark following your cursor.

The brush tool uses the top color of your palette, in this case black. If you change the palette color, the brush will draw in the new color.

Quick Extras

There are some simple extra features to be aware of too. Holding the Shift key as you draw will force the brush to stay on a straight horizontal or vertical line. Also try holding shift and clicking on several different points of the canvas. The brush will draw straight lines between the points at which you click.

Holding the Control key while using the brush tool, quickly activates the move tool, so you can move layers or shapes around without going to the toolbar. Equally, holding the Alt key temporarily activates the eyedropper tool, so you can change the top color of your palette to one already in your image.

Right clicking on the canvas with the brush tool brings up the brush selection panel, which can also be accessed through the options bar, which brings me to my next section.

Options, Options, Options

The brush tool has LOTS of options, so get ready to go through them step by step. We'll be traveling along the bar from left to right, so follow along using the image near the start of the page, or the options bar in your program.

The very first button on the options bar is used for resetting the tool. Basically if you want to restore all the defaults, click this button, and then click the menu item that appears, reading 'Reset Tool'. I've written a separate article on this function here if you're interested.

The next three buttons allow switching between the three different brush tools. This tutorial only concentrates on the primary brush tool, but you can also use the Impressionist Brush and the Color Replacement Brush.

The Brush Selection Panel

The next item on the options bar is a drop down box showing a brush stroke. When you click on it, the brush selection panel is displayed, the same panel that appears if you right click on the canvas.

The brush selection panel looks something like this by default:

Brush Selection Palette

You may have noticed that in my original picture, my brushes appear in squares, instead of as strokes. This is because I changed the view by clicking on the 'Large Thumbnail' menu item, highlighted in the image above. Click the circled arrow to display this menu, and experiment with the six different views, to see the display options available to you.

The other useful drop down box on this panel is the top box, which lets you change the brush set. Select a different brush set to see additional brushes available to you.

I offer several free sets of brushes, available for download here.

Once a brush set has been chosen, clicking on any picture in the list below selects that brush, and thereafter the brush tool will draw using that stroke. Experiment with some of the different brushes available.

In general, there are two types of brush. Some are strokes, like those found under 'Default Brushes' and 'Faux Finish Brushes'. Others are picture brushes, like those found under 'Special Effect Brushes' and in many of my own brush sets.

The other menu items displayed when you click the circled arrow are beyond the scope of this article, but more can be read about them in other brush articles.

One last thing to note here: If you want to see more (or less) brushes at the same time, resize the brush selection panel using the bottom right corner of the panel.

Brush Sizes

The next item on the options bar allows you to change the size of any brush. A brush has to be at least 1 pixel wide, and can be a maximum of 2500 pixels wide, or 999 pixels in some older versions. You can either type a value into the box, or use the slider that appears when you click the drop down arrow.


The next item on the options bar is the blend mode drop down box. This controls how the brush strokes you make interact with the existing image. The brush blending options are mostly identical to the layer blending options found in the Layers panel, with a few exceptions.

The function of each individual blend mode is beyond the realm of this article. Experiment with each one though, to discover the different effects that you can achieve.

The Opacity setting also allows you to blend your brush strokes into the current image. Again you can type in a value or use the slider provided. 100% gives a totally opaque brush, 0% gives a completely invisible brush, and I'll leave all degrees in between to you.

The next item is also related to how your stroke blends into the image. The airbrush toggle button turns on or off an airbrush effect. Basically if the option is turned on, the longer you hold your brush in one spot, the more 'virtual paint' will be applied there, similar to the way a real airbrush works. It's best to play about with this option to observe the effect.

Tablet Functions

The next drop down options panel allows you to use pressure sensitive drawing tablets with Photoshop Elements more effectively. If you have a device connected, checking the different boxes will dictate which properties of the brush stroke are affected by pressing harder on the tablet.

For example if you tick 'Opacity', the harder you press the more opaque the brush stroke will be, the less you push down the more invisible. These options are only really useful if you have a pressure sensitive drawing device.

More Options!?!

In case that wasn't enough options already, Adobe decided to go and add one last panel called 'More Options'!!! Some parts of this panel are only used for defining the properties of standard brushes, like the ones found in the 'Default Brushes' set, but many of the options will have an effect on any brush.

To save you traveling right to the top of the page to see what I'm referring to, the 'More Options' panel is featured below:

More Brush Options

Many of these settings are reasonably self explanatory with a little experimentation, but I'll state their functions anyway. They mostly control the individual marks which Photoshop inserts to make up an ordinary brush stroke. Remember that all strokes are just a collection of singular marks.

Some of these options are rather fun. They allow you to turn a standard black stroke into something like the stroke featured below with great ease. That's one brush stroke pictured below!

The Effect of Brush Options


The first slider dictates how far apart the individual brush marks appear when you drag the brush tool in a stroke. This value is expressed as a percentage of the total brush size, the one you specified back when we were looking at the brush size option.

For example if you specify 100%, the brush marks should be spaced so that their edges just meet. A value of 50% and they should overlap by exactly half. 25% is the default, and here they really blend into a stroke. Select a hard edged default brush and experiment to see how it all works.


The next option is the Fade slider. This one is slightly counter-intuitive, and confused me slightly at first. If the value is 0, then no fading occurs at all, and the brush remains at the opacity you specified for as long as your stroke lasts.

If the value is greater than 0, then it specifies the number of brush marks to be drawn before the brush becomes completely invisible.

For example if you select 10, then the first brush mark will be fully opaque, the second will have an opacity of only 90%, the third 80%, and so on until the 10th mark is not visible. Usually values in the 100s are good for making a brush stroke fade out gradually.

Hue Jitter

The Hue Jitter slider is used to control the color of the brush marks. If the Hue Jitter is set to 0%, the entire brush stroke will be exactly the color in the top slot of your palette. As you increase the jitter, the brush marks in your stroke start to vary in color between the two hues in your palette.

For example if you select blue and red in your palette, and set the Hue Jitter to 100%, each individual brush mark will be of a random color somewhere in between blue and red. If you only set the jitter to 50%, none of the brush marks will ever be completely red, but they'll vary between blue, and the purple color exactly half way between red and blue.

This is a really fun option to play with, and a setting far too commonly overlooked.


The next slider will not be active for all brushes. The Hardness setting refers to the diameter of the hard inner circle drawn in a round brush stroke. This setting will work for brushes like those found in the 'Default Brushes' set, but not for picture brushes like those found in the 'Special Effect Brushes' set.

A very low value will give a very soft circle, with edges that fade out gradually. Higher values give circles with better defined edges, that don't blend as gradually in.


The final slider dictates how rigidly the brush marks stick to the line of your stroke. It is again expressed as a percentage of the brush size, and the distances work the same as with the Spacing slider.

If the Scatter value is set to 0, each brush mark will be centered exactly on the line of your cursor. If the Scatter value is set to higher values, each mark will exhibit a random deviation from its intended position. This allows less rigid brush strokes to be made, and can give a more natural feel.

Angle and Roundness

The next two options can be controlled by using the circle in the white box, found near the bottom left corner of the panel, if you prefer not to type in values. The angle option lets you specify a rotation, by which each brush mark will be revolved. This might be useful if you have a picture brush you wish to print upside down for example.

In some other versions of Photoshop there is an Angle Jitter option, which allows a random element to be applied to this rotation as well, but Photoshop Elements does not contain this feature.

The Roundness property allows you to squash a brush. It can turn a circle into an oval, or if you are using a picture brush, distort the image. 100% is the proper proportion, and lower values cause distortion.

Keeping The Settings

The final option available to you is a check box labeled 'Keep These Settings For All Brushes'. If this box is not checked, any changes you make to the appearance of a brush stroke will be lost when you switch to another brush. Check the box to maintain the extra options between brushes.

Finishing Up

That about wraps it up for the brush tool. It's certainly a fantastic instrument, and if all the options are put to use, can be an even greater asset to your tool panel.

If you found the information in this article useful, try subscribing to my newsletter to receive free monthly tips and tutorials on Photoshop Elements. You'll also be the first to know when I put new brush sets on the site for free download. Sign up here!

If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know via my contact page. I'm always glad to hear new ideas and opinions.

Kind Regards

Robert Redwood Robert Redwood - Bio
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