Photoshop comes with a remarkable variety of custom brush shapes. Whether you’re painting, erasing or using just about any tool that incorporates a brush, you can change the characteristics of that brush to make it more effective. Better still, plenty of designers and photographers have created unique custom brushes that can be purchased or even downloaded for free. These brushes provide a world of editing options that round brushes—no matter how hard or soft you can make them—simply can’t compete with.
But did you know there’s another option for custom brushes in Photoshop? You can actually make your own and, believe it or not, the process is super simple. Here’s how it works.
Start with a photograph of any object that you’d like to turn into a brush. I’ve most often used this technique with organic shapes such as clouds, leaves and foliage, but there’s no reason you can’t make a brush out of any object at all. (Clouds are especially practical because with a single click of a single color at a fairly low opacity, a photographer can add interest to a blank blue sky. When it comes to foliage, leaf-shaped brushes are a great way to fill in voids in a tree line or otherwise attractive greenery.
For the brush samples shown here, I started with a snapshot of a sky with clouds, as well as a close-up photograph of a leaf. It helps in each case for the subject and background to have strong contrast—either light on dark, as with the clouds, or dark on light like the leaf. In either case, the brush itself will need to be dark on a light background, so invert the image if needed (Ctrl+I). Then convert the image to grayscale by typing Ctrl+Shift+U to desaturate or switching to grayscale in the Image>Mode menu.
Next, use the freehand lasso tool to draw a selection around the object you’d like to turn into a brush. It doesn’t have to be accurate; just make sure the entirety of the object is selected. Copy and paste that object into a new document. (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+N and Ctrl+V will accomplish this.) Alternatively, you can simply crop down the original image so that the object to be turned into a brush all but fills the frame.
In either case, the next step is to use Curves or Levels or Brightness/Contrast controls to make the image appear high contrast. You don’t have to eliminate the middle gray tones, but you want a clear and distinct dark object against a white background. Editing away any extraneous elements you don’t want included in the brush (such as stems from leaves or wispy portions of the cloud) will help make the brush clearer and more distinctive. If necessary, erase any extraneous elements that appear on the white background, such as shadows or dust spots.
Be careful here to apply all of these edits to the actual pixels on the layer. Don’t use adjustment layers or layer masks to make these edits because in the end we need actual pixels to form the brush. (If you’d prefer to work with masks or adjustment layers, that’s fine as long as you finish by rendering to incorporate the edits to a new layer. (CMD+Option+Shift+E will accomplish this on a new layer without merging those below.)
Next is to resize the image to correspond to the size you’d like the brush to be. It’s almost always preferable to have a larger brush that can be resized down, so I would suggest a brush at least 500 pixels on the long side, and preferably upwards of 1,000, but no larger than 2,500 pixels. To change the image size, choose Image Size from the Image menu and enter new dimensions, ensuring the actual area resolution (the pixel dimensions) will change by checking the Resample box.
Lastly, with the image ready to be converted into a brush, simply choose Define Brush Preset from Photoshop’s Edit menu. When you click it, a popup window will appear showing a preview of the brush shape as well as its size, with a blank space in which you can enter a new name for the brush. By default, Photoshop will suggest something like Sampled Brush 1, but you should rename it in a way that will make sense when you’re looking for it later—something like “Leaf: Maple 1” or “Cloud: Cumulus 7.”
To deploy this custom brush, choose the tool you’d like to use (such as the paint brush) and it will be the active brush by default. But when you want to use it at a later date, simply search for it by choosing the appropriate tool (paint brush, clone stamp, etc.) and then right-clicking in the image area to bring up a palette of brush options, then scroll through the brush presets until you find it. Alternatively, click on the Brushes heading of the Window menu to open a palette of brushes and brush settings in order to find and use your brand-new custom brush.