The Basic Photoshop Brush Settings Every Digital Artist Needs to Know

As a digital artist, the Photoshop brush tool is arguably the single most important tool you need to know inside and out.

That being said, all of the settings can be a bit overwhelming when you’re first starting out. This post won’t cover every single one of them (that would be a looong post), but it is meant to break down the most important ones that you need to know for digital art and illustration. If you’ve ever wondered how to use Adobe Photoshop brushes, this should help you out!

I've also shortened the information in this post into a one-page PDF cheatsheet that would be a handy reference to have at-a-glance while you’re working in Photoshop. It also includes a list of sites where you can download Photoshop brushes for free. Download it below:

Free download: Photoshop brush reference guide

This tutorial will be covering the settings in Adobe Photoshop CC, but if you have a previous version of Photoshop, the settings covered here should be virtually the same.

As you may know, there are many custom brushes that you can download for Photoshop. These are incredibly useful and absolutely have their place in the digital art medium. That being said, there is also lot that you can do with the basic brushes that come packaged with Photoshop, if you know how to configure the settings properly.

It’s my belief that you will ultimately be a more capable digital artist if you are able to master these settings, so that you can differentiate between the situations when it is appropriate to seek a custom brush, and when it makes more sense to configure your own.

Without further adieu, let’s cover the basic Photoshop brush settings for digital art and illustration!

Size & Hardness

When you first select the Brush tool (the keyboard shortcut is ‘B’), this is the menu you’ll see at the top of your screen:

The most important and basic settings live under this icon:

Those settings are size & hardness.

If you click on that icon, you’ll see a dropdown menu that looks something like this:

If you see a list or something instead of thumbnails (and if you would prefer to see the brushes as thumbnails like pictured above) click the gear in the top right of the menu, and select ‘Small Thumbnails’ to change the view.

In any case, for right now, just ignore the thumbnails of different brushes at the bottom. I’m going to go over the settings using the basic round brush as the example, to keep things simple for now. If you don’t have that brush selected, do that now (if you hover over the thumbnails, the names will show up — just find any one of them that says ‘Soft Round’ or ‘Hard Round’ and select that.)

Size refers to the diameter of the brush.

Hardness refers to the (for lack of a better word) ‘fuzziness’ of the edges.

A picture speaks a thousand words, so check out the graph below that illustrates the effect of these settings on the Round Brush:

...just a note, the graph above is included in the free cheatsheet that accompanies this article! Make sure you download it below for quick future reference on how to use Photoshop brushes:

Free download: Photoshop brush reference guide

Opacity & Flow

The next settings digital artists should be familiar with are Opacity & Flow, and — possibly more importantly — the difference between them. (I’ll admit that this one confused me for awhile! For the longest time, I completely ignored Flow… sad face.)

These two settings have to do with translucency & buildability of colour.

The main difference between them lies in buildability. With Opacity, the section that you’re colouring will stay at the same translucency level no matter how many times you go over it as long as you don’t lift up the mouse/pen. If you lift the mouse/pen and start colouring over the same section again, it will layer more colour on top, therefore building up the translucency and making the colour in that section more opaque. However, you have to lift your pen each time you want to build the opacity further.

With Flow, the building of the translucency happens while you’re colouring over the same area, without lifting the mouse/pen. I think it is easiest to visualize this difference with animations.

In the following gif, I am using the brush tool with 10% Opacity and 100% Flow. I draw one circle, lift my pen, then draw another circle that slightly overlaps the first.

Notice how with the first circle, even though I coloured over the area several times, the translucency stayed constant. Only when I lifted my pen and started a new circle did the overlapping area become more opaque.

In this next gif, I’ll be using 10% Flow and 100% Opacity. In this one, I don’t lift my pen until the end.

See the difference? As I continued to draw over the same area without lifting my pen, the colour continued to build. Notice how the center, where I coloured the most, is completely opaque, whereas the lines at the edges (that I only went over once or twice) are more see-through.

(Interestingly, Flow is more akin to traditional painting, but it tends to be the one that gets forgotten!)


If you can see the circles your brush makes while you colour, like this:

This is an issue with your brush spacing. If the brush spacing is set too high, it can cause you to actually see the shapes the brush makes (the brush tip) spread out from one another, forming a jittery-looking line. This is because Photoshop is leaving too much space between the brush tips.

For some decorative brushes, it makes sense to have the brush tips spread out. However, for the basic round brush, you probably want them to be very close together to form a smooth-edged line.

To fix this, bring up the Brush Settings dialog by clicking this icon in the Brush toolbar:

On the Brush Tip Shape panel at the bottom, you can adjust the Spacing:

Brush Tip Shape

Going back to our main brush settings dropdown from the beginning, we’re going to look at the funky graph thing next to the Size & Hardness settings. This is the one I mean:

This represents the shape of the tip of your brush. So, this brush is a circle. This tool is fairly straightforward to use! Just drag the handles around until you get the shape that you want:

The brush tip you choose is really personal preference. Some people like to sketch and draw with slanted brushes, some like the regular hard brush, it really is up to you. You can create cool calligraphy effects with slanted brush tips as well, get creative. Sometimes the differences are subtle, I’d recommend experimenting to find what you like.

Pressure Sensitivity (Tablet Pen Users)

If you have a tablet pen, you want to make sure that you have pressure sensitivity turned on, which is this icon in the toolbar:

Depending on the brush you're using or your other settings, this is likely already set up.

However if you find that your brush strokes aren’t responding to the pressure you’re drawing them with, this is the icon you should check.

Here's a visual to demonstrate the effect pressure sensitivity has on brush strokes:

How to Install Photoshop Brushes

While I still believe that it's good to leverage Photoshop brush settings where you can, there will come times when the built-in brushes can't quite achieve the effect you want and your best bet is to download a new brush or brush set.

Thus, this guide wouldn't be complete without instructions on how to do that :) Don't worry, I've got your back!

Also, the free reference guide that accompanies this post includes a list of sites where you can download awesome Photoshop brushes (also for free!)! Don't forget to grab it below:

Free download: Photoshop brush reference guide

Downloading and installing Photoshop brushes is pretty straightforward! Visit one of the sites from the downloadable reference guide above, and download one of the brush packs. It'll probably be a .zip file; inside that file, there should be a file with the .abr extension (this is the extension for Photoshop brushes).

Open the brush toolbar, click the gear in the top right corner, then 'Load Brushes...'. After that you just have to select the .abr file, and they should load into the brush list! That's it — easy peasy :)

That's all, folks!

There you have it! A rundown of the basic brush settings in Photoshop. Like I mentioned near the top of this post, this is by no means an exhaustive guide. There are many more settings that are useful to know, but familiarizing yourself with these ones should give you a good start.

As a reminder, I created a single-page PDF cheatsheet to accompany this article. This is great to have open while you're working in Photoshop to have a visual reminder of the brush settings at-a-glance! Download it for free below:

Free download: Photoshop brush reference guide

Let me know what you thought of this article in the comments below. Did you find it useful? Would you be interested in a follow-up post on more intermediate-to-advanced brush settings? Tell me below! :)

Talk soon,

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  • Laura

    It is very nice of you to explain beginners how to use it, i spend much time searching for good tutorials and i am very thankfull for this one. ^u^
    With lovely greets Laura

  • Julia Wojtowicz Sigwalt

    Thx a lot <3! I didn't know about the tip of the brush thing. I started playing with it and a cartoony simples sketch came out, glad to have learned it ^^. Also i am greatly thankful for your good will in giving these lessons for free. It's really gonna help me! Keep the good work ok?
    With admiration, Julia~

    • Hey Julia, so sorry I missed this comment! Thank you for your kind words — I’m happy to hear you are finding these resources useful :)

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