Thinking About Tools: Digital Brushes

by Taylor Slattery | November 10, 2020

Thinking About Tools - Digital Brushes

The advent of digital art has been a great force for the progression of the art community at large. All-inclusive tools like Photoshop offer students a safe place to learn and experiment, without worrying about access to tools or the need for cleaning up afterward. Even at their monthly subscription price, their flexibility makes them a viable option for students when compared with traditional materials.

Learning digitally is not without its downsides, though. Digital paintings can oftentimes feel sterile. The liveliness present in traditional art seems harder to come by in digital spaces. Another potentially harmful aspect of using digital tools is the bad habits that can develop when the ability to undo an action is just a control-z away. This can lead to careless mark-making and hinder the development of critical thinking and brush control.

These hurdles are not insurmountable, though and if we look to our forefathers, we can see that their paintings are constructed using the careful control of the same set of fundamental image-making tools at our disposal digitally. The true magic of their paintings, though, lived in the brushwork.

A close look at the work of a master like Sargent and we can see that there’s a variety in his brushwork that creates visual interest and rhythm. His rendering is tight and precise in some areas, where smaller brushes were used, while loose and suggestive in other places, where his strokes are larger and simpler. There’s also an energy about these areas that allow us as the viewer to imagine the exact motions the painter made to place these strokes onto the canvas.

The takeaway is that variety is key. Considering that traditional painters managed to capture this level of variety while being fairly limited in the tools at their disposal, it shouldn’t be too hard to achieve the same digitally. After all, Photoshop comes with a host of different options spanning the emulation of traditional tools to the creation of entirely new textures possible only in digital spaces. But with so many brushes to choose from, how do we know which ones to use?

If you’ve ever spent any time watching digital painting tutorials on Youtube, you’ve likely heard a pro say that brushes don’t matter, and you can accomplish the same thing using any brush. In the hands of a seasoned professional, this is probably true, but it’s undeniable that brushes have some inherent qualities that make them better suited for certain tasks and can inspire different types of mark-making.

When we look at brushes, it helps to think about them through a set of common parameters we can use for comparison. Is a brush small or big, does it have texture or is it smooth, is its edge hard or soft? All brushes will have characteristics that fall somewhere between these extremes and it’s the exact combination of each that makes a brush unique and better suited for some tasks than others. If you find yourself making paintings that feel stiff and flat, take a second to consider your tools.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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