Sometimes the simplest things can create the biggest headaches, and so it is with the Brush tool in Photoshop. You might think, grab the tool, set the color, shape and brush size, and paint away. But then… something is wrong. The brush isn’t painting at all, or it’s painting in a way you aren’t expecting? What’s gone wrong? Should I reset preferences? Reinstall Photoshop?
The answer is likely much simpler than that. Many problems with the brush tool can be solved by examining the Brush toolbar at the top of the screen. Let’s look at an example.
Here we have the makings of perhaps a bit of poster artwork. We want to paint some bold freehand strokes on this image, on a new layer in a contrasting color:
So, we grab the brush tool, and set the brush to a hard round brush, set the color to a dark brown color, and start to paint. Oh, dear:
The color we’re painting doesn’t match the foreground swatch at all. The observant reader may notice the problem straight away: The brush opacity, as set in the toolbar, is 20%:
If we set the opacity back to 100%, by moving the slider or pressing the “” key shortcut, we will get the expected results.
However, it’s not always that easy! Let’s look at another example:
Similar problem, but the opacity is set at 100%, so what gives? Again, a close inspection of the toolbar shows an option is set – one that is new to version CS5 of Photoshop:
Take a look at the tool tip: “Tablet pressure controls opacity (overrides brush panel setting).” This is a very handy option, but I’ve found that many people aren’t aware of it, click it inadvertently, and then drive themselves crazy trying to figure out why their brushes are acting up.
Note the other options just to the right also: “Enable Airbrush Mode” with its very own Flow setting (similar to opacity, but like an airbrush, it builds up over time) and “Tablet pressure controls size.” These can also wreak havoc if they become enabled accidentally:
These options are sticky, and using a tool preset can enable these without you knowing it. So, be aware and look to the toolbar right away if you sense a problem.
Now, let’s examine the brush tool bar to make sure everything is set properly – no errant options and no incorrect adjustments. We start to draw, and – uh oh. More problems:
Here’ I’ve brought the new culprit onto the screen, and as you can see, we’ve got the layer opacity set to 20% and we’re once again getting the wrong results. It may seem obvious and simple, but I can tell you this has tripped up many a student over the years!
Here’s another variation on the same theme. Can you spot the problem?:
We selected brown, but the foreground swatch shows gray. The color appearing on our image is green. The problem? We’re drawing on the wrong layer! The layer mask of the adjustment layer is active. Again, such a common problem, yet often a head-scratcher if you’re not paying attention.
Or how about just this one?
Ah, the dreaded, “You can’t do this” icon. If you try to paint, you get this ugly message:
Again, the layers panel shows the issue: The adjustment layer itself is selected (not the mask, but the adjustment icon). This will never work:
We’ve just run through a litany of potential problems with the Brush tool – some obvious, some not so obvious – but all relatively simple to fix, IF you know where to look. Keep one eye on the tool bar, and keep another eye on the Layers panel – and you’ll solve 99% of your problems with the Brush tool. And, that goes for the other painting tools as well: the Healing Brushes, Clone Stamp, Eraser, Smudge Tool, Dodge and Burn, and so forth – they all share the brush functions and are all susceptible to those little errors – little errors that can create great headaches if you’re not paying attention.
Got a Photoshop headache? Drop a note in the comments and we’ll try to cover it either directly or in a future tutorial!
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