Add a hint of character to flat vectors with digital brushes in Illustrator. Learn how to create and edit your own brushes straight from the program.
Brushes bring texture and style Illustrator’s world of vector paths and shapes. When a design calls for a more distressed approach, or you’re interested in deviating from typical flat style illustrations and dipping into a more hand-drawn feel, incorporating brushes is a quick and surefire way to add personality and dimension to geometric shapes and paths. Using brushes in addition to vector shapes creates a dynamic pairing that’s sure to elevate any composition.
You can apply these brushes to existing vector paths created with the Pen Tool (P) or freehand a custom brush stroke with the Paintbrush Tool (B).
Illustrator also features a default brush library, ranging from artistic brushes to decorative brushes. In fact, some of my favorite default brushes are found in the Artistic_ChalkCharcoalPencil library. While these brushes are extremely versatile, it’s always great to add some personal flair to your designs with custom brushes.
Step 1: Create Brush Source
Depending on the style of brush you’re creating, there are various options to choose from. You can edit some brushes, such as the calligraphic or bristle brushes, directly in the brush options without a vector source. Other brushes, such as the scatter, art, and pattern brushes, deal with custom vector objects made with Illustrator tools.
Let’s go over the different techniques to create a custom brush.
Use a Pre-Made Brush Shape
Click on an individual brush with the Selection Tool (V), then drag the shape over to the Brushes panel (Window > Brushes). This command brings up the New Brush menu; you can select from “Scatter,” “Art,” or “Pattern Brushes.”
For textured brush shapes, it’s best to select Art Brush from the brush types. If using an icon or compound path, select Pattern or Scatter Brush.
Design a Custom Shape
To create a wreath pattern, I’m going to draw out a line and leaf shapes. Create a thin rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (M), then draw out leaves with the Pen Tool (P). Duplicate the leaves by holding down the Option key, then dragging across.
Group the two leaves together with Command + G, then reflect the shapes to the other side of the rectangle with Object > Transform > Reflect. Depending on the orientation of your shapes, reflect either horizontally or vertically. Move your reflected objects around with the arrows to match the other objects. When you’re finished designing your custom shape, combine all objects together with the Pathfinder tool’s Unite command.
You’re now ready to make a brush! Simply click and drag your vector object to the Brushes panel, and select the type of brush you’re creating.
Step 2: Edit Brush Options
Brush options allow you to completely change the brush’s appearance when applied to a vector path. Different brushes will need different settings.
Calligraphic brushes mimic the angles widths created with a calligraphic pen. You can apply calligraphic brushes to existing vector paths, or create a freehand stroke with the Paintbrush (B) or Blob Brush (Shift+B) Tools.
These brushes are not created with a brush source, like the art or pattern brushes, but rather within the Calligraphic Brush Options. Bring up the Brushes panel, then click the hamburger dropdown and select New Brush and Calligraphic Brush to bring up this handy menu.
You can easily make changes to the brush’s angle, roundness, and size, depending on the look you’re after. The Fixed setting keeps the same size, angle, and roundness throughout the brush stroke; the Random setting varies the stroke’s appearance at the start and ends of the path. Once you create your own brush, you can easily edit its settings later by double-clicking on it within the Brushes panel.
In Illustrator, bristle brushes mimic the textures created from realistic paint brushes. With this brush, you can apply genuine acrylic paint textures from a variety of brush shapes.
You can open the Bristle Brush Options by double-clicking a default bristle brush from Illustrator’s Bristle Brush Library, or you can click the hamburger dropdown in the Brushes panel and click New Brush > Bristle Brush.
Within this options menu, you can choose from a variety of settings to fine-tune the bristle brush to your design:
- Shape: Changes the shape of the brush head; rounded brushes create a softened brush stroke, while flatter brushes create a more harsh brush stroke.
- Size: Adjusts the size of the bristle brush. Smaller sizes create a more precise stroke, while larger sizes create a textured brush stroke.
- Bristle Length: Changes the length of the brush itself. A short length forms a thinner stroke, while a longer length forms a wider stroke.
- Bristle Density: Affects the overall density of bristles within the brush stroke. A lower density forms a more unified stroke and a higher density forms a more textured stroke.
- Bristle Thickness: Alters the individual bristle’s thickness, from fine to coarse.
- Paint Opacity: Affects the brush’s opacity, ranging from translucent to opaque.
- Stiffness: Adjusts how the stroke appears along a vector path. A flexible stroke is more loosely applied and a rigid stroke is more definite.
These settings are not permanent; in fact, you can quickly edit existing bristle brushes by double-clicking it within the Brushes menu.
A scatter brush disperses replications of a single object along a vector path. These vector objects can be detailed vector objects, simple flat icons, or distressed textures. Simply click and drag the vector object into the Brushes menu, then select Scatter Brush from the list of brushes.
Adjust the Size to increase or decrease the scatter brush’s height and width when placed on a path. Change the Spacing to alter the distance between each vector shape. A value of 100% places each vector object next to each other, while a value above or below 100% increases or decreases the set distance. A Scatter value above 0% disperses the vector objects outside the original vector path. The Rotation values do exactly that – rotate the vector objects along the path. Choose from Fixed to keep the vector object exact throughout, or vary up the scatter brush by selecting Random.
The art brush distorts a selected shape across a single line path. This brush is ideal for applying charcoal, watercolor, or pen textures to simple vector objects for that hand-drawn look.
Double-click a default art brush from the Artistic brush library to bring up the Art Brush Options menu.
Within the Art Brush Options, you can adjust the width, brush scale options, direction, colorization, and more. When working with art brushes, I prefer to keep the brush’s width fixed across the vector path, especially when applying it to flat vectors. Select Stretch to Fit Stroke Length or experiment with other brush scale options to affect how the art brush scales in size. Ensure the Colorization is set to Tints so you can easily alter the art brush’s colors with the Color or Swatches menus.
Pattern brushes take a single vector object and repeat it along a path, creating a unique border for any shape. To bring up the Pattern Brush Options, click and drag a compound or single vector object to the Brushes panel and then hit Pattern Brush.
In this menu, you can edit how you’d like the pattern brush to appear along a path. The Spacing changes the distance between each vector object. If you’re designing a linear border, keep the spacing down to 0%; if you’re creating a simple shape border, increase the spacing to give the object some breathing room. Along corners, Illustrator will auto-generate how the vector object may appear, essentially distorting its appearance. You can do without corners, or set to Auto-Sliced. Experiment with various Fit settings to alter how the object may appear along a path. Lastly, select Tints from the Colorization category to allow for color changes.
Step 3: Test Your New Brush
Once you’ve created your custom scatter or art brush, it’s now time to test it out on a shape or path. Draw a shape with the Shapes Tools, making sure it’s a stroke-only shape. If you have a solid shape, switch it over to a stroke with Shift + X. To create a freehand stroke, activate the Paintbrush Tool (B) and draw a custom path. Select your brush from the Brushes panel, then change the hue of the brush with the Color sliders.
If you’re working with a textured art brush, draw out a few solid geometric shapes. With the shape or shapes activated, click on the art brush found within the Brushes menu.
You’ll notice the shape creates an additional stroke path containing the brush; this stroke color appears lighter than the solid color. To fix that, convert the stroke to vector shapes by heading to Object > Expand Appearance. Then, unite the paths by clicking Unite in the Pathfinder panel.
You can apply brushes to virtually any shape in Illustrator. Experiment with various brush types and settings to see which style works best for your composition.
Cover image via shekaka.
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