Creative Tips & Resources – Brushes and Textures

Freelance Jungle

Hi everyone, this month’s post is slightly different to last month’s about portfolios, but very important none the less – especially if you do, dabble, or are thinking of dabbling in digital illustration.

Whether you venture out into the world taking snapshots of rusted signs and twisted woodgrains or just download stockpiles of digital textures online; using textures in digital illustration can add real warmth, charm and element of something physical to your digital work.  The use of custom, textured or stamp brushes in digital illustration can evoke a stylistic atmosphere and depending on your choice of brush, can change the aesthetics of the illustration entirely.

There’s always going to be the undercurrent debate of ‘traditional vs digital’ in illustration, but I believe, as I assume many others do, that a happy medium incorporating elements of both is the way forward.  There’s something so convenient about digital illustration, I won’t be the first to admit painting in gouache and having the flicker in my mind to press Ctrl, Alt, Z to undo a mistake– no such luck there. But on the other hand there’s such a beautiful element to physical work, the accidental smudges with your hand, the splashes of ink on the page, the smell of the paint.

Personally, in my illustration work, I use both. Whilst at University I tended to focus more on pure painting, I had so much time to dedicate to experimentation. But now, a few years on, as I get more commissions, tighter deadlines and, ahem, fickle minded clients, I’m finding that digital illustration is an awful lot faster and easier to make alterations to.  I most often paint linework in ink and use digital colouring and textures to enhance and complete the illustration. The convenience of digital with that organic element of textures and paint splat brushes I’ve collected to keep the atmosphere of my illustration work.

Von Glitschka is an illustrative designer, avid photographer of found textures and author of the book ‘Crumble, Crackle, Burn’, an anthology of illustration and the use of found textures within them. I asked Von what he thought the use of textures brings to an illustration and the grey areas using textures have between the ‘digital vs traditional’ stance.

“Even though our industry is digitally driven, ideas are still best developed in analog. A drawn design that is than executed on digitally. Sometimes this move from analog to digital loses that nice tactile quality that a hand drawn creation has to it. Digital art at times risks looking too perfect, too sharp, too clean, too digital. So if you make it a habit of taking pictures of real-world surface textures and texturize your digital art using these real-world textures than you can get an nice authentic and organic quality to the aesthetic that pure digital vector art can’t really deliver on.

The nice thing about textures unlike most graphics in our industry is they’ll never go out of style. A texture you use now will be completely appropriate for a project in twenty years. So if you get in the habit of collecting them you have an endless archive you’ll be able to leverage for a lifetime.”

Kali Ciesemier

So how do other professional illustrators use textures in their work?

Kali Ciesemier works entirely digitally, using textures and custom brushes to add variation and extra detail to her work. She broke down the various techniques she uses into three steps for me -

Textured brushes!

Making your own and downloading other people’s custom photoshop brushes is an easy way to start adding texture to your digital images. I used to only draw with the standard hard-round photoshop brush, but now I draw everything with a subtly textured custom brush that adds a little bit of tooth to my lines and edges. Sometimes I’ll add shading in an image with a rough textured brush, too.”

Clipping masks & texture ‘stamps’!

As you can see in this walkthrough, you can use texture scans or texture brushes like stamps on your work. Clipping masks (or layer masks) can help out a lot here! Adjusting the opacity can keep the effect subtle or bold, however you want to use it.”

Texture scans & layer modes!

Usually the final step in my illustrations involves me placing several layers of scanned texture on top of my image. Then I set each of the texture layers to different opacities and layer modes (Color Burn, Vivid Color, Soft Light, etc.), sometimes adjusting the colors or levels if needed. It helps that I have a big handy library of textures that I’ve scanned myself and downloaded from other sites, so I always have options to choose from, from vintage paper to splattery watercolors to gritty asphalt. Generally I add anywhere from 2 to 6 layers, but I set them all to very low opacities, usually somewhere around the 10% mark, sometimes less. I also try and balance the lightening and darkening effects of each- if one layer is set to the Color Burn layer mode, I’ll likely set another to Color Dodge, so none of the layers really mess up my color scheme.”

There is a delicate tactic to using textures in digital illustration work, it’s not just a case of slapping on a wood grain and expecting the piece to work effectively. I asked Kali what she thought the benefits of adding textures through a range of different techniques can add to a piece.

“Incorporating textures in a subtle way has been the approach that’s worked best for me. Sometimes juxtaposing a very clearly readable texture onto a graphic image has the opposite effect of making the image seem more computerized, because you can clearly identify the source of the texture. For me, adding in hints of texture doesn’t really hide the fact that the image was made in Photoshop, nor does it need to, but it does blur the lines a bit (sometimes literally!), and I think that nebulousness provides added interest.” 

I stumbled upon these great illustrations by Troy Cummings for the “Let’s Take a Hike” card game.  Troy uses custom brushes and textures to evoke that nostalgic aesthetic of 1950′s/1960′s illustration.  I asked him about the techniques he uses and the reasons behind them.

I’ve been experimenting with textures and splotchy brushes in Photoshop for the past few years. My goal has been to develop textures, shading, lines, etc. that feel like they could have been painted with a real brush. I’m a big fan of kids’ book illustrators from the 1950s and 1960s, (Like Mary Blair or Art Seiden). I love anything with flat, kooky shapes, surprising colors, and simplified characters. I tried to bring some of that to the “Let’s Take a Hike” card game. I think those splotchy textures can hint at leaves, fur, tree bark or whatever, while still keeping things loose.”  

I spoke to illustrator Andrew Lyons about his heavily textured illustration work and process.

“To create my textures I play around with ink and charcoal, or pencil and paint on different papers, then scan them so I have a library of textures to pick from. In any one illustration I’ll probably use around 4-5 different textures on different parts of the image, or blend 2 textures together on low opacity.

As I use Photoshop, I’ll normally place a large, sepia coloured paper texture on the top layer, and set to ‘colour burn’ in the blending modes window. This overall texture helps to unite the colours and different shapes of the illustration. 

I’ll delve into the illustration and single out certain parts that need a bit of texture. I’ll lay a texture on the layer above the object, rasterize and then crop it to the right shape (by selecting the shape: cmd/click on the layer, and then inverting the selection and hitting delete when on the texture layer.) Then I’ll play around with blending modes and opacity until it looks right.”

So that’s that!  Basically, just have fun with it.  Go out with your camera and take hundreds of snapshots, play with layers and effects, just experiment!

Here’s some fantastic resources to keep you going -

Downloadable brush sets                                                                           Downloadable textures

BittBox                                                                                                             Lost and Taken                                                                                                     Texture King

Chris Wahl Art Brushes                                                                                BittBox

Web Design Ledger                                                                                       Mayang’s Free Textures

Stumpy Pencil                                                                                                 Archive Textures

Don’t forget to take a look at the work of the illustrators who have kindly contributed to this article – Kali Ciesemier, Troy Cummings and Andrew Lyons.  Kali has also written some very useful bits about texture stamping techniques and the Photoshop brushes she uses.


By Emmeline Pidgen

Note! All images used with permission, it’s the right thing to do.

Photo c/o Ben Schlitter. Images: I – Kali Ciesemier. II – Troy Cummings. III – Andrew Lyons.