Illustrator Brush Tips

While searching through my archives for art pieces to show in my new course for, Artistic Painting with Illustrator: Natural Media Brushes, I found this “watercolor” image created with transparent calligraphic brushes back in Adobe Illustrator 10, in 2002.

This “Blue vase with sunflowers” image was the subject of a detailed step-by-step lesson on transparency in The Adobe Illustrator 10 and CS WOW! books. A version of that lesson was also posted here on CreativePro. That post is no longer active so I dug up the InDesign files from the CS book, to see if I could update the screenshots.

The first thing I noticed (and appreciated) was that the InDesign CS files opened easily in InDesign CS6. Two other things also struck me right away: 1) in CS we still placed Illustrator files as EPS (now we place native .ai files), and 2) We’ve since updated all of the fonts we use to OpenType fonts. I’m sure there were other workflow improvements in InDesign, but as I set about to “just update the screenshots” and replace the word “palette” with “panel,” to my surprise I found that while the basics of painting with transparency color using the calligraphic brush hasn’t changed much, the methodology and workflow of setting up your workspace, and modifying options once you’re going, has actually changed a great deal.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is how to quickly change between various brush styles. Once you’ve created a few objects styled using brushes with various colors and/or opacities, you can simply select an object with the formatting closest to the one that you want to create. Simply selecting an object will reset the “default” styles. Now if you paint with the Paintbrush tool, this new object will inherit the formatting, including brush style, color, opacity, and even the location in the stacking order within the Layers panel. If you want to modify the “default,” before you draw your next object, deselect the previous one, modify any of the new default settings, and continue painting with the modified style. But aside from this one part of the workflow, the blue vase artwork highlights several ways in which Illustrator CS6 offers greatly improved (and simplifed) workflow options. Here are just a few.

Basic Appearance Behaviors

Before CS4, if a color was set to less than 100% opacity, it was considered to have more than a “basic appearance.” The default behavior was that colors would automatically reset to 100% opacity (the basic appearance) unless you disabled the “New art has basic appearance” option in the Appearance panel.

This meant that in order for this process of painting to work at all, you had to first disable that setting. And when you disabled that setting and then selected an object with a complex appearance (such as 3D effect, drop shadow, or multiple strokes), the next object you created would inherit that set of appearances as well.

From what I understand, when Adobe developed the Blob brush in CS4, they separated the brushes from “New art has basic appearance,” allowing all brush settings to be inherited by the next brush stroke, and reset the default. This setting now does not have any affect on objects created with the Paintbrush tool.

Adjusting Opacity

The process of adjusting opacity has improved significantly since the CS version of Illustrator. When transparency was first introduced to Illustrator there was only one place to adjust it, in the Transparency panel. Now you can adjust opacity in several places that are more convenient than the Transparency panel. Probably the most likely place to adjust opacity for a selected object (or to set the default for your next created object) is in the Control panel.

The context-sensitive Control panel seems, most of the time, to display the feature you need. To quickly reduce opacity you can enter a number into the percentage field in the Control panel, choose a percentage from the pop-up triangle next to it, or click the word Opacity to access a mini version of the Transparency panel where you can access the percentage field, slider, and a pop-up menu where you can choose a different Blending mode.

In addition to the Control panel, the much-improved Appearance panel allows you to not only see transparency (as it did in CS), but also to access a mini version of the Transparency panel by clicking the word Opacity.

If you are painting with a Bristle brush you have an even easier way to adjust opacity, and that’s to simply use the number keys (as you can in Photoshop), 1 for transparent through 0 for completely opaque—though be aware that 0 entirely removes the bristle brush effects.

Resizing Brushes with a Keyboard Shortcut

Adjusting the size of brushes is now much simpler. Instead of having to change the size in a brush’s definition, you can simply adjust brush size for Calligraphic, Bristle, and Blob brushes by using bracket keys as you can in Photoshop—press [ (left bracket) to reduce the brush size, and ] (right bracket) to increase it.

Faster Layer Naming

To keep a complex image organized, it’s essential to name your layers and sublayers as you go. And now you have no excuse not to name them properly since all you have to do is double-click a layer name to rename it layer in the panel (as in Photoshop and InDesign).

Cleaning Up the Artboard

Trimming the extraneous brush marks that run off your intended page used to require a rather advanced understanding of masking. You needed to draw a rectangle to define the crop area and then convert it into a layer mask. Now, the much simpler solution is to create that rectangle, switch to the Artboard tool, then choose “Fit to selected art” from the Presets pop-up that will appear in the Control panel.

Now when you place or rasterize the Illustrator image (or open as a PDF), the default should crop to the artboard. If not, choose Show Import Options and choose Media.

Of course, tips are great, but there’s nothing better than seeing these techniques in action. So here’s one of the freely-available videos from my new series, on Different Way to Scale (or Not Scale) Brush Strokes.

Also, for even more free movies from this series, check out my YouTube playlist. It includes videos on topics like Drawing with Calligraphic Brushes, Examples of Blob Brush Artwork, and A Quick Intro to Naturalistic Illustrator Brushes and Effects.

Other topics include:

  • Drawing and tracing with Wacom and Cintiq tablets
  • Maximizing control without a tablet
  • Demystifying Paintbrush tool preferences
  • Integrating brushes with other tools such as Smooth and Pencil
  • Adding brushes to objects and text
  • Creating naturalistic strokes with the Art brush tools
  • Picking up, storing, and applying brushes
  • Duplicating and customizing brushes
  • Creating transparent washes and watercolor with Calligraphic brushes
  • Drawing and erasing with the Blob Brush tool
  • Adding stroke profiles to lines and brushes
  • Organizing complex images with layers
  • Ideas for how to combine Illustrator brushes with Photoshop, and even with traditional media

Editor’s note: Please let us know if you want to see a fully-updated version of Sharon’s lesson on transparent calligraphic brushes here on CreativePro by liking this article.


Posted on: March 14, 2013

Sharon Steuer

Sharon Steuer has been creating, writing about, and teaching workshops on digital art since the early 1980s. The current edition of her Illustrator WOW! book, The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC, is the fourteenth book in the series, and her "Artistic Painting in Illustrator" online video courses are available from Sharon is also the author of Creative Thinking in Photoshop: A New Approach to Digital Art, and is a regular contributor to Her digital paintings and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines and have been exhibited nationally. You can find Sharon via,, and @SharonSteuer (Twitter).

4 Comments on Illustrator Brush Tips

  1. Excellent tips Sharon! Yes, Illustrator has come a long way since CS & has a long way to go still to make it even better!

    A small typo towards the end of the article : “Other topics include Topics include”, please correct that.

  2. OMG! My dear Sharon Steuer! THANK YOU SO MUUUUUCHH for a word about damn new art appearence. Im must quickly jump on Illustrator from Photoshop, and my version is CS3 so that reseting opacity was pretty disturbing. Thanx to your article I turned that off. Yaaay :DD

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