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Mastering Vector Design: Drawing with Illustrator Paintbrushes

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David Karlins explores the multi-varied world of Adobe Illustrator's Paintbrush tool, showing how to customize the built-in brushes and even create unique and eye-catching new strokes of your own.
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The world of brushes in Adobe Illustrator ranges from ornate calligraphic strokes to thick swaths of paint to Jackson Pollock–like scattered blobs of color. In this article, I’ll show you how to apply Illustrator’s whole range of paintbrushes to your artwork.

I’m using Illustrator CS3, but paintbrush strokes haven’t changed radically for several versions, so even if you’re using Illustrator CS or CS2, I think you’ll still find the steps and instructions in this article easy to follow.

Drawing a Quick Calligraphic Brush Stroke

There are four types of paintbrushes in Illustrator, and in this article I’ll explore them all:

  • Calligraphic brushes
  • Art brushes
  • Scatter brushes
  • Pattern brushes

The most widely used and easiest brush stroke to explore is the calligraphic paintbrush. By default, when you click the Paintbrush in Illustrator’s Brushes panel, you select the calligraphic brush. You can define basic parameters for that brush from the control panel (at the top of the Illustrator window), and "paint" a brush stroke using a mouse or a drawing tablet. When you do this, you draw a path and apply stroke attributes all at once.

Here’s how:

  1. Select the Paintbrush tool from the Illustrator toolbox (see Figure 1).
    Figure 1

    Figure 1 Selecting the Paintbrush tool from the Illustrator toolbox.

  2. Define basic brush attributes from the control panel. The control panel that appears when you select the Paintbrush tool offers many options, but most of the time you’ll use just three of the control panel tools (see Figure 2):
    1. Stroke color defines the color of your brush.
    2. Stroke weight defines the thickness of the brush.
    3. Brush panel provides a palette of predefined brush shapes from which you can choose the desired shape of the brush. (Later in this article, I’ll show you how to design your own brush shapes.)
    Figure 2

    Figure 2 Stroke color, stroke weight, and brush panel tools in the Paintbrush control panel.

  3. After you choose a brush color, weight, and shape (from the Brush panel), click and drag with your mouse, or draw with a drawing tablet pen to create a curve (see Figure 3).
    Figure 3

    Figure 3 Drawing a path with a calligraphic paintbrush. Later, you can change the applied brush stroke.

    That’s it! That’s the short version of this process. The rest of this article covers the heart of drawing with the Paintbrush tool, by exploring the kinds of paintbrushes you can create and apply to strokes.

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