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Painterly Portraits

Painting in Layers with Bristle Brushes


Advanced Technique

Overview: Place a sketch as a template layer; draw with customized bristle brushes; continue to paint with custom brushes into separate layers; create frame.



The myriad bristle brushes presented Greg Geisler with an infinite variety of brushes to create his expressive painterly portrait, “Blue Mirror.” Commissioned by Adobe Systems, you can find this file, and a PDF ReadMe file explaining more about how he made it, on WOW! ONLINE.

  1. Placing the initial sketch, and customizing Bristle Brush Options. Geisler placed his distorted Photoshop sketch (PSD) as a Template layer. He opened the Bristle Brush Library (from the Brush Libraries menu in the lower left of the Brushes panel) and clicked the 1-pt Round bristle brush, which automatically loaded the brush into the Brushes panel. Geisler next duplicated that brush (by dragging its icon to the New Brush icon in the Brushes panel) and then double-clicked on the New Brush icon so he could change several settings in Bristle Brush Options. He made changes to Bristle Thickness, adjusted Paint Opacity and increased the Stiffness, and then named it and clicked OK. On a layer above the template, he used this new brush to create the base sketch for the entire illustration. Geisler kept the Brushes panel and the Bristle Brush Library open throughout the drawing session, so he could continue to duplicate and customize brushes as his drawing progressed. For this layer, he created three different variations of the 1-pt Liner brush.


    The template; a distorted Photoshop sketch


    The initial bristle brush sketch made with three variations of a Round Point bristle brush; the Bristle Brush Options

  2. Adding highlights, midtones, and shadows. To make one of the many layers of highlights, such as the strokes in orange, Geisler customized copies of the 3-mm Flat Fan Brush in the Bristle Brushes Library, adjusting Bristle Thickness, Bristle Length, and Paint Opacity. He also drew highlights with a Round bristle brush customized with pointy variations. Geisler continued to draw in separate layers, focusing in particular on midtones, shadows, highlights, or color for each layer, using variations of the Flat Fan and Round bristle brushes.

  3. Working efficiently and further modifying brush characteristics. Geisler’s process is very organic in that he continually defines new brushes, and creates new layers, as he draws. He rarely deletes a stroke, preferring to layer new bristle brushstrokes upon others, choosing a more opaque brush to cover the underlying strokes. As he’s drawing, he presses the [ key to decrease the brush size, and the ] key, to increase the bristle size. To vary the opacity, he presses the keys from 1, which is completely transparent, through 0, which is completely opaque. To add texture, as in the blue background shown at right, Geisler modifies the settings to increase the brush stiffness toward Rigid, increase the brush density toward Thick, and then decrease the bristle length.

  4. Finishing touches. Geisler created an irregular-edged black frame that surrounded the portrait, on a layer between the blue texture and the face. He customized a wide Flat Fan brush to 100% Opacity (100% opaque bristle brushes lose their character within the stroke, but maintain a ragged edge) and then expanded the brushstrokes (Object> Expand) and clicked Unite in the Pathfinder panel, melding the brushstrokes into one frame object. He then used the Pencil tool to draw a few closed paths, delineating the area between the rectangular frame and the head. Marquee-selecting these paths and the frame, he filled them with black and again clicked Unite in the Pathfinder panel.

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