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Should you use Custom Brushes?

Another popular debate today, regarding digital art. Should you use custom brushes?

I did a digital painting the other day and I was very reluctant as to whether I should use custom brushes for the serpent skin texture. In the end, I indeed decided to use them. Not because I couldn’t draw serpent skin without custom brushes, but because I was burnt-out and needed a shortcut. When you draw too technically (all these tiny details) for too long, you can eventually miss the point. But why are both hobbyists and/or professional artists reluctant, even afraid to use custom brushes?

Medusa – Procreate Digital Painting on iPad Pro

Let’s start from the beginning.

In traditional drawing, things are pretty simple. You get your pencil and draw everything with point precision. No shortcuts. (Although there’s much more to it, I will come back later.) But in digital painting things are more complicated. You have the tools and you also have the “freedom” to create any crazy custom brush to use. But should you use them? Are they necessary? And most importantly, do you actually “cheat” when you use them?

I am quite opinionated when it comes to this. Art is self-expression and as such, tools don’t really matter. End of story. But there are a couple of things that DO matter. Let me explain.

Advantages of using custom brushes

  1. Custom brushes are a great way to create something solid, especially if you are a beginner who lacks the technical skills, but still wants to jump in at the deep end. My husband is the most organized person in the universe. When he learns something new (let’s say a programming language, since he is a developer), he downloads the whole literature, watches a ton of tutorials and only when he feels ready… he starts coding. I am the exact opposite. When I want to do something new, I simply … do it. I don’t care about the details and what might occur (mind you, I DO care about the details later on, when I have to deal with them. But that’s another story) So if you are like me, custom brushes are your friend. They are a great way to create something solid, without having to study countless hours eg: how to paint that crazy wrinkled skin texture.
  2. Custom brushes are a great way to add texture and character to your work, without having to paint for hours and hours. Not only you save time, but also you are more focused on your art as a whole. Because, unfortunately, the more technical an artwork is, the easier it is for an artist to lose the forest for the trees. Meaning that we can get consumed in all tiny details and eventually miss the whole point. Also, in some cases you might need a touch of “wow-ness” to a non-focal point of your piece. In such cases, using custom brushes is ideal. You can easily (well, not too easily, but still) create the mood you envisioned without going crazy.
  3. Using custom brushes is fun! Art itself is about having fun. Don’t feel bad about using custom brushes, it is not considered “cheating” guys! (Although, it IS considered cheating when you are lying about your methods, check out number 2 at the next paragraph.) As long as it makes you happy, feel free to abuse your brushes. As I mentioned before, art is self-expression, there’s no limit on what is allowed and what is not.

But be careful, custom brushes can be a problem when…

  1. When you rely on them too much. This might seem contradictory to what I just mentioned, that art is self-expression blah, blah, blah. But if you plan to grow as an artist, relying too much on them can be hindering. Because you don’t practice the things you cannot do, you let the brushes do the job. I personally use custom brushes ONLY when I can achieve the same result (more or less) without them.
  2. When you are dishonest about your tools and your process. Obviously, when you use tools and then say you didn’t… it is a problem and you ain’t my friend! (Nahhh, just joking, but seriously, don’t do that) In short: You can do ANYTHING and you can use anything in your artwork, as long as you are transparent about your methods.
  3. Patches of your artwork might look that they don’t “belong”. If you rely too much on custom brushes, your work might look inconsistent. Some patches (the ones created with the brushes) might look polished, and others might not. (This is true especially for beginners who lack the technical skills yet.) So, be careful. Ideally you should have an understanding how to technically create something. Then you can consort to custom brushes.

So what, should you use custom brushes?

Ok, I will try to answer as best as I can(so that this post has actually a meaning!). If you enjoy them, go on, use them. They will not make your art lesser. And to be honest, no one these days creates an artwork eg: with a plain airbrush only. (Actually some people do, but they do it mainly as a challenge, for entertaining the rest of us!) We all use special brushes at some point. The difference is that some of them are more discreet and subtle and some others can be really fancy. As long as you are honest about your tools, there’s no limit on what you can use. Custom brushes can be a shortcut to a great artwork and if used in moderation they can help you grow as an artist. Even traditional artists use custom brushes. Bob Ross himself, used to paint each particular element of his famous landscapes with a different brush. So, why not us??

And talking about custom brushes, if you like my painting, make sure you get my free serpent skin brushes here. 😉

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