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An Overview of Brushes In Illustrator

posted by Matt Ward on Nov 12, 2009.

I think that most people know and understand Photoshop brushes – at least to some degree. Illustrator brushes, however, seem to be a bit more of a mystery. In this post, we’ll take a look at the four types of brushes that exist in Illustrator, and also how to save and share brushes between Illustrator documents.

I’ve found that there’s a bit of confusion and uncertainty when it comes to the use of brushes in Illustrator. I think that a lot of this confusion probably stems from the fact that the same name is used for a completely different sort of tool in Photoshop. Photoshop brushes are an extremely popular design element, and there are entire sites dedicated to them – such as Brusheezy or Qbrushes.

So, because Illustrator is almost like a sister application to Photoshop, it only stands to reason that many people would simply assume that brushes work very much the same in Illustrator as they do in Photoshop.

This, however, is not the case.

An Overview of Brushes in Illustrator

An Overview of Brushes in Illustrator

Many types of Photoshop brushes are also used almost like a rubber stamp tool, placing a predefined shape directly onto a layer (though they are certainly more powerful and more versatile than that). In Illustrator, though, brushes are used to stroke paths.

(Note: Actually, Photoshop brushes can also be used to stroke vector paths, but that’s a completely different discussion.)

There are actually four different types of brushes in Illustrator, all of which work quite differently. These are the Calligraphic, Scatter, Art and Pattern brushes. Let’s look at each of them separately.

Before we do, though, I would like to note that part the source of this article was a recent email that I received about my Circles Brushes pack, and how to use them properly. As such, I will be using them several times as examples. I’m also making them available for download directly from this post! Just click the thumbnail below.

Circles Brush Pack (Downloaded 9532 times)

Circles Brush Pack (Downloaded 9532 times)

Calligraphic Brush

This type of brush basically tries to emulate a calligraphic pen. It is is based on a simple circle, which I like to think of as the “nib”. You can then apply a variety of different settings to this nib, such as the diameter, the roundness and the angle. Here are some examples of different calligraphic brushes, and the way they each stroke the same path.

Samples of Calligraphic Brushes

Samples of Calligraphic Brushes

That’s really pretty much it. Nothing to deep dark and mysterious here.

Scatter Brush

The scatter brush might be my favorite, because it is so incredibly flexible. Basically, the scatter brush takes the symbol that forms its basic shape (we’ll use my circles), and literally scatters copies of that symbol along a designated path. Here is a really simple example:

Basic Scatter

Basic Scatter

However, there are four different options that exist for controlling the manner in which the symbols actually scatter. Here are the default settings for one of the my own scatter circle brushes:

The options available for a scatter brush

The options available for a scatter brush

And here is an illustration of how this brush works

Another example of how scatters work

Another example of how scatters work

The magenta line actually shows the exact path to which the scatter brush had been applied.

You may also have noticed that all of the settings were set to random. This is one of my favorite features of scatter brushes. By using random controls, you can create all kinds of different looks, all with the same brush and the same stroke. For example, here is the same image that we had above, just with the scatter brush reapplied

Same brush as previous example, but with a different result

Same brush as previous example, but with a different result

Notice how it looks completely different? That’s part of the beauty here. You can just keep reapplying the same scatter brush to the same stroke, and get a different result every single time. Just keep going until you find something that works for you!

Art Brush

The art brush is the Mr. Fantastic (a la The Fantastic Four) of Illustrator brushes, in that it gets stretched. Whereas, with the Scatter Brush, the base symbol just gets repeated over and over, according to the brush settings, the Art Brush actually takes the base symbol and stretches it along a path.

This is dramatically different from the other types of brushes, which are achieved through a repetition of the base symbol.

It also means that the shape, and more importantly, the length of your path, will have a dramatic effect on the appearance of the stroke. To demonstrate this, I’m going to turn to a pack for freebie brushes that I downloaded from BittBox. First, we will apply a swirly brush to a relatively short and simple stroke.

Art Brush with a short stroke

Art Brush with a short stroke

Next, let’s apply it to much longer stroke.

Art Brush with a longer stroke

Art Brush with a longer stroke

Notice how the shape of the brush changes significantly with longer stroke. It’s using the exact same brush, but is having to stretch it across a much longer path, meaning that the shape of the brush gets somewhat distorted.

Of course, with some brushes, this is not as much of an issue. For example, my circle brushes pack contains lined art brushes, which you can see here:

Circle Brushes pack

Circle Brushes pack

Because these brushes are perfectly symmetrical all the way through, they can be stretched across a path with relatively few changes to the shape of the brush. One thing to be wary of, though, is sharp or tight corners, which can cause art brushes to do strange things.

Pattern Brushes

The Pattern brush is actually divided into segments, called tiles, each of which are used for different parts of a path. There are five basic tiles, which are as follows.

Slide Tile – This is the tile that is used for your basic strokes. This tile gets repeated along your entire path, with the exceptions of the beginning, ending and corners, which have their own unique tiles.

Outer Corner – This tile is applied whenever a corner is encountered on an external path.

Inner Corner – This tile is applied whenever a corner is encountered on an internal path. It is often the same or similar to the Outer Corner title.

Start Tile – This tile is applied at the beginning of a path.

End Tile – This tile is applied at the end of a path.

For the most part, paths are stroked with the basic slide tile. Of course, the beginning and ending points of your path will use the Start and End tiles (if they exist – if not, the Slide tile will be used as a default).

Also, if you have any sharp corners in your path, either the Outer Corner or Inner Corner tiles will be used, depending on whether the path is internal or external. This is extremely useful for creating interesting corner effects.

Here are some examples of a basic rectangle that has been stroked with different pattern brushes.

Pattern Brush Sample 1

Pattern Brush Sample 1

Pattern Brush Sample 1

Pattern Brush Sample 1

Pattern Brush Sample 3

Pattern Brush Sample 3

It seems to me that Pattern Brushes are probably the least frequently used of the four types, but they are definitely worth knowing and understanding! Plus, there are all sorts of really neat pattern brushes packaged with Illustrator (you can find them by loading some of the preset brushes from the Brushes palette).

How Brushes are Stored

Another major difference between Illustrator brushes and Photoshop brushes is the way that they are stored. In Photoshop, brushes exist at the application level. If you add a brush with one document open, it is immediately available to any other document. If you want to save Photoshop brushes, you can export them to an .ABR file, which can then be loaded into another (compatible) version of Photoshop.

In Illustrator, however, brushes exist primarily at the document level. This means that if you create a new brush in Document A and then switch over to Document B, it will not be available! This doesn’t mean that you can’t export your brushes, it just means that the application doesn’t work quite the same way as Photoshop.

Now, another critical difference is that the only way to save Illustrator brushes is within a native Illustrator file. Again this is much different from Photoshop, and can be a bit confusing. The individual who emailed me recently seemed puzzled that my brush pack only contained an Illustrator file. There didn’t seem to be any brushes file.

Of course, the Illustrator file is that file. All you have to do is open the file through the Brushes palette in Illustrator. To do this, open the drop down menu and select Open Brush Library. Then, simply navigate to wherever the brushes file (Illustrator file) is located and select it.

Now, there is something that I need to note here. You will notice that the brushes open in their own, unique palette. What you’ve done by loading the brushes is made them available to the entire application. Now you can move back and forth between your documents and still use the brushes in all of them. It is also important to note that opening the brushes does not embed them into any of your documents. This only occurs when you apply a brush to a stroke

So, say you have a document open. Now you also open my set of circle brushes. Look at the two palettes. On the left, we have the brushes that currently exist in our document. On the right, we have all the brushes that are available in the circles pack:

None of the brushes are actually available

None of the circle brushes are actually available

Notice that none of the circle brushes are currently included in the document brushes. Now, if I select a path and apply one of the circle brushes from that library…

Now the one used brush is part of the document

Now the one used brush is part of the document

Now the selected brush is part of my document. Basically, then, if you open a brush package, only those brushes that you use in a given document will actually be included in the document. This is especially handy if you are using only one brush from a large package. You probably don’t want to embed every brush in the pack into your document.

Well, I think that’s just about it for the basics of Illustrator brushes. The article is a little long, but it’s a broad subject. Were the explanations useful to you? This is by no means intended to be a complete guide, so if any of you Illustrator Gurus have anything you’d like to add, please feel free to comment!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Dec 7, 2010

Preston Racette says:

Thanks for sharing. Nice post, keep it up!

Jan 3, 2011

Jack Rugile says:


This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you ;) Everyone explains how to make your own brush, but they gloss over the differences between each type of brush. Good work!

Jan 18, 2011

Photoshop Matt says:

Ah so this is the difference between PS Brushes and Illustrator. You know I never knew there was a difference! Thanks alot!

Feb 15, 2011

Tutsnow.com says:

Very clear explanation… Thanks for such an amazing post!

May 2, 2011

Monica says:

Nice explanation. Thanks.

Nov 12, 2011

Ahmad says:

Many thanks
I realy understod them by this post more then offical adobe books

Dec 6, 2011

Altran Seqqo says:

Extremely introspective tutorial for Illustrator rookies with methodical intermediate insight on how to differentiate brushes for us familiar with Photoshop.

Reeeealy big help. Big thanks for eye opening tips ;)

Feb 11, 2012

Renan Aguiar says:

Nice article

Jun 1, 2012

Sophia says:

You just answered all my questions.
I come from a photoshop background and am working my own way through illustrator! The handling is the same which makes you feel so comfortable but then differences come up that confuse anyone that is used to photoshop handling. I am amazed of the complexibility of illustrator.

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