Custom Brushes – The Secret of Background Effects


Final Image


One very powerful feature in Photoshop is the countless ways you can create and modify brushes. Just about any design can be turned into a brush and then “painted” into your image to create all kinds of effects. This tutorial will serve as a simple introduction to working with custom brushes.

I was recently asked how to create a “bokeh lighting” effect in some images. Blurred little sparks of light in the background of some images can really be a neat effect. There are actually some plug-ins designed to create these lighting effects, but using a custom brush Photoshop will let you get a good effect without any extra plug-ins.

My basic picture is just a little wildflower with a nice blurry background. Load it up and I’ll show you an easy way to give it a little sparkle. (Original image is at the bottom of this post.)

  1. Start by selecting the flower and some of the stems and grass – I used the magic wand set with a tolerance of 50. This setting controls how picky the selection is. If you set this to zero only pixels that match the tone of what you click on will be selected. Also click the Contiguous check box – this makes it so that only pixels adjoining the one you choose are selected. Hold the shift key down while clicking on different spots in the flower until you have the whole thing selected. Zoom in close to double check and when you are happy with the selection, go up to Select > Modify > Feather and enter a value of .5 to soften the edges just a touch. Then hit Ctrl/Cmd + J to copy the selection to a new layer. If you turn off the background layer you should see something like this:
  2. To create a new brush shape, create a new layer and then pick the polygon tool (this is hiding in the pop-out set with the line tool). In the settings at the top enter 6 for the number of sides – you can play with this number…if you think about what creates “bokeh” it’s the shape of the aperture in your lens. The highlights we are creating will take on that shape. Now draw a little black hexagon somewhere in your picture. The size doesn’t really matter a whole lot – you can adjust this later in your brush settings. Depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using you may need to rasterize this shape to create a brush from it. Go to Layer > Rasterize > Shape and you’ll be set.
  3. Select this shape and then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and name your brush. I called it Bokeh Light. Now select your brush tool (or just hit B on the keyboard). At the bottom of the brushes menu you’ll find a new brush with your hexagon shape. Pick that and let’s add some extra effects to it.
  4. In the Brusheswindow you will find a range of options for controlling how the brush acts when you use it. If you don’t see the Brushes window it may be one of the tabs hiding in the upper right, or just go up to the menu under Window and you’ll find it. Since we want a random scattering of hexagons with different brightness and opacity, there are a few options that need to be activated. Click on Brush Tip and slide the Spacing slider up to around 200%. Under Shape Dynamics set Size Jitter to 60% and Minimum Diameter to 20%. Under Scattering I ran the Scatter slider all the way to the right and checked the Both Axes box. Under Color Dynamics set Saturation Jitter and Brightness Jitter to 25%. Finally in Other Dynamics set Opacity Jitter and Flow Jitter to 30%. Whew!! That’s a lot of settings…and we barely even touched the possibilities in there!
  5. Ok, now pick a faint pale yellow color and on a new layer (you can really just erase the black hexagon you used to make the brush) paint a quick spattering of hexagons across the image. You can add to this as much as you want or undo it if you think there’s too much – feel free to play around with all the settings in the Brushes window too. Eventually you will have something like this:
  6. Ok, so now click and drag that layer behind (underneath) the layer with your flower cutout. To give it a nice blurry look go up to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a radius that makes it look good – mine was 5.4. The final adjustment is to take the layer’s opacity down a bit until you’re happy with the results. If you want to create more depth you can make a second layer and add another swipe of highlights and then use a different blur and opacity setting. It can be easy to over do this, but everyone has tehir own vision…

Really simple stuff, huh? There are countless ways you can use custom brushes in your images. My favorites are in creating textural backgrounds by creating a random shape, blurring the begeezus out of it and then mixing it in with layer blending modes. I’ve seen people use this same effect to create anything from heart-shaped lights for engagement photos to surreal atmospheric effects in composite fantasy images.

Original image:

Original Image

4 thoughts on “Custom Brushes – The Secret of Background Effects

  1. Great instructions. Easy to follow. Now if I can only remember to know how to do this on my own the next time I want bokeh lights. Oh ya I don’t have to I can just come back here 😀

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