Making your own Photoshop brushes can open up lots of creative possibilities. Photoshop can create a brush out of pretty much anything, but the first thing that’s important to know is that the brush can only be one color. In other words, you could create a brush from a photograph, but when you use the brush it’s a grayscale brush that uses the current foreground color.
When defining a brush, the shade of gray is equivalent to opacity, i.e. Black will be 100% opaque, white will be 0% and shades of gray will be somewhat see-through.
Another common misconception of creating brushes is that you have to make a selection or put things on a transparent background, but you do not. As mentioned, whatever is black becomes the brush, while white becomes see-through. So you just have to ensure that your background is pure white (assuming you want it to be completed transparent). And you only need to make a selection if you want to make a brush out of part of an image.
I have created brushes from photos of writing on an old map, feathers, stone and smoke (among other things).
To create smoke brushes you’ll need a black background, a couple of lights (I found that constant lighting worked well for this) and a simple smoke machine. I imagine that other sources of smoke might also work, but I had success with the smoke machine. Position the lights so the smoke will be mostly backlit and shoot away! I found that I had best success when I used the Interval Timer Shooting option on my camera to take a photo every 5 seconds. That way I could step away from my camera and “play with” the smoke in an effort to create interesting patterns.
Then I opened one of the captures in Camera Raw and made the background as black as possible and adjusted the smoke so there was a mixture of white and gray areas.
After opening the image in Photoshop I used the Invert command since we need black for our brush and white and the background.
Then use Edit>Define Brush Preset.
Here’s the result of using a smoke brush to add to a photo.
And an example of using several more brushes to paint on a background
Hint: When you are creating brushes it can sometimes be hard to tell how well it’s gong to work, so don’t be afraid to define a brush, try it out and then delete it if you don’t like it. If you open the photo as a Camera Raw Smart Object you can continue to tweak the settings in an effort to get a better brush. To create a brush with a Camera Raw Smart Object you’ll need to add an Invert Adjustment Layer since you can’t directly invert the Camera Raw Smart Object. However, as long as the Camera Raw Smart Object is active you can define a brush.
It’s also important to note that there’s a whole community of people who create a share Photoshop brushes – just search for “free Photoshop brushes” and I guarantee you that you can spend a few hours browsing through all the collections. (If you do download any brush sets, you can double-click on the .abr file to load the brushes into Photoshop).