Anything Photoshop or Photography

Adobe Photoshop CS5’s Mixer Brushes

This week I decided to tackle a big one. I have been really confused about exactly what to do with this new category of brushes called Mixer Brushes. Information is not readily available and most of the Photoshop CS5 general books barely scratch the surface of what they can do. Therefore, I spent a lot of time figuring out just what I can do with them and trying to decide if I like them as well as Corel Painter results. To make a long story short, there is a place for this new tool but you have to know how to use it. That said, I will begin with a very basic image I did in Photoshop CS5 to show what you can do fairly easily.

The images are of some tulips bought at the grocery last week – an unusual variety that makes for beautiful photographs. The smaller second image was processed just a bit in Lightroom using Matt’s 70’s Look Preset (download Lightroom version here and Adobe Camera Raw here) and a little Vibrance. I liked the pleasing blue tones the preset added to the background. Please understand that I am not an artist but I felt that the Mixer Brush did a nice job on the top photo. The instructions used were from a tutorial posted by Russell Brown, a total Photoshop genius that works for Adobe and everything he does is brilliant! Needless to say, this tutorial called “Clone Painting Basics” does not let you down, is very entertaining, and is very easy to follow.

The above served as a great introduction to the brushes, but I wanted to learn more. Next Richard Harrington’s video blog posted last week called “Using the Mixer Brush – 211 UAP (Understanding Adobe Photoshop series)” was viewed. He gives information to create some brushes that are actually very good. Perhaps the most useful information comes from Geoff Priest in his two part series – “Photoshop CS5-Mixer Brush Tips and Tricks” and “More Photoshop CS5 Mixer Brush Tips.” This is a must read if you want to learn some important issues with the Mixer Brushes. There are many things you can do to get better and quicker results and his two blogs really put it in perspective. Below are two examples of a “Painted Lady Hibiscus” that were created in the same file using Layer Comps, a good way to see if the effect you are getting is what you want.  (The original image is published on Flickr here.) Several Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layers, a Topaz Simplify Sketch Hard Pencil adjusted preset (see below on how to use a black and white blown out preset to make a similar sketch), different texture layers and finally edges were used. The reason there is no background behind the images is that the Sketch Layer was reduced to just the sketch by selecting the free Adobe Pixel Bender filter and applying the free Kill White filter (it works better with Pixel Bender than just as a Photoshop plug-in) to delete the white areas the Topaz filter applied. It just left the lines. I love this filter and use it all the time. Next erase any of the background lines out and to get a clean sketch.

There are several other places that have good information on Mixer Brushes. Julieanne Kost (another Adobe guru) has an interesting video tutorial called “Painting in Photoshop CS5 – Part 2” on Adobe TV. Mark S. Johnson did a great overview in his series on What’s New in CS5 – Part 10 is called “Painting on a Photograph with the Mixer Brush” and he creates some easy brushes to try. Tim Shelbourne also has a good tutorial video called “Introducing Photoshop CS5 Mixer Brushes“. One of the best resources found was from John Derry – he sells Mixer Brushes for $20 with six very helpful video tutorials on how to use them. These brushes are by far the easiest way to get comfortable with the Mixer Brushes and I would highly recommend them if you really like the Mixer Brush effects. In his bundle he includes some textures for the brushes to help get a real painterly look on the image. Also, an action to set up for painting on an image is included and I am still trying this out. What may be the best part of this set is a restore brush that can bring part of the unpainted image back into the painted areas and is totally unique as far as my research indicates. Karen Sperling, considered one of Corel Painter‘s gurus, tackled the Mixer Brushes in her E-zine Art Tips Magazine of August 2010 which can be purchased here for $15. The main article is called “How do I paint flowers in Photoshop CS5?” but there is a follow up article on painting portraits. She gives lots of actual painting tips on how to use the brushes and colors to your advantage so your image does not still look like a photograph after painting. This is an excellent article.  I did track down two written tutorials on the internet that appear to be well written and here are  links to both:  “Use the Mixer Brush in CS5 to Turn a Photo into a Realistic Painting” by Wassim Ouartsi, and “Mixer Brush Tool Photoshop CS5” by Wendi E. M. Scarth.  Both use Photoshop filters to help with the artistic effect – the second one includes some good Mixer Brush painting tips.

Enough on the resources.  After all my research, below are some points I think are really important to know about the Mixer Brushes:

  • Put you image into 16 bit mode, even if you open your image in 8 bit first. (Go to Image – Mode – 16 bit)  This creates a totally different and better effect.  (Geoff Priest’s blog tip)
  • Reduce the opacity of your original image when working on a painting layer and be sure to LOCK the original image layer so you will not accidentally paint on it. It is easy to get on the wrong layer while painting and it can mess up your image real quickly.  (John Derry tip)
  • Important to understand there are TWO types of Mixer Brushes – brushes that lay down actual color and act like real paintbrushes and blender brushes that do not pick up color but blend colors already present in the image. To create a blender Mixer Brush, you need to deactivate the Load Brush icon (5th one over) in the Options bar and check “Sample All Layers” (otherwise you will not see paint on the layer as you stroke)  and do not paint on the original, use a layer above. To change brush over to a painting Mixer Brush that paints with color, just activate the “Load the brush after each stroke” and deselect the icon next to it called “Clean the brush after each stroke.” Select a color and paint away! Paint in areas generally, then come back and add details and colors to your image. Switch frequently between laying down paint and blending what is there by just turning on and off the the Load Brush icon (try setting this up as a keyboard shortcut).
  • I also learned a valuable lesson about Mixer Brushes – if the brush you created is saved to the Brush Panel, the Option Bar settings are not saved. You must save the Mixer Brushes as TOOL PRESETS which will save the Option Bar settings.
  • Be sure to mix up your brushes a little and use lots of shadow and highlights to add interest to the image. Also adding some texture to your brushes, by checking the Texture section in the Brush Preset panel, will add that painted look you want. Be sure to fiddle with the Amount and Height sliders and look at the previews. This will give you a sense of what the stroke will look like when applied. It is very important to use a tablet (I still use my large Intuos 3 so if you can get one cheap, it works fine) with these brushes – the stroke is much harder to control without one. Also, I recently purchased a barrel rotation pen which emulates a paintbrush to some extent and is very pressure sensitive.  It helps create much better results when using the Mixer Brushes.
  • Use the following guidelines to create your own Mixer Brushes: Wetness set to 0 behaves like a normal brush – the higher the number, the more streaking. Low load rates result in shorter brush strokes. A high Mix rate results in more color being picked up from the canvas. The higher the Flow rate, the more paint is applied as you paint.
  • One last major point is that the larger the size of the brush, the slower it works. Unlike the regular brushes, there can be a considerable lag time between laying down strokes and actually seeing them on the image, especially if the you do not have a state-of-the-art system (or even if you do in some cases). It has been suggested in these references to set your resolution of your image to 150 dpi (minimum size most ink jet printers use to get good prints), and do not use a brush size over 75 pixels – I found I was not using anything near that large for the detail painting, usually preferring 25-35 pixel brushes. I have a pretty fast system and am finding this tip to be a real time-saver, especially since most of my images are not going to be huge in size. May need to reconsider how to proceed if you really want a large image produced. (John Derry explains this clearly in one of his videos.) It is much easier to switch to round brushes or special effect brushes to cover the less detailed background areas and just use the Mixer Brushes to bring in the details.

Below is my final example of what you can do with the Mixer Brushes. I created this image using my own method of Mixer and Brush painting – I call it the “Desaturated Color Look.” Even though it does not look very painterly, the foreground and water were painted with a Mixer Brush and I have tried to give a little different technique than what I found in the listed resources.

The basic steps are:

1.  In Lightroom, use a black and white preset to blow out some of the details (will change depending on the image). In the Split Toning section, I made shadows (black color in image) a color by moving the Hue slider to a green color in this case and set the Saturation slider to 45.  I left the Highlights and Balance alone.
2.  Go into Photoshop CS5. Duplicate the image. Create a white layer between the bottom image and the duplicate image.
3. Highlight top layer and go to Filter – Pixel Bender – Pixel Bender Gallery and in drop down, select MikeYael KillWhite. Now you have a sketch of the image on top of a white layer underneath. It is important to lock this layer so you will not accidentally paint on the sketch. Name this layer Sketch.
4. Create a New Layer between the white layer and sketch layer. Paint with a Mixer Brush over one of the main areas from the image. Name this layer something appropriate, like Water. Using the Sketch layer as a guideline, paint color in the image – I used a blunt – round short dry brush at 25 pixels (John Derry provides this brush in his collection along with the Italian texture). The texture was set to 100% scale with a Height of 10% and Pen Pressure turned on in the Texture Section of the Brush Preset Panel for the above.
5. For each new paint color, create a New Layer and paint just that color on the layer and name it. You could have many different colors if needed. The nice thing about doing this is that each main area is on its own layer so blend modes can be changed, layers duplicated  several times, or the opacity changed to create many different effects. I used the same brush as above for the sand but this time I used two different colors set up as the foreground and background colors. Paint with one color and then switch to the background color and paint near the first color (press x to switch quickly).  Hold the ALT key over the combined colors and you will get a mixed color in the “Current Brush Load” icon (4th over) in the Options Bar that can now be used for painting.  This gives a really nice blended look. Note, this is not a blender brush, this is a brush that lays down color.  (Many of the cited resources use the actual Blender Brushes.)
6. For the sky, I used a regular brush called Cloud Brush by rubina119 – #8 at the largest setting to create the soft blue sky. Then used the same brush at a smaller size and very lightly to create the white clouds. This is a case where it would have taken too long to use the Mixer Brush to create this very lightly textures sky area.
7. In the image above, the sketch layer is duplicated two more times with the top layer set to Multiply and 77% opacity. The background sky layer was also duplicated twice. Finally an OnOne PhotoFrames (here is shortened free version) was added.

This is a long post as it is a very difficult topic to cover. I am still learning how to use them. The new Mixer Brushes are well worth pursuing if you feel like adding an artistic look to you images. I think it is important to give people the resources to try new things.  This may not be for everyone, but I believe it is fun to try things outside your “comfort zone” and Photoshop has given us an easy way to try something new. Have fun exploring these brushes!


Since writing this blog, I have created a Mixer Brush for use with textures that you might be interested in trying.  I have included my favorite texture Mixer Brush that can be downloaded here (there are two brushes – same brush at different sizes) and added to your Tool Presets. (Put the file in the User Name -> AppData -> Roaming -> Adobe -> Adobe Photoshop CS5 -> Tools file. Restart Photoshop to add brushes to your Tool Presets – go to the top upper left corner icon under the Menu line and click on down arrow, click on right pointed arrow in upper corner to open fly out menu, and select Load SJ Mixer Brushes Presets. I usually Append the tools and they will appear at the bottom of the list. NOTE: You must have the Mixer Brush selected in the vertical Toolbar to get the Mixer Brush variations to appear in the Tool Preset drop-down.)…..Digital Lady Syd

22 responses

  1. SMS

    Much edifying article, I ought to speak. This post is fully encouraging in its own ways and I am sure that it will even get success in inspiring many people like me.And yes i have digg your site .

    04/15/2011 at 3:53 pm

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