Adobe Photoshop comes with a good complement of creative brushes, but occasionally a custom brush you need just isn’t available.

We’ll walk you through the process of creating your own brushes. We’ve suggested these steps for Photoshop CS5, but with minor modifications they also can apply to earlier Photoshop versions.

Create your brush
Photoshop brushes fall into two categories: paint-type and image-hose-type. A paint-type brush mimics the texture and behaviour of a real painting tool, such as a paintbrush, a sponge brush, or a paint roller. In contrast, an image-hose-type brush sprays a single graphic element onto your canvas, allowing you to vary its size, shape, and colour.

Be aware that a brush tip is a greyscale image. A colour image made into a brush tip will be converted to greyscale, and the grey values will be partially transparent; this transparency will carry over to brushstrokes. This means that any part of the brush tip that is black is fully opaque, and will yield full colour when used as a brush.

Also, be conscious of brush size. If your brush tip is 500 x 500 pixels, you can scale it down without any loss of quality; however, if your original brush tip is only 25 x 25, scaling it up to 500 x 500 pixels will look terrible.

The source image for a brush tip can be just about anything. Here are three examples of image types you can use:

Spongy Brush Using a loofah sponge, dab black paint onto a canvas. After it dries, scan or photograph the texture and bring it into Photoshop. Convert the image to greyscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale) and tweak the levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) so that white areas are free of texture and black areas are pure black.

Wheat Stalk Brush Use Adobe Illustrator (or another vector drawing app) to draw a single, detailed stalk of wheat. Do not use any colour; the stalk itself should be black and the background transparent. Import the final artwork into Photoshop.

Flower Brush Open a photo of a flower in Photoshop. Convert the image to greyscale, and then mask the flower, if necessary. Tweak the levels to add more contrast to the flower. Also make sure none of the flower areas are too light.

Once you’ve made the necessary edits, you may need to scale the document down. Choose Image > Image Size, enter a maximum width or height of 500 pixels, and click OK. Choose Select > All, and then choose Edit > Define Brush Preset and type a name for it. The brush head will be added to your current set of brushes.

Save the document and close the window. Now choose File > New to create a new document that will serve as a scratch pad for the next step.

Fine-tune your brush
You’ll need to fine-tune the new brush for best results. Select the Brush Tool and choose Window > Brush. Once the window appears, click Brush Presets. You’ll see your newly defined brush at the bottom of the list of thumbnails.

After you’ve made your tweaks in the Brush window, you must save the brush as a new preset. Click the tiny document icon at the bottom right of the Brush window to add a new brush preset, enter a descriptive name for the brush, and click OK. The revised brush will appear right beside the original brush.

Changes you make to this brush are not automatically saved. Any time you change a brush, you must save it as a new preset.

Adjust your brush
At the left side of the Brush window, you’ll see a list of brush options. The options you enable will vary greatly with the type of brush you’re building. If you’re working on a brush that’s shaped like a wheat stalk, for example, you’ll be concerned with Shape Dynamics, Color Dynamics, and Scattering. At the bottom of the Brush window, you’ll see a preview of your current brush. Every change you make to the brush will be reflected in a greyscale preview. For a colour preview of your brush preset, use the Brush Tool to paint onto the current document (choose a different foreground colour if you want to).

Here’s an explanation of each section of the Brush window and what it does:

Brush Tip Shape Typically used for paint-type brushes, this setting lets you edit a brush’s default size, as well as its angle, roundness, and hardness. You can also set the spacing for the brush bristles.

Shape Dynamics These controls are normally used for image-hose-type brushes. Size Jitter, Angle Jitter, and Roundness Jitter vary the shape of each brush mark (single dab), letting you create, say, fields of wheat in which each stalk has a unique shape.

Scattering Most often used for image-hose-type brushes, scattering varies the placement of each brush mark, allowing for a more natural distribution of paint dabs such as for grass, leaves, or snow.

Texture Ordinarily used for paint-type brushes, the Texture option lets you apply a pattern to each brush stroke to give the impression of texture (such as canvas).

Dual Brush Applicable to all brushes, this option combines two tips to create brush strokes; it places the texture of the secondary brush stroke within the boundaries of the primary brush stroke.

Color Dynamics These controls allow you vary the colour and intensity of your brush stroke, adding even more nuance to each mark that you make.

Transfer This setting applies to all brushes. Opacity Jitter lets you randomise the transparency of each brush mark; Flow Jitter allows opacity variations that flow naturally from solid to clear.

The remaining five options available, mostly used with paint-type brushes, have no adjustable settings.

Share your brush 
Half the fun of creating a new brush is sharing it with others. Choose Edit > Preset Manager. Shift-click on your new brush (or brushes) and then click Save Set. Give the set a name and save it to your desktop. You can now email this file to friends and colleagues. Once they have it in hand, they can double-click it to automatically add your unique brushes to their current brush set.