What is it with the Soft Round Brush in Photoshop Elements anyway?  Why does that term appear in every portrait retouching tutorial out there?  Are you interested?  Read on for excruciating detail about the who, what, where, why and when of using this tool in PSE.

What’s the best way to access the Brush Tool?

The shortcut is B.  I use that all the time.  Here’s a warning though – if you already have the Brush Tool selected and inadvertently type B, you’re going to end up with the Impressionist tool or the Color Replacement Tool selected.  And you’re not going to be wild about the results.  So just make sure and glance over at the tool in the toolbox to make sure it looks like a plain ole regular brush.

Ok, I’ve got the tool selected.  What now?  Well, every tool in the Elements toolbox has a series of options to refine your editing.  For the brush, look up in the tool options bar and you’ll see something like this:

Tool Options Bar

The following questions address how to use those options to get the most out of your brush.

How to Choose a Brush Type in Photoshop Elements?

Photoshop has lots of different brush types.  More than I want to count.  Especially since I use exactly 4 of them.  They are:

  • Hard Round:  I use this one for painting on straight areas with definite boundaries.  Architectural elements, man-made things, etc.
  • Soft Round:  I use it  most of the time.  Works great on faces, bodies, nature
  • Soft Round Airbrush:  Similar to soft round.  I like this one a lot too.
  • Stipple Dense:  Looks crazy, but really gets into the corners of eyes well.  I only use this one on eyes.

To select the brush type, click on the Brush Type drop down menu (see Options screen shot above).  You’ll see something like this:

The Hard Round, Soft Round and Soft Airbrush Round are all in that Default Brushes category.  To find the other sections, click on “Default Brushes” and you’ll see the other categories you have to choose from.  Stipple Dense is in the Natural Brushes section.

Does your drop down menu look different from mine?  See that double arrow in the orange circle in the screen shot above?  Click on it, and you can choose how to display your list.  My favorite view is “Large List.”

You’ll notice that each type has a size next to it.  I completely ignore it.  I just click on the first brush I see that is the right type, regardless of the size.  Why?  Well, I really don’t have a clue how many pixels wide I need my brush to be.  Yet.

How to Size a Brush in Photoshop Elements?

Ok, so how do you select the proper size for your brush then?  After selecting my Brush Type, I move the brush to the part of the image I want to edit.

If it needs to be bigger, I press the ] button (it’s just above the Enter key).  If the brush needs to be smaller, I press the

[ key.

Comparing the size of the brush to the size of the image is much more meaningful to me than trying to estimate the pixel size of the brush.

However, if you do know the exact size that you want your brush to be, you can use the Size slider (see Options screen shot above) to dial the exact size in.

Which Blend Mode Should I Use for the Brush?

My brush is nearly always in the Normal Blend Mode.  There is a technique in my Portrait Retouching tutorial where you might want to change your blend mode.  Other than that, you probably won’t need to adjust it.

However, if your brush is not acting as you think it should, check the blend mode.  This field has a mind of its own and tends to jump around even if you don’t touch it.  Make sure it’s on Normal unless you have a good reason to set it otherwise.

What Does the Brush Opacity Do?

Brush Opacity is a great tool for making your paint job look natural.  If, for instance, you’re trying to brush on some “soft skin” using a layer mask, you might use a high opacity over the areas of not-soft skin and then use a lower opacity to transition to the areas of better skin.

Also, if you’re not sure how much paint you’ll need, you can paint with a low opacity brush and add multiple “coats” of paint to build up the effect gradually until you’re happy with the results.

What is the Airbrush Option?

Looking back up at the Brush Options screen shot above, do you see the button for Airbrush Capability?  Enabling that option lets you add more paint based on the length of your click.  Do you remember back in the ’80s when paint pens were so popular?  And the longer you pressed them down, the more paint came out?  This is the same thing.  It works with a mouse or a graphics tablet.

Why don’t you try that one right now to see how it works?  Open a blank file in PSE, select your brush and make it an airbrush.  Click on one spot and don’t release the mouse.  See how the paint keeps coming for a while?  Now turn off the airbrush and try the same thing.

What Are the Brush Dynamics Options?

These options can be helpful for scrapbookers and graphic designers.  If you’re interested in all the details, open the dialog in Elements and click on the blue hyperlink at the top.  Sometimes the Adobe help files aren’t helpful, but this particular page is well-written and straightforward.

As far as the options that I use in photo editing, I will sometimes adjust the hardness of my brush.  For example, if I’ve selected a hard brush that needs just a touch of softness, I can do that hear.

I also use the angle tool at the bottom pretty frequently when using the Stipple Dense brush while editing eyes.  You can rotate the brush head so that the corner is in a different place and matches the alignment of the eyes better.  Here are examples of changing the brush dynamics.


What about finding, creating, loading and saving new brushes?  We’ll cover that next week.  Who would think that a simple paint brush would take so many words to explain….