Illustrator Custom Brushes

Champion fight Illustrator Tutorial
Download files for this project [ai 1.4MB]

Have you ever settled for a one-point stroke in your vector work when you knew something more organic would work better? Has your work been cheapened by that annoyingly perfect little stroke?

Don’t get me wrong; I like the one-point stroke. I think it works well in technical illustrations, but when used in other arenas it can appear sterile and boring.

Then again, who has the time to get their hands dirty with the Pen tool faking the look of a big, juicy, thick-to-thin line?

Going point-to-point for two hours to create a convincing outline is tedious, at best. So, how can you produce a fantastic vector illustration where the “human hand” shines through, without killing your eyes from strain and your brains from repetition?

In this tutorial, you’ll be taken through three steps.

First, you’ll create several custom brushes. There are brushes included in the download, but that’s too easy. You’ll need to make some, too!

Second, using a vintage portrait, also provided in the download, for reference, you’ll construct a boxing poster that retains that elusive hand-drawn charm.

Lastly, you’ll be able to use your home made brushes to give Futura a face lift, as well as setting the type to resemble posters from the past.
Once complete, you will have a greater appreciation of Illustrator, as well as several new tricks to apply to your next project. So let’s get started!



In this tutorial, you’ll do lots of layer locking and unlocking. It may seem like overkill, but it saves a million accidental selections! Open, provided in the download in Illustrator. Once open, Select and Unlock the “brushes” layer. This is where you’ll build your new brushes.



Building a brush is easy! Visualize the stroke you’re after and then picture it compressed. For the first brush, you’ll need a long thin-thick-thin stroke, so build that shape with the Pen tool. Try to keep it small and to scale with the example.



Now, if it isn’t open already, open the Brushes window by hitting F5. Select your new shape and drag it into the window with the other brushes.



‘When prompted, select Art Brush and the Art Brush Options window will open. At the top, give your new brush a name. Under Colorization, go to Method, choose Hue Shift and then hit OK. This will allow you to change the colour of your line.



By default, your new brush will now appear under Adobe’s brushes. Select it, along with a stroke colour, and pull a few lines with the Pencil tool. Make some short, long, jaggy and wavy lines and notice how the stroke reacts to sharp angles.



From here, try various stroke weights. It’s good to play around at this point. Doodle, scribble, and get a feel for your brush. Feel free to linger at this step, as soon there will be more brushes to master.



Repeat steps 2 to 5 by making shapes similar to those shown here and turn them into brushes. Don’t forget the Hue Shift under Method. Now try drawing with these new brushes, again taking your time to get familiar with their effects.



Now you can start to change colours and vary line weight. Test them out by making a killer drawing! On your Layers window, lock the brushes layer and unlock the line work layer.



This layer will contain, as you might expect, the outlines. You can use the rusty orange, provided in the file, to sell the retro look, but use whatever colour you like. Just make sure that it’s the darkest value in the illustration. Black is good.



You can now start to draw over the reference image. As these lines will be the darkest, don’t get caught up in over rendering and be sure to vary the line weight.



When you’re happy with this, lock the main line work layer and unlock the bg line work layer. In this layer you should draw underneath the orange to build up volume and mass. You can use fat, blue strokes to define shapes. Get a little sloppy here and have fun with it!



Now lock the bg line work layer and unlock the background layer. Choose your tightest colour [a light orange is provided within the file], hit M for the Rectangle tool, click and make a rectangle that measures 275 x 295mm.



Select your rectangle and then press and hold Alt while dragging the rectangle an inch to the right. Do this once more so that you end up with three rectangles. These will form part of the border of the finished poster.



Select the second rectangle. Holding down Shift to keep its proportion, reduce its size by about five per cent. Clear its fill colour and make the stroke the same colour as the outline layer [Press Ctrl+Shift] to bring it to the front.



Repeat this with the third rectangle, making it another five per cent smaller, but this time use the same fill colour as your bg line work. Press Ctrl+Shift+] to bring this one to the front. Now, open the align window [Shift+F7]. Select all three rectangles and align them both horizontally and vertically.



Using the pencil tool, draw a rough outline in your lightest colour around the portrait. This shape should be both filled and stroked. I used a chunky brush to imply texture, but experiment with the brushes you made to see if you can improve on the design.



Draw a vertical wavy line that runs a little past the length of your background. Select it, and move it over just a little while holding Alt to make a copy. Then press Ctrl+D to duplicate that action. Hold down the Ctrl key and tap D like crazy. Once you’ve covered the image, press Ctrl+G to group them.



Now draw a shape like the ON:! pictured here. This will act as a Clipping Mask. Select this new shape and the grouped wavy lines and press Ctrl+7 to create a Clipping Mask. You have now created a cool background element. Lock it and then unlock the highlights layer.



You can now add the copy. The Internet is your buddy here. Use it to gather names, dates, and other elements that can add authenticity to your design. When you are happy, select the type and press Shift+Ctrl+O to create outlines. Stroke these outlines with your chunky brush to enhance the type.



On the highlights layer, pull a few strokes of your lighter colours over the darker outlines. This will add some positive-negative depth to your illustration. At this stage, you’ve made a great start on brush creation. From here, you can create more brushes and continue to enhance more complicated typefaces.


Everything old is new again. Sometimes even bad design is good I Consider this whenever attempting retro work. I have avoided Futura’s Futura Black BT Regular for my entire professional life, but for a gaudy boxing poster, it’s just right.
Creating something so purposefully clunky can infuse your work with a naive charm that eludes much contemporary design. So thoroughly research what you’re emulating as authenticity will add tonnes of character.


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