Adobe Photoshop - my favourite tools to use as an illustrator

Adobe Photoshop - my favourite tools to use as an illustrator

In my previous blog, I described my creative process whereby, I take my illustrations or motifs that I have sketched and painted with watercolours into Adobe Photoshop, adding additional elements, depth, and layers until I am happy with the finished picture and/or pattern.

Learning Photoshop as an illustrator and surface pattern designer is quite different to learning Photoshop if you are a photographer. I don't know or need to know absolutely everything about photoshop to do what I need to do.

Note: To get started in Photoshop here is a basic look at the workspace and a simplified look at how layers (in the layers panel) work.

Photoshop InterfacePhotoshop workspace

What are layers?
I think of layers as a stack of tracing paper where each layer can still be seen or partially seen through the layer on top of it. I use layers for different elements in my illustration or pattern. When working, I typically have the sketch on one layer, the colour in one, the linework on another, and any texture I want to add on a separate layer. With layers, I can draw, edit, paste, and reposition my motifs or parts of my illustration on one layer without accidentally changing or messing with another. When working I can lock a layer, and hide a layer.

Photoshop layers panel

Photoshop layers panel

The tools I use as an illustrator:

Selection tools

To modify a portion of my illustration I need to select it first. I will either use the lasso or magnetic selection tools depending on the shape of the motif or element I need to select. The lasso allows me to select an element freehand, while the magnetic selection tool clings to the shape of the motif. This is good to use when needing to select straight or complex edges. The selected area is outlined with a dotted line. Everything outside the selected area (dotted line) is not modified.

Eye dropper tool

eye dropper tool in photoshop
I use the eyedropper tool to select a colour in my illustration. For example when adding shading. I use the eyedropper tool to select the base colour and then from the colour picker (foreground colour) dialog choose a darker shade of the same colour.

Foreground colour picker in photoshop

Move tool

move tool in photoshop 
I use this tool to reposition the selected element/illustration on the canvas or art board.

Brush tool

brush tool
This tool is my main painting tool. It works like a traditional brush by applying colour using strokes. There are brushes that come standard with photoshop, with the most popular being from Kyle T Webster. These brushes can mimic watercolour, pencil, acrylic, gouache, and oil mediums. I combine a watercolour brush to lay more base colour and to deepen the colour in an illustration, with a colour pencil brush.

I open the brushes panel to view the list of available brushes. I can increase the size of the brush, and change the blending mode, and the opacity.

brush panel

The colour that is applied by the brush is controlled by the Foreground Colour, found at the bottom of the Tools toolbar.

NB: There is a lot to know about layers and brushes and if you are interested in learning more just email me and I will dedicate a blog post or two to these two tools in photoshop.


I use the eraser to remove random lines on my sketch, or any colour that has gone outside the edges of the motif.

Smudge tool

smudge tool
The smudge tool or blender tool is one I use when I want to soften the edges between watercolour layers so there are no harsh lines.

Patch tool

patch tool in photoshop
I use the patch tool to clean up any dust or flecks on the scanned illustration. I select the fleck and then move the patch to an area that is clean. It copies this area and removes the fleck.

Patch tool selection

Hand tool

hand tool

I use the hand tool to move the canvas around the window when zoomed in on a particular area.

Zoom tool 

Zoom tool in photoshop
I use this tool to zoom in or out on the illustration or motif.

Free transform 

While this is technically not an option in the toolbar it is one of the key features of Photoshop that I use. The shortcut for this is Ctrl T (Ctrl for windows or Command for mac). With the free transform tool, I can resize, rotate, distort, and skew a selected motif or element in the illustration. I can even change the perspective of the element though I don’t use this option often.

I hope you have enjoyed my overview of what tools and features I use in Photoshop.