Custom Ink Brushes in Adobe Illustrator

I’m going to show you one simple way to make custom ink brushes for Adobe Illustrator.

What you’ll need:

  • Adobe Illustrator CC
  • Paper
  • A sharpie
  • A scanner (I use an Epson V550 Photo)

While it’s perfectly valid to grab custom brushes from an online resource like kylebrush.com, for this project I wanted to have the flexibility (and satisfaction) of creating something on my own. The good thing about working in a tactile manner with good old pen and paper is that if a line/shape isn’t working, you can see exactly what you need to tweak and make the edits fast.

Let’s get started.

Make some lines, baby

Think about the type of line work you want in your illustration. For this piece, I wanted a hand-drawn look that was fairly rough around the edges, so I tried the examples pictured below:

One thing I learned when I ended up bringing the strokes into Illustrator is that wrapping them around larger shapes will smooth out their appearance considerably. I found myself going back and making more jagged lines in order to achieve the look I was going for.

The great thing about starting from scratch like this is that you can really experiment with all types of shapes and patterns. Like I said before, even if a certain pattern doesn’t work, you’ll at least be able to see what isn’t working about it and tweak from there.

It’ll be easier to keep all of your lines in a vertical “list” so that when you scan one, you scan them all. If you need to go back to the drawing board or add new lines, you can just place them right under the last line you created and keep moving from there.

Scan

Set your scanner to Black and White and scan at at least 300dpi. The B&W setting will simplify the shapes slightly, but we aren’t looking for anything too complex for these strokes anyway. Once you’ve saved your image, import it into Illustrator.

Get your shapes ready

Once you have your sheet imported into Illustrator, complete the following steps:

  • Select the image. In Illustrators top bar, just under the main navigation, click “Image Trace” and set it to “Black and White Logo”.
  • Object > Expand
  • Double-click the white areas and delete so that only the strokes are left. If you have white space or dust within your strokes, select all of the shapes and open your Pathfinder window. Select “Merge” to ensure that what you see is what you get and there are no underlying shapes behind the white parts of your artwork. Then double-click until you have selected one white shape in your piece. With that shape selected, go to Select > Same Fill Color. This will select all of the white in your piece. Then click delete and it’s gone.
  • Select all of your strokes and ungroup them. Now you should have several individual shapes that are ready to become custom brushes.

Turn Shapes into Brushes

It’s satisfying just how easy this next part is.

  • Make sure your brushes window is open. Grab one of your shapes and drag it into that window.
  • You’ll see a prompt to create a brush. Select “Art Brush”
  • You can modify your brush in a number of ways in the next modal. There are two main things to remember. First, I would select “Stretch to Fit Stroke Length” under “Brush Scale Options”. This will the width of your stroke consistent along your paths. “Scale Proportionately” will keep the dimensions of the original shape of your brush across the the path. So in that case, a long path would mean that your brush stroke is going to be huge. “Stretch Between Guides” scales the brush across a distance you select. I’m sure that’s useful in some instances, but “Stretch to Fit Stroke Length” has worked best for me thus far. This option definitely showcase the variances in your original shape more on smaller paths, so you will have to play with stroke width.
“Scale Proportionately” vs. “Stretch to Fit Stroke Length”
  • The next think you need to remember is “Colorization”. By default this field is unselected, which will frustrate you later when Illustrator is saying that your stroke is yellow but you see black. Make sure “Tints” is selected in this field and you will be able to color your strokes like normal.
Remember to select “Stretch to Fit Stroke Length” for Brush Scale Options and “Tints” for Colorization.
  • Once you click ok, your new stroke will appear in the brushes panel and be ready for use. I’d encourage you to experiment with settings when creating these brushes and try a bunch of different shapes to see what you get. The following four images feature the same paths and stroke widths, only with slightly different starting shapes for the brushes.

Saving your brushes

When you have a cohesive library that you feel good about working with, go to the top right corner of the brushes window and click the hamburger menu. Select “Save Brush Library” from the menu and name your library something that you will remember. Now when you open a new file in Illustrator, you can go to that hamburger menu and find your brushes by navigating to “Open Brush Library > User Defined”.

Thank you for reading

Hopefully this showed you a simple way to take a hands-on approach to digital illustration tool. Now go make some cool stuff.