One of the things we’ve learned after giving away over 50 brush sets in the last year is that people really love brush sets that have custom icons. We do, too. Custom icons not only make your brush set look more professional, they are immensely pleasing to look at. If you’re drawing every day in SketchBook Pro, it’s nice to be able to call up your favorite brush set (one you made, purchased, or downloaded from this blog) and see a comforting and pleasant set of icons all lined up and ready to be chosen.
When you create a new brush, you have two options for the brush icons. You can capture the “stamp” of the brush, which functions as a preview of the brush stroke itself. That’s the easy way. Or, you can create your own custom icons. I’m going to give you some tips for making your own brush icons and give you a PSD template to get you started.
Brush icons are a lot like favicons, the little icons that you see in your browser’s URL window. They’re always square, always tiny. You basically have two ways to approach this type of exercise:
- Take a large, square image and downsize it to 80×80 pixels.
- Draw and edit your icon at the pixel level — square by square.
Obviously, doing it the second way takes more time, but it will almost always look better. If you just want something that makes your icons look different, the first option is the easiest. If you are, however, planning on selling a pack of brushes you made on a place like Creative Market, going the distance to create pixel-precise icons is going to make your brush set really stand out and look professional.
Specs for Brush Icons
You can get away with 40×40 for lower definition screens, but we strongly recommend creating 80×80 pixel images. If the image you import is larger, our app will downsize it to fit the space. If the image is smaller, our app won’t do anything to it (but it also probably won’t look very good). You can use PNG, JPG, or even TIFF formatted images, but PNG is the answer if your art has a transparent background.
Drawing Icons in SketchBook
You can, of course, draw icons in SketchBook. That’s one way to do it. Just start with a large, square canvas and think carefully about how you use negative space. Fill the frame with as much brush/pen/pencil as possible. Here’s how we made a sample brush illustration:
- Devote one layer to the brush handle, one layer for the bristles, and one layer underneath to airbrush a shadow.
- Choose a light source and base a gradient off of that to make the brush icon pop.
- Work on a really big canvas (e.g., 1,000×1,000 px) so the image looks crisp when you assign it as an icon.
Creating Icons in Other Apps
If you want to do pixel-precise work, a graphic design app that lets you edit at the pixel level is best. We use Photoshop and Pixelmator to make many of our icons, but there are plenty of other options out there. If you use Photoshop, feel free to download this brush icon template and use it to create your own brush icons. Pixel-based art building apps aren’t just for Minecraft and retro video game enthusiasts. These apps can be pretty useful for creating brush icons. My favorite for web editing is Piskel, which has a set of incredibly specific tools for creating this kind of small pixel-based art.