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Tablet Talk with Weston Maggio

By Weston Maggio

If you’ve got a Wacom tablet but aren’t using it, or if you always wanted one, but just didn’t “get it”, you may not fully appreciate all that it has to offer. The list is long, but the number one benefit to using a tablet is the greater control that it brings to your retouching tools. This is accomplished through pressure sensitivity. Whether you are skilled at using a pen or you’re just curious about what it can do for you, the following tips on brush and tablet settings in Photoshop Elements will be a welcome addition to your skillset.

Nearly every tool in Photoshop Elements that behaves like a brush is, or can be applied with pen pressure. Doing so enables you to apply the tool’s effect with greater accuracy and efficiency. The Brush tool is the most obvious, as are any tool with the word “brush” in it’s name. i.e. Spot Healing Brush, Smart Brush, etc. But the Clone Stamp, Blur, Sponge, and Eraser are also pressure sensitive.

Now that you know the tools, here are the key areas that you should be familiar with to ensure that you are using the tools to their true potential.

First things first, select the Expert tab to reveal the Toolbox to the left of your display. Now, when you select any tool, options for that tool appear in the Tool Options panel at the bottom of your display. When the Brush tool is selected, the Tool Options panel reveals the Brush Preset Picker, along with some additional settings.

Start by selecting a brush preset; for example a 65px Soft Round Brush. The name suggests that the brush is 65 pixels in diameter, has a soft edge and is round. These attributes were set when the brush was created.

Brush Presets

The effects of a brush are largely determined by the settings established in a brush preset. Meaning, you can select a brush right from the brush picker and likely find that pen pressure will affect some attribute of the brush stroke; for example, size or opacity. Regardless, you can further adjust the effects of a brush to get the appearance that you are after. Additionally, should you wish to save this newly created brush, you can save it as a brush preset for use in the future.

From there you can adjust the brush’s size and opacity to your liking by dragging the sliders. Additionally, clicking the airbrush mode will enable a constant flow of paint. The size and opacity sliders represent the brush’s maximum result. This will make more sense in a moment.

Tablet Settings

To the right of the Size and Opacity sliders, you’ll find the Tablet Settings button. Tapping this button reveals five properties that can be applied using pen pressure:

  • Size – Diameter of a brush
  • Opacity – Transparency of a brush stroke
  • Hue Jitter – Transition of color from foreground to background
  • Scatter – Distribution of a brush mark across a brush stroke
  • Roundness – Brush shape; perfectly round to elliptical

Checking one or more of the boxes in front of a property will enable control by pen pressure. For example, a soft touch of the pen to the tablet will apply a subtle effect, while pressing harder will increase the effect. In the case of Size and Opacity, the maximum result of pen pressure is limited to the slider settings discussed above. I typically leave the Size and Opacity sliders set to 100%, as my intent is to adjust them using pen pressure. The result for Hue, Scatter and Roundness are defined by the slider settings found in Brush Settings.

Brush Settings

Once you have selected a brush preset, you can adjust its dynamics to refine its look or create a stylized brush stroke. To set brush dynamics; click on the Brush Settings button in the Tool Options panel to reveal the various dynamics. Dragging the sliders for each dynamic adjusts the appearance of the brush preview, giving you an idea of what the brush stroke will look like. Note: Brush Settings apply to brushes regardless of whether they are drawn with a pen tablet or not.

For tools other than the Brush tool, size and opacity control via pen pressure is defined in the brush preset.

With pen pressure, you gain a level of control that you simply cannot get with a mouse. Knowing where to locate the essential settings and understanding the fundamentals are just the start. Experimenting with the brush presets included with Photoshop Elements and adjusting the brush and tablet settings to create varied effects will enable you to work more efficiently and perhaps even more creatively!

Keyboard Shortcuts for Increased Productivity

  • Brush Tool: B – Selects the Brush tool. Repeated strokes of the B key selects the Impressionist Brush and Color Replacement tool.
  • Brush Size: [ ] – Increases or decreases the size of a brush.
  • Brush Hardness: Shift + [ ] – Adjusts the edge hardness in 25% increments.
  • Overall Opacity: Numeric keys (0-9) set the percentage of opacity for a brush.
  • Tool Options: F5 – Toggles visibility of the Tool Options panel.

Pro Tip: If your tablet is equipped with ExpressKeys, consider assigning them to some of the keystrokes above in the Wacom Tablet Properties!