Smudge Tool vs. Mixer Brush April 06, 2015 18:19 8 Comments

I’m often asked which tool — the smudge tool or the mixer brush — is the better tool to use for creating paintings in Photoshop.  And the answer is…use both, and see what you prefer.

The smudge tool has been a part of the Photoshop tool box for some time - going back even to pre-CS versions.  This was the first tool I began to use for transforming photos into paintings, and I still use it a lot despite the introduction of the mixer brush with CS5.  The smudge tool primarily allows us to interact with the colors of our canvas using a variety of different brushes designed for specific purposes:  bristle-type brushes that are great for painting hair, fur and other areas where you might want to show brush texture; and smoothing brushes that work great for painting skin, clothing, etc.  You can effectively add paint to the canvas by using your smudge brushes in finger-painting mode, but the mixer brush is really a better tool for this.

The mixer brush can be used like the smudge tool by using it in clean-blending mode.  By using a clean brush in the wet mode, it's very similar to using the smudge tool — you can even use the same brush tips you use with your smudge tool to make the experience more similar.  But, like I said, the mixer brush is a much more capable tool when it comes to adding paint to a canvas.  In dry mode it becomes essentially like the standard brush tool, but in wet mode the paint you apply to the canvas interacts with the paint already on the canvas.  Another great feature of the mixer brush is the ability to add a texture effect to your brushstrokes.  This is something we can’t do with the smudge tool.

I've found the smudge tool to be an easier tool to use, and for that reason it’s a great place to start learning how to paint photos in Photoshop.  But even though it’s simpler to use, the boundaries of its creative potential are unlimited.  Similarly, the mixer brush, which was designed to more closely mimic the look of various traditional painting techniques, is an extremely powerful tool.

I’ve also found the smudge tool to be very effective when it comes to creating paintings with a more photorealistic look.  The mixer brush is equally effective when you want to achieve a more textured, painted look with bolder, more noticeable brushstrokes.  Having said that, you can also make finely-detailed photorealistic paintings with the mixer brush and apply bold brushstrokes and a fairly realistic texture (after-the-fact) to paintings made with the smudge tool.

My advice:  for transforming photographs into paintings, use either one (or both together).  If you're new to painting in Photoshop, I recommend starting with the smudge tool.  If you’ll be adding lots of paint to your digital canvas, the mixer brush might be the better choice.  Learn them both — I’ll be here to help.