How to Use Vector Charcoal Brushes in Adobe Illustrator

by Dustin Lee September 11, 2015

Using vector charcoal and pencil brushes in Adobe Illustrator is a great way to give your work an authentic, handmade feel. 

When we released VectorSketch, a set of 40 charcoal and pencil brushes we got tons of emails asking us how we recommend using them. 

Of course, you can do whatever you want (and we've seen some designers create some amazing work). But we thought we'd share the top ways we use the brushes in our work here at RetroSupply. 

In this tutorial, you'll learn one standard method and a few unexpected ways to get great results with brushes in Adobe Illustrator. 



Do you sketch your work out on paper and then convert to vector?

VectorSketch is perfect for making the transition from sketch to Illustrator. You can maintain the traditional hand drawn look but keep all the benefits of vectors.

Here's an example of a piece of work I created using this method.

This example started as a piece of 1950s commercial art from an old catalog. First I scanned the work. Then I traced it with my tablet. Next I experimented with strokes until I found the brush that got the best results. 


Here's an easy way to give your typography a unique effect using Illustrator brushes. 

  1. Choose a bold, thick font (you want plenty of space to show off your velvety, charcoal textures).
  2. Duplicate the font and convert to outlines (Type > Create Outlines).
  3. Grab your favorite vector charcoal brush and start building up shading (try using a gray and setting the Blending Mode to Multiply).
  4. Once you're happy with your shading work place the outlined type on top of the texture and create a Clipping Mask (Object > Clipping Mask > Make).

Hint: This works extremely well with a 3D font or layered type system. I'm using Idler by Lamesville. If you're feeling ambitious try segmenting and shading a font yourself. San-serifs work well, for example, Gotham.

Here's an example I created in using two charcoal textures from VectorSketch.

3. Add a wash to your work

I discovered this little trick by accident after I created the brushes. 

Choose a brush and set it to a large setting. For example, I'm working on an 1160x772 pixel artboard, so I set the brush to 4pt. 

Then set the brush to Multiply. Now use it as a watercolor brush! Layer your strokes to create different shades.

Here's an example I made using this technique. Pretty real looking, right?

That's all for now. I hope you gleaned a useful nugget of vector awesomeness from this article!

Got any other ideas for how to use the brushes? I'd love to know!

Respond in the comment section below.

Want This Texture Pack?

Great news, it's for sale! Grab VectorSketch now and get 40 charcoal and pencils brushes inspired by real 1950s source material. Plus, it's only $15! For less than the price of getting a pizza delivered you can have your set of lovingly made charcoal brushes forever!

Dustin Lee
Dustin Lee


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