Using The History Brush Tool In Photoshop

Using The History Brush Tool In Photoshop

Do you know how to use the history brush tool in Photoshop? This tool often gets overlooked, but it’s indispensable if you want to restore parts of an image to an earlier version. You can do some creative things with the history brush so it’s worth learning how to use. The art history brush isn’t a tool I use often, but it can be useful for distorting areas of an image.

person using the history brush tool in photoshop

The History Brush Tool

To activate the history brush tool, go to the tool bar. You’ll also see the art history brush tool as well. The history brush is the 10th tool from the top, or hit “Y” on your keyboard. You can always access the quick command for any given tool by noting the letter to the right of the tool. In this case it’s “Y.” See below:

history brush tool in photoshop

Open a picture in Photoshop, if you’d like to follow along in this tutorial. A hands-on approach is the best way to learn. Below is the image I’ll be using to demonstrate how the brushes are used.

picture of fruit and juice

One great application for the history brush tool is to change a color photo to black and white, and then brush certain areas of the image to reveal the original color. The history brush works best with non-destructive editing so work on the same layer. Here’s my black and white image:

using the history brush to on a black and white image

Before you start brushing, choose a brush, then adjust the settings in terms of size and hardness by going to the brush tab in the left-hand corner of the screen:

brush pallette for using the history brush tool in photoshop

Alternatively, you can activate the “Brushes” and “Brush Settings” palettes by going to “Windows” in the main menu bar and clicking on those settings. Always make sure there’s a check mark next to the settings you want to activate.

brushes setting

Once the settings are activated, you can start customizing your brushes:

brush and brush settings in photoshop

You’ll also want to play around with the blending modes, opacity, and flow. I keep my mode to normal, but reduce the opacity and flow. Your settings will depend on your project:

blending modes in photoshop

Once you’re all set, in terms of brushes and brush settings, it’s time to have some fun. Keep in mind, you might need to readjust your settings as needed. Now start brushing on the areas where you want the color restored.  Be creative and use your imagination. Also, zoom in to make editing easier.

There are a lot of different applications for using the history brush tool. Envision a little girl in a field with a blue dress and a yellow sunflower in her lap, with the remainder of the image black and white. The history brush tool is a great way to highlight specific features within an image, drawing attention to them.

Look what I’ve done in my image. I think it looks cool.

black and white color of fruit revealing color underneat

Here’s another way to apply the history brush tool. Let’s say you made 10 edits on an image, but decided afterwards you didn’t like the 5th one. If you cleared your history up to the edit you didn’t like, all your previous edits would also be removed.

A quick trick is to go to your “History” tab, and instead of clearing each edit manually, go to the history brush tool icon at the left of your original photo. Then go re-edit the portion of the picture you didn’t like. You can see the history brush icon under “Color?”

using the history brush tool in the history tab

Just for fun, if you want to change the number of edits you can make in your history, go to “Preferences” then “Performance.” Enter the number of edits you’d like to be allowed next to the “History States” tab. I set mine to 80. Use the little slider underneath to determine the amount.

preferences panel in photohshop

Art History Brush Tool

The art history brush is a fun tool to mess around with. Here’s the image I’ll be using to demonstrate how it’s used:

plants by window sill

Look at my image after I’ve edited it with the art history brush. I actually like the edited version better than the original. You probably won’t use this tool much, but it’s interesting to play around with. See how I’ve made the window panes look like it’s storming outside?

art history brush in photoshop

As you can see below, I used a small 17-point brush, an opacity of 43%, and the style set to “Tight Medium.” If I had used a bigger brush and higher opacity, the image would be smeared with white blobs of color. This tool needs to be used judiciously in order to get a reasonable effect.

Watch the video below to learn how to use the history brush tool to create an atmospheric effect in Photoshop:

If you’d like to learn more, click here to access more Photoshop tutorials. 

Key Points

The history brush tool in Photoshop is useful when you want to reveal portions of an image you’ve previously edited. I use it mainly for restoring color to areas of a black and white photo. The art history brush, on the other hand, is a tool I don’t use very often.  You can however, get some really cool effects if you use it carefully. There might be other uses for it that I’m not aware of.

Let me know in the comments section below if you know of any other applications for the art history brush.


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6 thoughts on “Using The History Brush Tool In Photoshop”

  1. Okay, that’s definitely nifty. I actually was not aware of this tool in photoshop, but for someone taking pictures of places based on my story settings, I can finally make such places look as if they really are part of my story, which beats having to pay someone else to do this. It’ll definitely take me a few practice repetitions, but I’ll get there in the end. 

    • Hi Todd,

      The history brush tools are fun to play around with. You’ll get the hang of them quickly, especially the history brush tool. The art history brush tool takes a little more fiddling to get it right. 

  2. Awesome!  I`m so excited to learn how to use this tool!

    I am not really tech savvy, and you are right.. this tool is the one that is usually overlooked!

    I`ve seen pictures just like your first example, only showing a part colored and the rest black and white.  I wonder what tool or even special app they use to make this kind of photo.  And I am so glad to read your tutorial about the History Brush Tool.

    Thanks so much for sharing, and it`s so easy to understand too!

    All the best!

  3. Your article has giving me great insight on this history brush tool. Before now I had great difficulty in using this tool in my photoshop projects. Getting this knowledge from this article is a huge privilege for me. 

    Knowing that the art History Brush tool paints with stylized strokes, using the source data from a specified history state or snapshot and that texture of painting with different colors and artistic styles can be stimulated, is a great deal of knowledge. Bookmarked this page. Thanks for this article 


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