Selection Brush Tool

The Selection Brush Tool in Photoshop Elements (Versions 6, 7 and 8) pretty much mirrors what the Quick Mask does in the full version of Photoshop.

The Quick Mask is a very, very versatile selection tool which really shines when extracting a complicated object because extreme precision is easy to achieve and it is flat out easy to use.

The exact same can be said for Element's Selection Brush - accurate, precise and easy - what more can you ask for in a selection tool?

How would you approach this image if someone gave it to you and asked you to remove the unsightly background, leaving only the juggler and the flames?  

Normal selection tools may work but why go to all of that bother when you have the Selection Brush sitting there on the toolbar and if you have Elements then there is a good chance you have a wonderful Bamboo or Intuos pen in your hand and the tablet right there in front of you!

selection brush

Selection Brush Options

This is the options bar for the Selection Brush and there are not many of them ...

selection brush

From left to right, they are ...

  • Add to the Selection.  When this option is chosen the red overlay is applied to the image and you paint out the parts you want to keep.
  • Subtract from the Selection.  When this option is chosen the red overlay is applied as you paint.  The red overlay is the part that will not be kept so the selection will need to be inverted before it is promoted to a new layer,
  • Brush Tip Shape.
  • Brush Size.
  • Mode.  The Mode can be either Mask or Selection.  With Mask selected a red overlay is applied to the image and the red overlay is the part that will be deleted.  With Selection active each brush stroke paints a selection - you know - the marching ants.
  • Brush Hardness.
  • Overlay.
  • Overlay Color.  The default is a ruby red overlay but it can be changed to any color you want.

Selection Brush Advantages

The advantages of the selection brush are many and include ...

  1. You can zoom in an out on the part you are painting and work with any brush size, even down to 1 pixel.
  2. Each part of the selection can be promoted to a new layer and the document can be saved as a .psd file which keeps all of the layers.  This means you can work on a project for awhile, save your work and come back to it sometime later.
  3. It is easy to rotate the image if you have any problems painting horizontal lines (like I do).  It is much easier to paint vertical lines.
  4. This method can be used with very complicated images which includes lots of detail - even bits of stray hair.
  5. With either a Bamboo or Intuos tablet the painting part (and it can be intensive with this technique) is much, much easier than with a mouse or trackpad.

So - let's get to the juggler ...

Extracting The Juggler

Choose a starting point, grab the Selection Brush tool, set your options, zoom in and start painting.

Add Too or Subtract From

If you have selected Add To The Selection as your method of selecting then the image is completely covered by the ruby red mask - like this ...

selection brush

Granted you can decrease the opacity of the mask (in the Options Bar) but it is still somewhat annoying to look at. Your job at this point is to paint out the portion of the image that you want to keep - in this case it should be the juggler and the flying flames.

An easier method of using the Selection Brush is to use the Subtract From Selection option so that every place you paint turns red making it easy to see the selection.  With this approach, however, whatever your turn ruby red with the selection brush  will be masked out or deleted if you will.

The way around this is to go to Select > Inverse after you have done your painting.

Layer One

The flying flames in the top left corner were painted first.  When you have finished your first area with the Selection Brush just click any tool and the ruby red will turn into the normal marching ants selection.

Take a good luck at the selection to see if it needs any modification.  If it does then open Refine Edge ... in the options bar.

This is the dialogue that will load up.

selection brush
What this dialogue does is give the opportunity to modify your selection with easy to use sliders.

You can  ...

  • Smooth out the selection
  • Feather the selection
  • Contract or Expand the selection

With this selection brush project some of the selections will look best with some feathering and some of them will not need any feathering.

The flames in the original image have a glow around them with is very difficult to select but easy to feather. Unfortunately, I didn't do any feathering until after the final flame selection and then had to go back and do the selections once again.

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Red Mask Overlay Resulting Selection

selection brush
The first selection is done and the juggled flame can be promoted to a Layer all on it's own - remember to invert the selection because the part you masked will not be included if you promote to a new layer as is.

Promoting selected parts to a layer until they are all on their own layer and the image is completely extracted makes the job much easier.  

If you mess up (unlikely, right) you simply throw out the layer and start again.

To make it even easier - give each layer a name.

Layer Two

Once you have the first selection on a layer go back to the Background layer and start working a new area in the same way.  I started working the top of the juggler ...

selection brush

This took a bit more time than the first selection.  There was a lot of zooming in an out to see how things were moving along.  The promotion to a new layer produced this selection ...

selection brush

Closer inspection of the layer showed a couple of problems.

  1. The right side of the jugglers face has a rather unsightly shadow falling on it.
  2. Part of the hat brim on the right side (the left as you look at it) seems to be missing.

selection brush

Hat Brim

The hat brim was fixed first by deleting the new layer (remember the earlier comment about using multiple layers) and stepping back to the last selection brush stroke in the Undo History (this thing is invaluable with a project like this).

I switched to the Add To Selection option and removed most of the hat brim on the right side of his head (the left as you are looking at it).  I zoomed out to try and get some sense of where the brim should be - it was difficult because the brim is almost the same color and texture as the background - then zoomed in and switched back to the Subtract From Selection.

A bit of perseverance and guessing and a new hat brim was selected.

The Shadow

The new selection was promoted to another layer and the dark part of the face was fixed with the Clone Tool.

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As Selected Corrected with the Clone Brush

Now this is not a glamor shot - the shadow on his face was a titch distracting and the overall picture will look better with it removed.

Layer Three

The next section was relatively easy.  There were a lot of straight edges and not much fiddly stuff.  
selection brush

Here's a hint when working with straight edges ...

Left click or tap your pen once at the beginning of the line, lift the pen or release the left mouse button, move to the second point, press and hold the shift key and left click or tap the pen once again - voila - a nice straight line.  The lines can be long or short and it will depend on the part you are working with.

That was used to work up the side of the pants.

Layer Four

Only one more section to do - the final flame off to his right and it was quick and easy - just like the flames in the top left of the picture.

This selection was promoted to a Layer just like all of the others.

Completing The Selection

Selection Brush
Here is the final layers palette with the original (Background layer) and the four new ones ...

  • Flame Bottom
  • Pants
  • Juggler 1
  • Flame

The next few step are:

  1. Delete the Background Layer.
  2. Create a new Layer and move it to the bottom of the Layer stack.  This Layer will be filled with a color or a Gradient or with another image.
  3. Add a striking or interesting backdrop on this new Layer.
Delete the Background Layer

The Background Layer has a little lock icon off to the right side which means that it cannot be deleted - but it has to go, so ...

double click on the Background Layer which will bring up the New Layer Dialogue - it will be named Layer 0.  Click OK and you will see the name has changed to Layer 0.  

Now click on the little Trash icon in the Layers Palette and you will be left with the four (or however many) Layers you created.

Add A New Blank Layer

Select the bottom Layer in the stack and then click on the New Layer icon (or, Layer > New Layer) at the top of the Layers Palette.  This will add a new Layer directly above the bottom layer.

Drag the bottom Layer above the new Layer.

Add A Backdrop

Start off with a nice contrasting color to confirm that everything is OK.  I filled the bottom layer with black and ...

much to my surprise (and embarassement) I found that something was missing on the very first layer I created - yikes.

Stepping Back

selection brushIt's a good thing I used layers and saved the image as a .psd after each new layer was created, isn't it?

The little patch of flame to the left of the big flame was not totally selected - the outside was done but not the inside.

So out went the layer and this part was re-selected with the Selection Brush.  

In addition to re-selecting some feathering was added to  include some of the glow around the flames.

selection brush
Now that looks much better.  Not only is the little patch of flame completely selected - the feathering added a really nice glow around the flame.

That is the way is should have been selected in the first place but not every image will benefit from feathering.

This one will because of the nature of the flame - it glows and the glow should be included.

What this means is that the flame on the bottom left of the image needs to be re-done with some feathering.

Multiple layers and saving the file in the .psd format is a good thing!

Here is the bottom left flame after re-selecting and adding some feathering - and, of course, there are more problems!

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Some background is showing Background cloned out

Some of the background items were showing through the feathering so they were cloned out to create a more uniform glow around the flame.

Adding A Backdrop

This is the easiest part of the procedure - adding a nice backdrop to set off the multiple selections.

The choices are ...

  1. Solid color.
  2. Gradient
  3. A different image.
  4. And maybe some Layer Styles (drop shadow or glow) depending on the image.
  5. Experiment with the Layer Blend Modes.
Merge The Layers

This is the first thing that has to be done - merge the different selection layers together.  That is done by Ctrl clicking each of them until they are all selected and the Ctrl-E or Layer > Merge Layers.

selection brush selection brush
Four Layers Selected and merged into one Layer above the backdrop layer.

Now some different and interesting backdrops can be added to the bottom layer.

This is a foreground to background color radial gradient.  The foreground and background colors were sampled from the selections  with the orangy color taken from one of the flames and the blue taken from the jugglers shirt.

selection brush

And just for the heck of it and because I can a drop shadow was added to the top layer to give just a bit of separation between the juggler and the backdrop.

Now it's your turn to take the Selection Brush out for a test drive.  Start with something simple to get the feel of it and then go after something a lot tougher.

Page Links

Option Bar


Extracting The Juggler

Completing The Selection

Stepping Back

Adding A Backdrop

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