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Popular Tools in Photoshop: Healing Brush Tool


How to use the Photoshop Healing Brush tool – where to find it, how to set it up properly, and a series of real world examples on how it can be used to perfect your images.

When the Healing Brush was added to Photoshop it immediately became one of the program’s most popular tools.

Prior to it, the clone tool was the only copy/transfer tool available, and because it transfers pixel data literally, the source has to be set carefully to copy texture, color and value exactly in order to provide perfect results.

The Healing Brush automatically matches color and value so the user only has to choose a preferred texture and Photoshop does the rest of the work.

The Photoshop Healing Brush – Overview

The tool is designed to retouch unwanted dust spots, blemishes, scratches, stray hairs and other small image imperfections, like the Clone Stamp Tool but it is much easier, especially for new users, to work with.

Here’s an example of the Healing Brush in action:

The source was set (Option / Alt tap) to copy the smooth, white background and transfer it into the center of the colored boxes.

The black circles represent the size of the brush that was used. You can see that Photoshop has tried to average the surrounding colors and values into the center of the area that was being retouched. When the brush size was larger than the original boxes, the boxes were “removed”, replaced with the white background.

If the source area contains a texture, the Healing Brush will work with that texture plus average the colors and values of the surrounding areas:

In this case the source was the seashells in the background. Depending on the size of the brush used, the colors of the boxes were averaged and merged with the seashell texture in order to blend them all together using the seashells as the desired texture. The amount of color used was based upon how much color was left in the surroundings.

The smaller brush left more surrounding color so more was used in the blend. In the last example, the brush was larger than the colored boxes, so Photoshop didn’t use any of the colors. Instead it replaced the boxes with the seashell texture with slight variations in value from the original source caused because the values of some of the colored boxes are darker than most of the values in the seashell texture.

Healing Brush Options

Brush Size

The first option to consider is Brush Size.

Unlike the Clone Stamp that allows the user to choose from the default brush set, the Healing Brush uses it’s own brush technology.

The default settings provide a round brush, size variable with pressure at 100% Hardness. This means that the size of the brush will vary depending on how hard the user presses down on the tablet and the blending will occur within the brush icon ending abruptly at the edge of the icon. It’s a good default setting for work that is done within areas of consistent background texture, like spots on backgrounds or skin.

However the Hardness slider can be lowered to produce a softer edge transition when a more diffused edge is desired. I find that the Healing Brush borders on being a bit too soft for most jobs so I keep the hardness up as high as possible.

Spacing is the control that makes the brush appear to apply a smooth stroke. Photoshop brushes work by stamping a shape icon repeatedly, overlapping them in order to produce a perceived continual stroke. Raising the Spacing widens the space between stamped icons, ultimately separating the icons from each other completely. The default setting of 25% Spacing is perfect for most Healing Brush work.

Brush Shape

Next down in the Brush options is an area that allows the user to alter the roundness and angle of the brush. The brush can be “squeezed” into an oval shape visually by adjusting the top or bottom circle adjusters or by typing a percentage number into the Roundness text field. The angle of the brush can be adjusted visually by swinging the arrow right or left within the visual icon or by typing a desired angle into the Angle text field.

And finally, the size to pressure option can be altered in the Size menu at the bottom of the Brush option window. It can be turned off or set to Stylus Wheel (for those artists using a stylus patterned after a traditional airbrush).

Clone Source Panel

Next in the option bar is an icon to open and close the Clone Source Panel. This panel contains options to work from multiple clone sources, even separate images, rotate or transform the source prior to cloning and preset opacity and blending modes. Of note, it is the same Clone Source window that is used by the Clone Stamp Tool.

The top section of the Clone Source Panel contains five Clone Stamp icons. The one on the far left is selected as default, and each time the user resets the source, it changes to the new one. Sometimes a user may want to reselect the same source as was used before but also wants other sources available.

To set multiple clone sources Option (Alt) tap to select the first one, and to reserve it for later, set the next one after clicking on an additional clone source icon. Photoshop will remember each source so you can reselect them just by choosing the corresponding icon.

Brush Rotation

The next section down provides options to preselect rotation, flipping or offsetting the source material prior to cloning. It provides the same options as cloning upon a layer and then transforming or relocating the cloned piece after the fact. Photoshop offers a variety of ways to do the same thing so it’s important to learn the software so you can choose the options that you prefer.

The bottom section of the Clone Source Panel is used to hide or show the overlay (the part you are copying) and also to choose blending modes and whether or not you wish to see the entire image or just the area within the brush icon.

The overlay is the visible clone source that travels with the tool to the destination allowing the user to pre visualize the exact placement of the transfer. This is helpful when working with transfers that must be precise, like lining up bricks, but I personally find it distracting because it gets in the way of me seeing the way my artwork is building up while I am working. I turn this option off.

There is also an option to set a Mode of viewing the overlay within this window that some users find helpful when working with the overlay on.

Brush Mode

There are two additional toggles in the Clone Stamp option bar.

When the one on the left is turned on, any adjustment layers will be ignored when selecting source material. This means that if you have Sample/All Layers selected and want to apply the Healing Brush under an adjustment layer you can choose not to include the adjustment when cloning underneath it. (If not active, the adjustment will be included thus doubling it’s effect.)

The final option allows you to override brush presets and only use pressure for size. This option is the default for the Healing Brush and may also be controlled using the options in the Brush menu item.

How and When to Use the Photoshop Healing Brush

The most common use for the Healing Brush is removing small spots, like the ones in this restoration.

The spots in the background occur in an otherwise smooth area of consistent texture. The Healing Brush will replace the spots with the smooth background and the work will be invisible. I’d suggest using the options of Normal Mode, Source / Sampled, non-Aligned. I’d make a new layer and choose Current and Below in the options bar.

The spot removal took about 2 minutes and the texture looks like a beautiful old photograph.

The work on the clothing has to be done more carefully because there are specific folds in the fabric and edges are required to show the collar, sleeve attachment and definition of the suit.

The Healing Brush will be helpful to get the work started, but it is not a detail tool so other tools, like the Brush Tool and Dodge and Burn Tools, will be required to complete the retouching.

You can see that the Healing Brush did a lot of the busy work, but the clothing needs more detail and sharper edges. The Healing Brush reaches it’s limit when it comes to removing large objects near the edges of things, like the large tear in the jacket.

It’s pulling in value from the lighter border and it just can’t make the edge.

It is possible to add a temporary Layer Mask to the retouching layer, create the edge between the background and the image by blocking the mat with black paint, and re-activate the layer to apply the Healing Brush thus blocking where the tool will stop, but it’s more time consuming and less effective than other methods, like using a cut and paste plus layer mask edit to replace the missing piece.

The advantage of the Healing Brush is that it produces a soft transition into the base image, but it’s also a disadvantage when you need controlled variations in value and color within the retouching, or a definitive edge.

For this reason, the facial work, edge transitions and details might just be done with Dodge and Burn and also the Brush Tool.

The Photoshop Healing Brush is also a great starter tool for retouching areas that require some pre-diffusing prior to retouching, such as working under the eyes when the skin is “crepe-y” or consists of multiple wrinkles and creases.

It’s also a good choice when something requires toning down plus the addition of some texture native to the surrounding area, like making oily highlights on a face look less oily. The objective is to soften the edge transition between the highlight and diffused highlight, plus add skin tone over the highlight area using the color and texture of the natural skin around it.

In this example, the Healing Brush was applied to a separate layer in order to allow opacity changes after the application. The oily highlights were covered with transfers made from the natural skin tones of the forehead and cheeks.

Areas that looked off-color were tinted using the Brush Tool in Color Mode at 10% opacity and 100% flow choosing preferred colors from other skin tones in the image. After the colors matched, the layer opacity was reduced to visual taste, in this instance, just less than 50%.

The result is that the edges of the oily highlights were diffused and the highlight value was reduced in a natural looking way.

When retouching is completed, the layers are merged down to the Background Copy, and when the job is finished, the file is flattened and saved. Most users choose Save As and rename the file in order to retain an original capture as well.

Wrapping Up

The Photoshop Healing Brush is used heavily, and with good reason. It’s fast, easy and produces perfect results when used within its capabilities. Like most tools in Photoshop, it combines well with others and I find it very helpful for getting a head start in areas that ultimately require more detailed finishing.

I hope this guide will help you get started with using the healing brush in your own art! 

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. You can learn more on her website.


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