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In the real world, brushes are tools, items that you pick up and you paint with. In Photoshop and other pixel programs, a Brush is a dollop or a jumble of pixels that you paint onto a layer. The dollop or jumble simulates a real-world brush tip. But in Illustrator, a brush is yet another variety of vector-based path outline. In its simplest form, it is one path outline stretched across the length of another. In more complex forms, a brush is many path outline stretched across another.
What this means is that, sure, you can paint with a brush. You select the Paintbrush tool from the toolbox-- you also get it by pressing the B key-- select a brush from the Brushes panel and then paint away. But it gets even better. You can take any existing path outline, drawn with the Pen tool, whatever, even live editable text, and apply a brush as its stroke. Text can even be the stroke. Plus, there are five distinct varieties of brushes, and some accept variable stroke weight information from CS5's new Width tool.
They are, as usual, amazingly versatile and powerful, as I'll demonstrate ad nauseum in this chapter.
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