Photoshop - How to use the Pen tool Pt1

Thursday, December 28, 2006 by SKoriginals | Discussion: Tutorials

Ok so you might be wondering why do I need to know this? Well to be honest the Pen Tool is probably one of the single most useful tools in Photoshop and yet alot of people just have no idea how to use it. This tool will allow you to make custom paths which are vector based. This means that you can create a shape modify it, change it, resize it, and a lot more without loss of quality. The main thing here is CUSTOM shapes. This is the advantage the pen tool gives you.

So, where is it and what do all the elements do?

-- The Arrow -- is pointing to the pen tool itself. If you right click on it the pop-up menu comes up.
-- #1 -- is the main pen tool option which will use anchor points and bars to draw shapes.
-- #2 -- is the freeform pen tool which will allow you to completely draw freehand and will add anchor points and bars after you complete your shape. Personally this is very hard to control and I don't suggest using it but, thats me.
-- #3 -- this option lets you add a new anchor point to an existing path.
-- #4 -- is the opposite and lets you delete an anchor point to an existing path.
-- #5 -- the convert tool is a little harder to explain and we will get to that later on as I show you how to use the tools.

OK, so some definitions now seems to be in order.

-- #1 -- is an anchor point, this is the center and portion of every point.
-- #2 -- Photoshop calls these directional points but I like to call them handle bars so I'll be using that to explain them. These tell the path where to go to get to the next anchor point.
-- #3 -- this is a path which is vector based, if you don't know Photoshop is a bit based image program which means all images are created with alot of little squares. Vector is math based and the paths in Photoshop "act" as a vectored line. I say act because the final image is still bit based.

Only one more thing to show you.

-- #1 -- is the path type selection. This one will make a filled in shape inside the path.
-- #2 -- this one makes only a path.
-- #3 -- the first two are the regular pen tool and then the freeform tool, the others work just like the custom shape tool but creates them with paths, anchors and bars.

Drawing with the Pen

Drawing Part 1
Well lets get to it. Open up a new image fill it in and grab the normal pen tool. First thing I want to show you is the very basic way to draw. Be sure to have the regular pen tool and have the filled shape selected up top. Move around and just do a single click. An anchor point will appear with NO bars and creates a whole new layer like this.

Move to another spot and make a second point. This time you will notice the path will be drawn between the two points and it will fill from one point to the next. Go ahead and make a third point. Don't worry about the shape, we aren't caring about that. Now you should have something like this...

Now we are going to close off and finish our shape. Go ahead and add as many points as you want but to close off the shape we are going to go back to the original starting point and look for a little circle to appear under the pen tool. once you have that click and the shape will be closed off.

Now as I said this is the very basic. You will see this just does straight out lines with no curves. The handle bars create the curves and there are two parts to doing that.

Drawing Part 2
Ok, clear out the layer we just did and lets start a new shape. This time I want you to hold down the button and drag. A few things happen here. One, the very first place you start is going to be your anchor point. The next is the two bars will appear one going in the direction you are and another mirroring it going the other way. The direction you move in is going to be the direction the path is going to move. When you let go of the button your point will be created and look something like this...

Ok as before lets make another point the same way hold the button and drag somewhere else. Again, as you drag this time you will see the path moving and curving so get it where you would like and let go setting the point. As soon as the point is set it will also fill in. Now you should have something like this...

This time when you go to close off the shape (just as before, look for the little circle under the pen tool) you will notice you can now reposition the bars but the bar you made first will rotate in the same direction but does not move in and out like the new one.

Note: No matter what you end up creating with the pen tool you will always be able to go back and modify your points so getting the shape 100% right the first time is not a huge worry.

Drawing Part 3
Alright almost done. Now for the most advanced way to draw using the pen tool. Lets get rid of the old shape and start a new one. Make sure all your settings are the same. Hold the button and drag just like in part 2 but, do not let go of the button just yet. You will need to pay special attention to the other side of the handle bars and where it is at. Once you have it where you would like hold down the Alternative (Alt) key (Apple key for Mac users) and the bar on the side you dragged will now move independently from the other, let go of both the button and the key when you have it like you want. Make sure you let go of the mouse button first or the bars will go back to being connected. This action allows for a whole lot of flexibility and creates a point where ever the anchor point is where part 2 allowed for a flowing curve at the anchor point. Here's what this will look like...

Well just like the others lets create some more points in the same manner. Remember the opposite side where you drag is just as important now mostly because when you do hold down the Alt key you will not be able to move it. Go ahead and create as many as you want and close off the shape. this time when you do and hold the Alt key the bar will move 100% independently from the first.

Note: Once you hold the Alt key as long as you don't let go of the mouse button you can let go of the Alt key and move the opposite point around again then hold the Alt key again. This is a nice feature but is also why it is important to let go of the mouse button before you let go of the Alt key when you get your bars where you want them. Another thing when moving your bars around is you can cross them too which can create some interesting things but can also mess up your final shape but, remember you can always go back and modify the shape.

Finally some last words. You can mix and match these three different types of points on one shape. The shapes you create are only limited by your imagination now. You can rasterize the layer. You can add layer styles, use the paths tab next to the layers tab and much more which I will get into later on. To modify the paths, anchor points and bars you will need to use the selection tools which I'll be writing a separate tutorial on soon, so look for it!!

Here it is, I highly suggest reading this tutorial as well because it explains just how to modify the paths, points and shapes you just learned to generate using the pen tool.

Part 2: The Selection Tool: Link
Reply #1 Thursday, December 28, 2006 11:06 AM
btw anyone who wants to vector a picture will need to learn to use the pen is essential.

oh wait am i supposed to post?

oh well
Reply #2 Thursday, December 28, 2006 11:12 AM
The Pen Tool (in Paint Shop Pro) is by far my favorite, and most used tool.
Reply #3 Thursday, December 28, 2006 11:36 AM
Trei you are very right, the pen tool is the ONLY way to do anything close to 'vectoring' in Photoshop.

Koasati, I've never used the pen tool in PSP but I'm finding it hard to believe it would be that much different or have near as many options and as much control as Photoshops which they brought over from Adobe Illustrator (which is on the same line as Corel and is also great for icons as it is 100% true vector based too).
Reply #4 Thursday, December 28, 2006 11:57 AM
but I'm finding it hard to believe it would be that much different or have near as many options and as much control as Photoshops

Well, I guess you'd have to try it to see, but PSP's pen tool has all the control I need, and if I'm not mistaken, can do one thing PS can't. While it is 100% vector based also, you can use gradients without converting to raster. Now, I could be wrong, but the last time I tried PS, or Illustrator (which admittedly was quite a while back), I don't think this was not possible.

Anyway, I'm not here to start a contest between the 2 apps, I was really agreeing with you, that the pen tool (in whatever program) ROCKS!

Reply #5 Thursday, December 28, 2006 12:01 PM
yes - the pen tool rocks!

discovered how to use it by accident - using it, I finally figured out how to the the adobe twisted loopy triangle thing (in PSP8)
I.R. Brainiac
Reply #6 Thursday, December 28, 2006 12:18 PM
Thanks for this SK,I've been avoiding the pen tool because it wasnt something I could just whip out and master quickly.Its time to give it another go.  
Island Dog
Reply #7 Thursday, December 28, 2006 2:16 PM

I have always had some trouble using the pen tool.  Thanks for posting this.

Reply #8 Thursday, December 28, 2006 5:04 PM
Anyway, I'm not here to start a contest between the 2 apps, I was really agreeing with you, that the pen tool (in whatever program) ROCKS!

I wasn't either sorry if it came across that way, and yes PS and Illus. both can place a gradient in / on the shape and so forth, actually Illus. can place a 'mesh' over a shape and a truely 'custom' gradent can then be created... but thats another VERY long tutorial all together hehehe.
Reply #9 Thursday, December 28, 2006 5:26 PM
oh here is another tip - for replicating curves, the less anchor points, the easier, more accurate, and more realistic you will get the curve to mimic a pre-existing picture (speaking from vector experience - i would submit my wallpaper but it is far from complete )
Reply #10 Wednesday, January 3, 2007 1:06 AM
Thanks for the kick start. I always knew the pen tool was one of the more powerful tools on PS but like Island Dog, I'd steered clear of it because I had no idea how to use it. After reading this tutorial I'm ready to get going! Thank you SK.
Reply #11 Monday, October 29, 2007 9:44 AM
I've dreaded the pen tool...never really use it but I need to learn so I'm going to use your tutorials. Thanks for all you do bud.
Reply #12 Monday, October 29, 2007 10:09 AM
Thanks SK!!!!
Reply #13 Monday, October 29, 2007 11:42 AM
np, happy you have found it useful

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