Using the Pen Tool in Photoshop

deemarie · February 6, 2006 9:25 am

The pen tool is an incredibly powerful addition to Adobe Photoshop that opens up the door to working beyond bitmap images. Instead of working with images based on pixels, the pen tool creates graphics defined mathematically, also known as vector images. Because vectors are based on mathematical properties they are resolution independent, meaning you can stretch them or zoom in infinitely without losing any detail. Try doing this to a bitmap image! Vector objects are defined in Photoshop with paths. Paths are outlines of an object that can be made up of straight segments, curved segments, or a combination of the two. The segments are connected by anchor points, which define the relationship between the segments. Each anchor point in a curved segment (these segments are called Bezier curves) has one or more control handles, which define the shape of the curve on either side of that point. Making the control handles longer or shorter manipulates the strength of the effect of the handles, while rotating the control handles changes the angle of the curve to match the angle of the handle. There are two types of anchor points, which connect path segments in different ways. A smooth anchor point creates curves that are tangent to each other in other words they enter and leave the point at the same angle to create a smooth transition. The second type is a corner anchor point. These connect segments in a way that is not smooth and marks a sharp change in direction (this type of anchor point is also used to connect straight lines). Lets open up the pen tool palette and see what tools we are given to work with. Click and hold the mouse button on the Pen Tool in the Tools Palette to bring up the other pen tools. You will see five tools here: the Pen Tool, Freeform Pen Tool, Add Anchor Point Tool, Delete Anchor Point Tool, and Convert Point Tool. The Pen Tool is the base tool for this set it is used to create the path point by point. The Freeform Pen Tool lets you quickly create paths by drawing it with the mouse; Photoshop will then create a path based off your freeform shape. The Add Anchor Point and Delete Anchor Point tools are used to add and delete the points between line and curve segments in paths. The Convert Point Tool allows you to change an anchor point between a smooth anchor point and a corner anchor point.
The most basic path that you can create is a simple straight line. To do this select the Pen Tool, click to place the first anchor point, click somewhere else to place another anchor point, and youve created a line! Additional clicks create additional line segments attached to the previous point. To draw a curved line, instead of simply clicking to create an anchor point you must click and drag to define the control handles. While creating a path you can alternately switch between straight line and curved segments by clicking, or clicking and dragging to create points with or without control handles. There are two additional tools that can be used in the editing of paths. These can be found on the tool palette located directly above the pen tool and are the Path Component Selection tool and the Direct Selection tool. The Direct Selection tool will select an entire path, while the Path Component Selection tool selects individual parts of a path (the anchor points, segments and control handles). The selected path or path components can then be moved or edited in many of the same ways that bitmap graphics can be manipulated, including copying, pasting, scaling, and skewing.
So now that you have a path, what can you do with it? Clicking on the paths tab (next to the layers and channels tabs) shows you some of your options. You can create a selection out of your path (you can also create paths out of selections), fill in the path with a color, or stroke your path using the last selected brush. Paths are best understood by playing around with them, so get out that pen tool and start practicing!
Message2419545.jpgA special "thank you" to Staff Columnist, Jenna Hoffstein [bluevenus], for taking time out of her busy schedule. We invite you to view bluevenus' Art Gallery bluevenus' Renderosity Store
February 6, 2006

Article Comments

L.W. Perkins ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 06 February 2006

Oh, thank you so much for the overview of the pen tool--somehow I missed the basic difference between the freeform pen and the shape pen when I was reading the manual for Photoshop, so I was always frustrated trying to make paths. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction!

pamelafryer ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 06 February 2006

Yep--she was right. I've been using PS for years but have never used this tool. Thanks for the easy-to-read explanation!

pauljs75 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 07 February 2006

I didn't learn a whole lot more than I knew already from this, but when it comes to tightly clipping images - the pen is your friend.

Sabra ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 07 February 2006

Great overview of the pentool, a very powerful yet often neglected part of PS. No need to turn to Illustrator if you want decent vectors, Photoshop will do the job. :)

ScotHarvest ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 07 February 2006

Get info... never knew what to do with the pen, I'll have to practice and see what happens. PS. your store link is broken!?!?

jmore1 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 07 February 2006

Well, now I know how to draw a path, but there is no explantation as to what to do with it, especaiily since there ARE no options on the paths tab. So this tut is not much help. Maybe someone else can explain what the pen tool is actually USED for.

spaceboy ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

Can be really useful, but for me, creating in illustrator and import via cut&paste to psp works fine too.

LillianH ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

Hi ScotHarvest, Thanks for the heads-up. The bluevenus's store link has been updated. All the best, Lillian

TwoPynts ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

I've used it on occasion in the past, but thanks for reminding me it was there! =]

RodsArt ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

The Pen is a great tool! Lots of other clipping options too once you get used to it and research deeper. 5 years & I still surprise myself. Rod

aprilgem ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

The pen tool and I have been on very intimate terms for a very long time; I use it in nearly all of my illustration work. So, jmore1, I can tell you that the pen tool is best used for clean and sharp edges -- I link my paths (which are essentially tracings of my original sketch) to separate color-filled layers (so that each layer has a path), and I can color shadows and highlights on each layer without worrying about going beyond the "lines" or edges. ;) Samples of my illustration work here:

SelethD ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 08 February 2006

I agree with jmore1, I dont really understand what it can be used for? Any good examples of how the pen can work in postwork? Great tutorial though :)

Richabri ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 12 February 2006

The Pen Tool is probably one of the most overlooked features of Photoshop. Once you have defined a path you can right-click on it with the Path Selection tool and apply many of the other PS tools along that path. I use it it all the time to create precise shadow lines with the Burn tool. Thanks for bringing this valuable tool to people's attention :)

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