How to Use the Pen Tool in Photoshop

The pen tool is one of the most tricky to learn tools in Photoshop.. most people learn to do about what they need by trial and error, and a lot of wasted time, and don’t use it for most of its other functions.

Its also the tool which feels the most under-developed of all the tools in Photoshop.. lacking a few greatly needed features..

Pen Tool Use:

  • Select the Pen Tool
  • On the top, select either Path or Shape layers
  • Your first click sets the Start Point
  • Your second click sets the line function point
  • The Line Function can be as follows:
    • Straight from point to point, by simply clicking the next line, which creates sharp corners
    • Curved-Continued By clicking and holding the points then dragging the mouse to create curved shapes, Continues the curve from the previous point
    • Curved-New, to give you a sharp angle for beginning your next stroke, like starting from the beginning again, by Holding Alt and clicking the last End point to get rid of the coming Curve Adjustment Arm
  • Hold Shift to get perfectly vertical, horizontal, or 45 degree angle shapes
  • Hold Ctrl or Alt and click the Curve Adjustment Arms to edit the angle after you’ve released the mouse
  • Hold Ctrl and click on the Anchor Point to move its location
  • Hold Alt and click on any Anchor Points between two other anchor points, to adjust both Curve
  • Adjustment Arms Simultaneously (if a point has only an anchor point on one side, this will add another anchor point to the other side as well)
  • Hit Esc with the pen tool selected to leave the Path as it is and begin a new path
  • Click on the Paths tab behind the Layers palette
  • Hit Esc two times to not only exit the path but also delete it
    • So you can see your final shape if using Shape Layers
    • So you can delete and start over if using Paths
  • Basic techniques are:
    • Move in shorter strokes to get a better shape, its better to add more anchor points than not enough. Dont stretch the curve between two anchor points too much, add more Anchor Points
    • Click and Drag the mouse just very Slightly forward along the same direction you are drawing and repeat more frequently the more rounded the line and less frequently the straighter the line
    • Click a start and end point for a line, then hold the pen tool over the center of the line and click, to create one or more anchor points, hold Ctrl and click the Anchor to move it to the desired position, adjusting Arm Handles as needed, Holding Alt to move them both at the same time
  • Turn on your ruler and drag out guides on your document which all your anchors points will snap to, good for creating logos and lettering etc for lining up all points & widths
  • For tracing, its easiest to create a new White layer with about 60% Opacity on top of your original, then create a New layer on top of that layer for paths
  • If you’ve already closed your path and want to re-edit it, click the “Direct Selection” (hit A, for Arrow or Anchor Point) arrow tool in the tools Palette to alter shape paths Points & Arms after the paths been closed
  • You can right click any anchor point to get a Delete Anchor Point menu item
  • You can right-click any place on the line to get a menu item to Add Anchor Point
  • There are separate Pen tools for Adding Anchor Points & Deleting Anchor points
  • There is also a Convert Point Pen Tool which functions like you were holding Alt all the time with the regular pen tool
  • The Free-Form Pen Tool is good for adding additional detail within larger more-complete designs, such as stroking hair etc when exact lines or curves may not be needed
  • The Free-Form Pen Tool is also useful for rough-sketching on a bottom layer before going over it with the regular pen tool on a layer above it to make a clean trace, etc..
  • After completing your path, click the ‘Make Selection from Path’ button in your Paths palette to turn your path into a selection, which is way easier and more accurate than using the lasso tool
  • After making any selection , click the ‘Make Work Path from Selection’ in your Paths palette to convert the selection into a Path you can stroke or fill, great for use with the Magic Wand or Quick Selection tools for Tracing etc, and also a quick way to make Line Shapes & Line Art by using with ‘Stroke Path’
  • Refining the Edge of the Selection sometimes helps to smooth the final traced line
  • Adjusting Selection Brush/Wand Tolerance also helps to refine final Work Path
  • After Converting a magic Wand or Quick Selection to a path, select the Direct Selection Arrow tool below the Pen tool to edit points individually and straighten them out, right-click to delete or add anchor points, as needed
  • If the Selection didnt trace properly, first switch to the Delete Anchor Point Pen Tool, and go around deleting unneeded Anchor Points, or add them with the Add Anchor Point Pen tool, to get it into the rough shape

Multi-Selection Paths Options:

  • Working From Multiple Selections:
    • Complete creating all of your selections on your image you need, prior to converting to work path
    • Save all selections, then load them all from the Channels Palette
    • Save to a new Complete Selection
    • Convert Complete Selection to path
  • Working From Multiple Path Layers & the Work Path Layer:
    • Select only one part of the image at a time
    • Go to the Paths Palette
    • Click the Make Work Path from Selection icon
    • Double-Click the Work Path Layer to Save it.. name it
    • Go back to your image and select another part of it
    • Click the Make Work Path from Selection icon, it will create a new path Layer called “Work Path” (Work path is your current Selection converted to a path only, it is not saved, it is dynamic and changes based on your selection or path, so its very easy to lose work when working from the Work path layer, so always save each part to a new layer as you complete it, by double-clicking the Work path layer)
    • Double-Click the new Work Path Layer to Save it to a 2nd layer.. & name it
    • Hold Ctrl + Shift and click both or all of the saved Path Layers to load their selection
    • With all of the items selected, hit the Make Work Path from Selection icon to create a new
    • Combined Work path Layer, Double-Click it to save it, then select the saved layer
    • Select your Layer you are drawing paths on, make sure its visible
    • Use the Direct Selection Tool (a) to edit the path shape & anchor points
    • Select the Pen Tool (p) when satisfied
    • Select “Stroke Path”
    • Go back and click on other saved layers if detail was lost in your final combined layer, and create new layers on top of your drawing layer, then add the lines to the upper layers, Edit with
    • Direct Selection Tool, then stroke them to your brush tool properties, then use the eraser to erase the overlapping detail on one of the layers, then merge the layers
    • Tips:
      • Hold Alt and click the path layer to load the editable path with Anchor Points
      • The Pen Tool must always be selected before you can Stroke a path

Use the Pen Tool in conjunction with the Select Tool, Jumping Layers as needed, making Selections, Saving Selections, etc, then Load Selections, Convert to paths, Add pen paths, hit Esc to exit pen-drawn paths, and Use Stroke Path as needed, to get your completed shape

For Path Pen Tool:

  • After Completing your strokes, you have the following options:
  • Fill Path – using the fill icon in the Paths Palette (Needs to be a shape you want to fill
    completely, it will auto-create lines if there are gaps in your path)
  • Stroke Path –
    • Select your Brush tool
    • Adjust Size, Shape, Hardness, & Color of your brush
    • Select the Correct layer
    • Click the Stroke Path Icon at the bottom of your Paths Palette
      or Select your Pen tool, then Right Click and select Stroke Path..
    • Check the box “Simulate Pressure” for realistic painting lines

For Shape Layers Pen Tool:

  • A common way to create strokes with Shape Layers selected is to:
    • Click to set your first point,
    • Make your second point at your desired distance and drag to create your desired outer curve
    • Alt click the second point to reset the anchor
    • Go back and click the first point and drag to create your desired inside curve

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