Mastering the Photoshop Pen Tool

Photoshop's pen tool icon

Adobe Photoshop’s pen tool is incredibly versatile, but difficult to master. It’s perfect for creating smooth shapes- any shape, whatever you can imagine! The pen tool can not only create new shapes; it can also make very smooth lines, make very clean selections… the list goes on. The functionality expands with new versions of Photoshop, too – so this article may not always be completely up-to-date.

The pen tool does all of this with vector paths. Paths are, simply said, guidelines which the program can follow to do certain things such as making a selection or creating a line. Paths can generally be changed easily.

It’s a very versatile tool. At the time of writing this article I am using Photoshop CC 2014, so if you have an older or newer version some options may not be available to you, or more options are available. The basic functionality of creating a vector path, however, should always be there. Also keep in mind this does not directly translate to the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator! While both are similar, there are some important differences to working with vector paths in Photoshop versus Illustrator.
GIMP should have a similar tool, the Path tool. I haven’t personally used it, but it should work mostly the same. I can’t promise this article is fully useful for GIMP, but it may certainly help in understanding the tool better, allowing you to figure out the finer details for yourself.

Photoshop Pen Tool: Basics

Before we can really get into what to do with the pen tool, we need to have a look at how to use it. I remember not knowing much about Photoshop yet at all, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how on earth the pen tool worked. So I left it alone for years, only to discover later on that it’s actually an amazing tool.

To get started, open up a new file in Photoshop. The specifics don’t matter, we’re just going to have a look at how to use the pen tool, so just go with whatever you like. Just make sure you have some room to work with.
Now grab that pen tool, and click anywhere on your canvas.

What you have just created, is called an anchor point. You can see this as a stick in the ground from which you’re going to hang a rope. If you now click again anywhere else on your canvas, you’ll see another anchor point appear, and a line between them. This line is the path, or the rope hanging from your two sticks. If you’ve done it right it should be a straight line.

Now, click again somewhere on your canvas, but don’t let go of the mouse button! Instead, drag the mouse to any direction. You should now see the path curve. In addition, two new lines appear to have sprouted from your newest anchor point. These are called handles. With these, you can control the curve of the path.
Click and drag in a new place to create yet another anchor point with handles. You should see the new path curve along with the handle of the previous anchor point, and along the handle of your new anchor point.

Anchor points, paths and handles.
Anchor points, paths and handles.

Now press and hold the alt button, and click on the end of the handle of your newest anchor point, along which your path to the previous anchor point is going. Drag it around, and you should see the path’s curve change.
Next, move around the other handle of the latest anchor point. You don’t see anything change yet, if you’re doing it right. Create a new anchor point now, and you’ll see how it curves along the handle.
Now move your mouse (still with the pen tool selected of course) over any part of your path. You should see the pointer change, to have a + next to it (if you’ve got the standard pointer settings, that is). Click, and you’ll see a new anchor point appear in the middle of your existing path! It’ll have handles even if it’s not on a curved path, so you can easily change or create a curve in the path.
If, however, you click not on an empty part of your path, but on an existing anchor point, you’ll see that anchor point disappear. Curves will follow the handle of whichever anchor points are now connected to each other directly.

closed path
A closed path

Press and hold the alt key again, then click and drag on an existing anchor point. You should see the paths on both side of the anchor point change, and the handles moving around. The handles are in a 180º, straight line. This can be very useful to smoothen out a part of the path.
Now press and hold the control (windows) or command (mac) key. Click on an anchor point and drag it anywhere. It moves! Try the same with a section of the path, and you should see it move, too.
Lastly, move your mouse over your very first anchor point again. The pointer should now have a º next to it. Click, and you have a closed path. If you were to try moving an anchor point or path section now, the whole path will move instead, so keep that in mind.

To delete your path, simply press either delete or backspace, or right-click and choose ‘delete path’.

With the above exercises, you have hopefully experienced the incredible amount of control the pen tool gives you. Try creating some specifically shaped paths now instead of randomly placed anchor points on the canvas. It might take some training, but with the precision of the Photoshop Pen Tool, you can create any shape you want.

Using the paths and shapes

Having the shape is nice, but now what? If you were to save this now you’d have an empty canvas, which tends to not be what you want. So let’s have a look at what we can do with the shapes!

In order to start doing anything with the shape you’ve created, you’ll have to right click (on your canvas itself; right-clicking off-canvas won’t give you the options) while you have the pen tool selected. This will give you a drop-down menu with several options. At this point it’s important to note that I’m not an expert in all of these, in fact I hardly ever use some of the options. I’m going to explain the basics of the ones I know, however, and it’s up to you to get creative with them and unlock their deepest, darkest secrets! Of course once you’ve done that we’d love it if you’d be willing to write an article about it for us, which you can submit on the contact page  ;)

Create Vector Mask

The first option in the drop-down menu, is ‘Create Vector Mask’. If you don’t know what masks are yet, see them like this: you have an image and a piece of paper, in which you cut a hole. Then you put the paper with the hole in it over the image, revealing only a part of it. The paper is the mask.
This, in short, is what the Create Vector Mask option does. Personally I don’t use this option much, but I know it can be incredibly useful and some people swear by them.

Define Custom Shape

custom shape tool

Photoshop has another tool which uses path: the shape tool. One of its variations is the ‘custom shape tool’, which by default has shapes such as arrows, hearts, text bubbles, etc. With the help of the pen tool, you can create your own custom shapes to be added to this list! Make a path with the pen tool, then right-click and choose ‘Define Custom Shape’. You’ll have to enter a name for it, and then press OK.
If you now choose the Custom Shape tool (if you don’t see it, first find the Shape tool, then click and press on it until a small menu appears. The bottom option should be the Custom Shape one), you can choose the shape you just made in the toolbar at the top (this option should be all the way to the right).

Make Selection

A selection from the previously made path
A selection from the previously made path

The next option in the drop-down menu is ‘Make Selection’. The name already explains it pretty well: the path you made will turn into a selection, allowing you to do everything you can usually do with a selection.
After you’ve chosen this option, a small window will appear with some more options. The first is an option to give the selection a feather radius, which means the selection won’t be sharp at the edges, but a bit blurry. The higher the number you enter, the blurrier the selection will be.
Below that are some options like ‘New selection’, ‘Add to selection’, etc. These will be important when you already have a selection, and have chosen the ‘make selection’ option again. The names explain themselves pretty well; if not, experimenting with them will explain it quicker than I can, so try them out!

Fill Path

The previously made path filled with black
The previously made path filled with black

‘Fill path’ will fill the inside of the path you’ve created. Choosing the option from the drop-down will give you another small window with options.
The first of these options, is what to fill the path with. By default it fills with the foreground colour you have selected at that moment, but you can choose other options such as the background colour, a custom colour, a pattern, etc.
The next part is about the blending mode. Blending modes decide how layers react with each other. Each blending mode does something else, so experiment with them (this does require having at least two layers with overlapping elements).
Opacity will decide how see-through it will be (with 100% being not transparent at all, and 0% being invisible).
The feather radius is exactly like the feather radius in Make Selection: it decides how blurry the edges are. The anti-alias box can be unchecked to turn off anti-aliasing (for an explanation of anti-alias, have a look at our basics of pixel art tutorial, where it’s explained towards the bottom).

Stroke Path

The last option I feel I can properly explain, is the ‘Stroke Path’ option. Stroke path makes a line following the path you made. This line is based on the current settings of the tool you choose; the standard option is the brush, but there are many interesting possibilities.
There is one other option for Stroke Path which is quite interesting. You might know that pen tablets (such as wacom tablets) have pressure sensitivity. This means that the harder you press on the pen, the thicker the line will be. The checkbox ‘Simulate Pressure’ simulates that effect. Personally I find it too clean, but that’s completely up to personal preference of course!

The same path with a stroke; first without pen pressure simulated, the second with.
The same path with a brush stroke; first without pen pressure simulated, the second with.

Have something to add, or need more explanation on something? Let us know in the comments below!

Picture credits:

Tool screenshots from Photoshop CC 2014
All other images made by Rhynn

About Rhynn

Rhynn picked up the pencil as soon as she was physically able to, and never put it down again. She currently focuses on pixel art, but is trying to brush up on her digital painting skills and general art skills at the same time. In her daily life, she's a canal boat skipper in Amsterdam.
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