Photoshop For Beginners: The pen tool
This is the first of a series of tutorials thought for Photoshop beginners. I’ll explain in depth those features that can result difficult to understand for a newbi. At the end of the course you’ll be able to follow any kind of tutorial without problems and to start creating your first masterpieces. Today I’ll show you how to use one of the most powerful Photoshop tools: the pen tool.
After decided to start this series of tutorials, I had no doubt about the first topic to face. The pen tool is a fundamental tool. Even if it is one of the most painful things to learn, but once learned you will ask yourself how could you have made without.
Getting started with the pen tool
Create a new document in Photoshop with a white background. Switch your foreground color to a nice blue. Grab the pen tool by selecting it from the tool bar on the left and start randomly clicking over the canvas.
This is one of the basic functions of the pen tool. You can use it to create shapes. Notice in the image above that the shape is not closed. In order to close it you have to click with the pen on the first point. You will notice a little circle near the pen which means you are going to close the path. The little squares near the angles are “anchor points”. Into next exercises I’ll show you how to use them to modify the form of the shape.
Now repeat the same exercise. But this time try to drag a little bit every time you click over the canvas.
We have so created curves. This shows us an important thing: the pen tool can be used to create any kind of form. This is why it’s one of the best tool to select and extract objects.
Shape layers or paths?
When you select the pen tool, you will have in the option bar 2 important options: shape layers and paths. What are the differences between them? A shape layer is scalable filled shape, like the one created before. You can re-size it without lose quality (like vectors). While if you select “paths” and start clicking over the canvas, you’ll see only the edges, without nothing inside. Paths can be used for different purposes. For example to select an object (I’ll explain it better later). So if you need to create a simple scalable shape, you have to choose “shape layers”, while if you need to select something complex, you have to choose “paths”.
Become more confident with curves
In the following exercises I’ll show you how to create precise curves.
Exercise 1: to drag or not to drag?
Grab the pen tool and select “shape layers”. Set a nice blue as foreground color (this will be our shape filling color). Now try to create a nice curve. At first click to create the first point, then click and drag to create the second one. You can notice that it’s really simple to create a flat curve.
But what if you want to create a half circle? It’s not possible with this method. The reason is that curve form depends by both anchor points (more precisely by both tangents built above each anchor points).
Try again but this time click and drag also while creating the first point. Do the same with the second click. You have more control on the curve now.
Exercise 2: Create a cloud
Start repeating the same step of exercise 1: click and drag for the first point, then click and drag for the second one. We are going to create a simple cloud.
Click and drag again. But what happens? The curve doesn’t look nice:
As I wrote before, curves depend by their tangents. You need another tool: the “convert point tool” (which is inside pen tool group). Fortunately you can activate this tool by clicking “alt” while using the pen tool. Going with your mouse cursor to the extreme point of the tangent keep pressed alt at the same time. A new little symbol will appear. It informs us we are using the “convert point tool”.
Drag this point to the top-right to modify the curve
If you want to speed up your workflow, after have clicked and dragged to create the curve, you can directly press alt+click and move the tangent point into the correct position, as shown in the video below:
The last problem is at the end of the process, when you close the path. All tangents have disappeared and you could have something like this:
The trick to visualize the anchor points and the tangents is to hold down ctrl (or cmd if you use a mac)+click on the path (with the pen tool still active). In this way you activate the “direct selection tool”, that shows you anchor point (Remember: direct selection tool (A) can be used to move a single anchor point). Then you can press alt to activate the “convert point tool” and click and drag to modify the curve.
Exercise 3: Add and remove anchor points
Create a simple shape of any form.
Press the pen tool icon for more than 2 seconds. You’ll see other tools belonging to the same group. Select the “add anchor point tool”. This tool, as suggested by its name, allows us to create new anchor points. Add a new anchor point by clicking on the path.
To move the point hold down shift (to activate the “direct selection tool”) and move the point.
The “delete anchor point tool” allows us to remove unwanted anchor points. Simply select it and click on an anchor point to eliminate it.
Exercise 4: create a heart illustration
The first thing we have to do is to activate the grid. It will help us to create a simmetrical heart. So go to View>Show>Grid
This time we will work with “paths”, instead of “shape layers”. The reason is that while creating more complex figures it’s simpler to work with no filling.
Alt+Click and drag to create the first anchor point
Click and drag to create the second point:
Click and drag to create the third anchor point:
Press alt and move the tangent extreme point to stretch the tangent and enlarge the curve:
alt+click on the last anchor point to remove the second half of the tangent
Alt+click and drag on the last anchor point in the direction of the other half of the tangent (you have to place the second half of the tangent on top of the first one)
Add another simmetrical anchor point
Close the path:
Now use the techniques previously learned to modify a bit the heart
Go to the paths window (Windows>Paths). Here you can see your paths. Make sure to have a nice red as foreground color, then right-click on the heart path and select “fill path”. In the next window set “foreground color” for the use and hit ok. Now you can delete the path by dragging it into the basket (bottom-right). Here is the heart complete:
Exercise 5: how to trace and extract a flower
In the following screencast I’ll show you how to trace (pen tool in “paths” mode) and extract a flower. The best way to learn how to use the pen tool is to observe someone using it. Enjoy the video!
For mac users: ctrl=cmd
With this we completed the first “Photoshop for Beginners” tutorial. I hope you became more familiar with the pen tool and its powerful features. We will publish new useful turorials soon. So stay tuned!
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