Photoshop For Beginners: The pen tool

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.

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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.

working with curves 1

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.

working with curves 2

Click and drag again. But what happens? The curve doesn’t look nice:

working with curves 3

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

working with curves 4

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

show the 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:

add the second anchor point

Click and drag to create the third anchor point:

third anchor point

Press alt and move the tangent extreme point to stretch the tangent and enlarge the curve:

stretch the tangent

alt+click on the last anchor point to remove the second half of the tangent

alt+click 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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(+add yours)
  1. Nice Tut… Really Help for beginners .

  2. Cool… very helpful for beginners
    .-= Richie´s last blog ..Create a Out of Bounds Surreal Photo manipulation in Photoshop =-.

  3. I’m glad you find the article interesting guys. I’ll launch other “guide for beginners” soon, so if you have any suggestion don’t hesitate

    • Tony

      Hi, They don’t come much newer than me. I am not dim, but am beginning to feel that I am. I just cannot get to grips with this at all. You are short on instructions remembering that this is for absolute beginners. To start with you say change the color – but don’t tell us how! Small things like this take so long to find out and eventually the program is shut down in desperation. If you are going to tell idiots how to do something please write for idiots.

      • Hi Tony,
        As I wrote into the introduction “I’ll explain in depth those features that can result difficult to understand for a newbi”, so the series is not a complete guide to Photoshop, but an examination of more difficult features like masks, selections tools etc etc. I take for granted that someone who wants to learn how to use the pen tool is able to set a foreground color.

        Anyway I’ll give more attention to these details

  4. Ronald H.

    Excellent Information. That Pen Tool is a must-use tool in Photoshop. I’m glade you wrote this one. Thank.

  5. There are a lot of tutorials for the more advanced users but fewer of the basics. Thanks for helping change that fact.

  6. Beginner

    This is not for beginners!

  7. total begginner

    whaaat. when im doing the heart, fill path is not an option, i cant click on it. whats wrooong.
    this is way to hard!!

    • Maybe you have your background layer locked. Double click on your background layer (into the layers windows – bottom right) and hit ok. Now you should be able to fill the path

  8. Jv.

    Big thanks S! I really enjoy your tutorials..
    Looking forward to read the next one of this series

    Keep it up.

  9. As a humble noob I truly appreciate this tutorial! More power to you!

  10. Excellent and detailed tutorial. Thanks for the easy steps on how to use the pen tool.

  11. nice….but the heart requires both anchor points at the bottom to be sticking up, if you just alt-click it you turn it to one anchor point, and the heart won’t look right.

  12. HI Sebastiano,

    Just love your tutorials…. they are just awesome… Would love to have some more tutorials maybe on curves and layer modes…….


  13. for beginners like me it’s very useful!
    hope we can see more of tutorials like this

  14. Phew…took me 2 hours just to master the cloud shape. Thank you :)

    One question…when you do the flower in the video, I notice you stick to slightly inside the flower’s borders and are not super precise. Is this because absolute precision is not important?

    • No Lindarama. It’s because if you precisely follow the edges of an object, you will inevitably include into your selection a part of the background. Let’s suppose the background of the object is black. Once extracted the flower and put it into a new Photoshop document with a white background, you will see a thin black edge that is not so simple to remove. While if you apply my technique, the object extracted won’t require an extra work.

  15. Why does my cursor turn to a little hand instead of the pen tip when I select the pen tool? :(

  16. Sooshrut

    The tut was awesome man, it is hard to believe, that you are self tutored, keep the good work up , god will reserve a seat in heaven for you :)

  17. This is a great look at the pen tool. I like all the different easy-to-follow examples you display as well. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Dave

    Great help few people new to using the pen tool, Thanks for sharing your experience with us :)

  19. Dave

    sorry that should say “for people new”

  20. I love this. Nice Tuts.
    I’m sure other people will find this very valuable.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Keep up with the good work. :-)

  21. Icarus63

    I am 24 and just started teaching myself Ps on CS5 (I have never used any sort of photoshop or graphics interface before) and googled tutorials to begin learning, yours is one of the first that I have stumbled across and I have gone through all the lessons multiple times now just to make sure that I remember the key commands that you use. I had to stumble around for a bit to discover how to change foreground color and unlock my background before it would allow me to delete it on Exercise 5 but for the most part I felt it was very educational and straight forward. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on the internet for everyone to use.

  22. paul

    Hi thank this is really helpful. I am a newbie and found this easy to follow thanks for your effort

  23. Great tutorial, thank you.

    I’m a self taught web designer and I really appreciate your help.
    I started to learn how to design and code websites last summer 2010 and tutorials like these are priceless!

  24. Megan

    Thanks for the excellent tutorial.
    There is hope for us oldies yet ;o)

  25. Fantastic goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you’re just too wonderful. Intriguing Ninth Circuit ruling on post

  26. jmgf

    hey! I liked your tutorial, it was so helpful thanks a lot.

  27. Excellent website you have here but I was wanting to know if
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  28. Georgia Stone

    Suggest you have your copy proofed by a person whose primary language is English. A great deal of what you write is confusing because you haven’t mastered English. That’s no flaw by any means. I haven’t mastered your primary language. But since you wrote your tutorial in English, it would be good to make sure the wording is correct. For example, in the first tutorial, section ‘Shape layers or paths,’ you wrote ‘While if you select “paths” and start clicking over the canvas, you’ll see only the edges, without nothing inside.’ You meant to say ‘with nothing inside,’ meaning the space would be empty. But you used that old language nemeses, the double negative…’without nothing’…which means there IS something in the space side the drawn object. Not what you meant. Reading that, a beginner would be inclined to believe his/her actions were in error because the space is empty. Find a proof reader. That is common practice for writers. If someone were to catch little glitches like the aforementioned, before you publish your text, it would be easier on us newbies when it comes to understanding what you mean because your words would more accurately convey your great instructions.

  29. Anisur Rahman Paloan

    Its good & helpful for beginner.

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  35. kaioken kid

    thanks bro it was very helpgul

  36. kaioken kid

    u meant helpful my badz

  37. jacob

    Okay. No-one else seems to have this problem, but my pen tool will NOT FILL IN!!!!!! HOOOOOWWWWW?!

    I don’t understand! Can someone PLEASE HELP!!!

  38. SHAH

    very nice tuotorials for begineers and middle calss students thanks for masters
    i have one doubts how can stay the same clour when make select the pen tools when i select pen tools the colours covert automatically to black how can return back to original colour pls send me reply

  39. ToL

    thanks for this Tutorial… simple way of teaching…

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