View Full Version : Mastering The Pen Tool

07-26-2007, 09:20 PM
Mastering The Pen Tool and Paths
The Pen Tool

One of the most powerful and most useful tools in Photoshop it is also one of the hardest to learn.
It can be used for:
Creating selections around objects where other selection tools fail.
Create custom shapes with ease.
Random lines for stoking
And a lot more if you know what you want.
Basically this tool can do a lot of jobs, that’s one great thing, but if you can’t use it well or at all then you aren’t using Photoshop to its full capabilities.

The Basics

So first lets create a new document (I’ve just done 800x800, 72DPI) and grab the Pen Tool http://img111.imageshack.us/img111/8401/pentoolts3.png

The first step is to create your first anchor point.
Anchor Point – This is a point in the path, the path will always touch an anchor point. These can also have one or two Control Points from them each. A control point can be moved this can then effect the line drawn with the pen tool, moving these can allow to change a corners length, sharpness of a turn and when well mastered allow you to make the Pen Tool much easier to use.

In the image below you can clearly see what a Anchor Point is both selected and not selected and a control point. A control point will always have a single straight line connecting it to an anchor point.


The curved path between the two anchor points is what has been created with the Pen Tool.

That’s the simple stuff and a quick break down, using that you should be able to do a few traces of objects if you wish to cut them out.

Cutting and More Advanced Use
To help me show you how to cut out ‘difficult’ objects I have grabbed an image off sxc.hu (invaluable image resource site). A cute little puppy (Buckely the beagle/cross cavalier at 8 weeks old), every one say ‘awwww’. Lol.


Now I will attempt to select this puppy (only the pup) With the Polygon Lasso, Lasso, Magnetic Lasso, Magic Wand (some people says its awesome… it isn’t) and the Quick Selection Tool (CS3 only) Then I will do it with the pen tool. I will only do a small section I don’t want to waste years.

Magic Wand – Tolerance = 20
Half way through I got annoyed it was leaving bits behind, so I upped the Tolerance to 30. Then it does this…. Which is one reason why I hate the damn tool, it isn’t easy to control unless you constantly change the Tolerance, a image with colours close to each other like this with a brown on the object your cutting out and brown directly behind it can cause problems in the process.

And finally done.
Result = BAD. There is a messy edge and sometimes you miss a pixel or two in the middle of the image, not good (This happened a lot with the puppy, a lot of colours close makes it happen and its not fun, in the end I gave up and selected these bits with the marquee tool on top of what I already had). Also during the process you may find it hard to realise which area is selected and which isn’t.

Quick Selection Tool (basically a revamped and smarter Wand) – Tolerance = 20 (has to be set under the Wand)

This is MUCH faster than the Magic Wand, makes the tool pointless… but it was anyway. The fact you can change the brush size allows you to do larger areas much faster and smaller more detailed areas too.
So a quick and I mean quick job and you have a nicer finish than the Wand, the edges are nicer, but you still don’t get that much control unless you set the tolerance to 1… you never want to work with that.
Also notice that there are no flat edges really that's a result of using a round brush, so you can have alot of variety in the brush you use too.


Polygon Lasso – A style of pen tool, but straight lines only, not as editable as Pen Tool paths.

A result can be achieved very quick with a tool like this, there is a lot of control available but because you can only use straight lines good results take too long to do. All of the work is yours the computer doesn’t judge anything from the image and expand the selection, so it can be easier to work with, but if you slip up it isn’t nice to undo at all usually you may have to start again, there are ways round it but never easy. If you accidentally double click the path closes.


Lasso Tool – A style of the pen tool, basically creates an un-editable anchor point ever pixel. Not easy to use with a mouse easy with tablet but still not perfect.

Again results easily achieved but at a cost, you need amazing hand-eye coordination to achieve a half decent result, as you can’t stop to rest a hand. Basically the same as the Polygon Lasso, but harder to control. Even though you are in full control.


Magnetic Lasso – A mix of the Magic Wand tool and Lasso tool, which means one thing (OMFG what were they thinking!) yes you may have guessed I hate it…

The Magnetic Lasso can notice colour difference (Magic Wand) and there for creates it’s own points, you can’t make the points ( :x hate that) you are control the ‘Magnet’ which picks up points and then creates its own path.
This means if you have very strong contrasting colours its OK, if not you’re ruined. Look how it ruined out poor poor puppy :’(


The Pen Tool – Thank god someone made this. Every Photoshop user should <3 the Pen Tool.

Before you start with the Pen Tool make sure that the Tool menu looks like this, the two blue items need to be selected. This means you have a pen tool with anchor points not freehand and the pattern you draw only shows a line it isn’t filled in.
The Pen tool offers the most control out of any selection tool in the program, you create each individual anchor point, if you missed something you can go back and then add in another anchor point on the path and move that around. Each anchor point adds a new item to the History list. So where as the others don’t really, with this you can undo and redo as you wish because this isn’t a selection you’re making at the moment it is a path these can be edited easily and are great to use, once you finish your path, close it off and then right click, you are shown a set of options click Make Selection, then joy, ‘Feather Radius’ this allows you to ‘fade’(smooth) off your edges to create a nicer effect.
The finish you see wasn’t as long as it took to do the Magic Wand but the result is much nicer, the edges can be neatened with the help of ‘Feather’ so the cut is clean.

More to come tommorrow but its 2am here...

07-27-2007, 06:23 PM
Note: Missed this out the first bit!!

Paths – This is what you create, they can then be converted to selections and shapes etc. A click starts a path by placing the first Anchor Point a second click will place another Anchor Point a single click will create a straight line between the Points, clicking and dragging will allow you to create curves in the Path between points.

Advanced Stuff

Direct Selection Tool:


Now one of the problems you may come across is this:


You’ve gone and made a curve and you try to curve back out but the control points are pulling the path in a different direction, a real pain, but this can be solved simply using the Direct Selection Tool. This tool allows you to select the Control Points, even better move them, without moving the Anchor Point.
Now it looks like this, you can try it yourself create a few curved points grab the Direct Selection Tool and move the Control Points, you can see how they pull the path, use this to your advantage mastering these are soo useful!

Path Selection Tool:


This tool allows you to… Select paths. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Looking at the image below you might not be able to tell but there is two paths there, using this tool we can select one of these paths and move it.


And now after moving one Path you can see the two paths.


Shape Tool:


Another Tool is the Shape Tool, this allows you to create a selection of shapes, this is a Pen tool with pre-set shapes, that means that you can edit these shapes to your liking!

So here is a Rounded rectangle,


which I then selected with the Path Selection tool this reveals all the points in the path, then I took the Direct Selection tool, from which I can move the Control points around. And using the Add Anchor Point Tool (under the Pen Tool) I can add points to the Path, the Delete Anchor Point tool does the opposite. Yes you guessed it remove Points.


Convert Point Tool:


Another tool (Yes there are quite a few related to Paths and stuff…)
This tool is the Convert Point Tool. This tool allows you to Add and Remove Control Points from Anchor Points (this doesn’t delete/add Anchor Points, only Control Points). To use it simply click on a Anchor Point with Control Points to remove them.

This is now our (not so) Rounded Rectangle after the points had been clicked on. This is great if you didn’t want a curve or need to quickly remove one.


So perhaps you just set out loads of points and noticed that one that was supposed to be curved isn’t! That could be annoying, you don’t want to have to undo loads of other Anchor Points to edit one. So grab the tool, click and drag out from the Anchor Point. Now you can edit your Control Points with the Direct Selection Tool. But wait! There’s even more to this Tool, you can edit the Control Points individually (yes you can do this with the Direct Selection Tool too but this is different, when you use the Direct Selection Tool you still move the path on the other side of the Control Point, with this you do not.



Now you’re probably thinking Layers? I thought we were talking about the Pen Tool! Well guess what. We still are.

Just as you can work with Layers to create whatever you do you can use Path Layers. That means if you create a new path but don’t want to loose it you can create a new Path layer and work from scratch on a new one without disrupting your other one. This will also allow you to hide any paths you’re working on by placing a new layer above it. So you don’t confuse yourself.

In this image we can see the Paths Layers box, at the bottom the icons left to right are as follows: Fill path with foreground colour; Stroke path with brush; Load path as selection; Make work path from selection; Create new path and Delete current path.
The first three do exactly as they say. The fourth the same but this one is amazingly useful, it allows you to turn a normal selection into a editable path, you can now edit a quick selection and make it fit your shape a little better. Create and Delete, create and delete the path layers.
To quickly turn one of your paths into a selection without editing the path you can Ctrl + Click a layer or use the button.

In the below image you can see that only ‘Path 1’ is shown as that is the selected layer, you can not select more than one layer, which can be slightly annoying at times, especially if you want to quickly delete a few layers.

So that just about covers as much as I can think of or know about the amazingly powerful Pen Tool.

i hope that you find this tutorial a invaluable source of information and hope it helps you with your Photoshop work.

I used Photoshop CS3 Extended for this tutorial, CS3 has the Quick Selection Tool only CS3 has this. CS and CS2 should have all the same features, i cannot be certain about earlier versions.

+rep if you like :P