PSDFan Extra

Become a Master of the Pen Tool in Under 30 Minutes
NOTE: This post was originally posted on March 22nd 2009. However, we still to this day have readers who are confused with how to use the pen tool. This tutorial has helped a lot of people since it was first pubilshed, so we hope that whether this is your first time reading it, or you’re using it as a refresher, it’s helpful for you.

Final Image

This is the final image that we’ll be creating.

Step 1

Download this image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1104824

Don’t think you’ve already made it as we will be tracing over the image!

Open the image in Photoshop and re-size it to what you want. I re-sized mine to 1800 px by 2546 px.

I lowered the opacity of the penguin image to 50% as it’s much easier to see your paths and curves your creating.
To do this, simply duplicate the layer, delete the bottom, original layer and then set the opacity to 50%.

Step 2

Create a new layer, name it ‘Body’ and select the Pen Tool (the shortcut for the Pen Tool is ‘P’).

Make sure that Paths are selected.

Step 3

To start with we will work on the outline of the body.

Left click on the very top of the head. A small square box will show. This is called an anchor point. It’s the beginning of the path.

For larger areas I like to create larger lines as I feel it creates a smoother curve rather than creating lots of anchor points, but, if you want, you can create smaller lines and use more anchor points. Try both methods and see which works best for you.

When you come to do smaller and more detailed areas, e.g. the foot, you will have to create smaller lines and curves.

Step 4

Click (and hold) on the start of the arm.

Now drag your mouse down and you will notice that the line will bend.

Drag and release your mouse button when the line curves round and fits round the edge of the head.

If a line isn’t as good as what you want it to be, no problem, the Pen Tool is very forgiving.

One option is to delete the last anchor point you made. To do this, press Delete. This will delete the last anchor point. After you’ve deleted an anchor point you must remember to click on the last anchor point you made or else it will create a new sub-path.

You can also edit the angle of the line by choosing the convert point tool. When you created the curve you probably noticed these two lines appear. These are called guide/direction lines. They control the angle and length of the curve.

With the Pen Tool still selected, hold down the key ‘Alt’ (this is the shortcut key for the Convert Point Tool) and hover over the top direction line. (you’ll notice that your cursor won’t change until you hover over the ends of a direction line or an anchor point).

Now if you click and hold the top direction line you will be able to edit the curve and make any fine tuning to it.

The last way of editing paths is holding down the ‘Ctrl’ key. This enables you to move anchor points and direction lines and again make any edits to your lines and curves.

If you want, play about with a few lines to get to grip with what you can do.

Step 5

The bottom direction line will be long and like this, if you have not edited it.

If you try to continue and click on the outline of the arm with the Pen Tool, the line will not go where you want it to!
This is because the direction line is large and creates a large curve (basically a long direction line = a long curve, a short direction line = a short curve!).

Hold down the ‘Alt’ key, click and drag the bottom end of the direction line upwards so it sits reasonably close
to the anchor point and follows the direction of the arm.

Now you should be able to draw around the arm using these different methods to edit the line/curves.

Here’s what mine looks like.


Following the information in Step 3 to 5 you should now be able to draw around the whole body.

Remember,

Keep hold of your mouse and drag in a direction to curve the line
Long direction lines = long curves
Short direction lines = short curves
If you delete an anchor point, click on the last one you created
Use the convert point tool to shorten/lengthen the direction lines
Zoom into the areas that are quite detailed and need small curves and lines
It does not matter if your lines are not perfectly traced around the edges
Take your time!

Step 6

As you finish the right arm you’ll be able to click on the 1st anchor point you made. This will close and finish the path.

Your image should look similar to this.

Now change your foreground colour to black.

Now right click (with the Pen Tool still selected) and this box will appear.

Click on ‘Fill Path’ and use these settings.

The outline of the Pen Tool will be around the body so press delete to get rid of this.

Your image should now look like this.

Step 7

Click the small eye symbol next to the Body layer to hide that layer.

Create a new layer above the layer ‘Body’ and name it ‘Stomach’. Use the Pen Tool to draw around the outline of the white part of the body.

When you’ve finished and closed the path, set the foreground colour to white, right click and choose Fill Path. Click delete to get rid of the pen outline.

Now your image should look like this with the body layer showing.

Step 8

Create a new layer on top and name it ‘Left Eye’. Hide the other layers accept the original penguin image.

As the eye is a circle you can either create it with the ellipse tool,

or,

draw around the left eye with the Pen Tool and fill it with the colour Black.

After you’ve finished the left eye, duplicate the layer (Ctrl & J/Apple Option Key & J) and move it over to the other eye. Name this layer, ‘Right Eye’.

Here’s how the image is looking with all the layers visible.

Step 9

Create another layer on top and name it, ‘Beak’. Again hide the other layers so you can trace around the beak.

Use the Pen Tool to draw around the beak and set the foreground colour to #fbdf26. Fill the path and then press delete to get rid of the pen outline.

Step 10

Delete the background layer (the original penguin image) and make all your layers visible. I added a layer filled with the colour white at the bottom and cropped the image so the penguin was sat neatly in the centre.

Here’s the final image that we’ve created. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tutorial.


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About the Author:

is a talented graphic designer from the UK. Feel free to check out his DeviantArt portfolio

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153 Comments:

  1. Nikki says:

    Cool tut! Im always struggling with the pen tool!

    • Tom says:

      Yep same! Out of all the basic tools I’ve always found it the hardest to get to grips with at any kind of ‘good’ level. This tutorial actually helped me in my own designs quite a bit.

  2. Jdars1804 says:

    This is awesome!

  3. Mike Smith says:

    Nice tutorial. Really well laid out and I learned a thing or two about the pen tool as well :)

  4. Ekios says:

    Thank you from France, this tut finally explain me how to use this damn tool ;)

    Thanks thanks thanks !

  5. Saro says:

    This cleared some stuff out for me, thanks!

    • Tom says:

      I’m really pleased that this tutorial is helping everyone. When I ran the poll to see what kinds of basic tutorials were most requested the pen tool scored highly, and now I can see why!

  6. Nadav Peretz says:

    Awesome!
    I also used your music poster tutorial to create this cover for my friends set
    http://illus10n.deviantart.com/art/Dolev-Bi-Summer-Set-2009-3DBOX-116551229
    I just love the final result:)

    thanks a bunch mate for all of your hard work :)

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Nadav, really appreciate the kind words. I love the result you got from the music poster tut. I’m continually impressed by the works of my visitors :)

  7. bencapozzi says:

    Looks good. Need to do a run-through myself, then hopefully can use it in class with my students.

    ~benc

  8. uokesita says:

    thanks for this tut.

  9. Patrick says:

    Great tut but you really should be doing this in Illustrator.

  10. Jennifer Sickles says:

    Thank you for such an easy to understand tut I learned so much thanx again

    • Tom says:

      Thanks guys.

      Patrick: Yeah, it may be better to do in Illustrator, but I do focus exclusively on Photoshop techniques on this website, and many people requested a tutorial on using the Photoshop pen tool.

  11. Doso says:

    It would be better if you didn’t delete paths right after you fill them, instead create a vector mask. That way, the layer can always be edited in case resizing must be made. It’s literally just one extra step, but it could save you hours of agony if a larger project comes up and you happen upon an issue like that.

  12. RaSh says:

    Really nice tut!

    Oh & Doso’s tip is pretty useful. It also helps when you need to move around the anchor points to make something similar later. :)

  13. Jack Harrison says:

    Applause for teaching the pen tool. Very easy to understand. The utility of the pen tool in this case could be enhanced by using shape layers rather than fill layers, perhaps? Some of the elements in that image you created are scalable, some are not. Would be more useful probably to have a scalable image, but I get that you are teaching the pen tool, and not a vector graphics tut. Nice job.

  14. Adam says:

    Thanks for this tutorial – I find even simple pen tool tasks in Photoshop quite tricky, but in Flash I find it much easier.

    Could you do a more advanced tutorial too?

  15. ev149 says:

    Great for beginners, I consider myself a master already, though. :P

  16. Sports Picks says:

    Nice. It’s amazing how many ‘designers’ don’t know how to use the Pen tool. It’s a very powerful tool!

  17. UTogger says:

    Nicely done…a fun little exercise.

  18. Edi says:

    Step #8 accept should be except.

  19. Nikki says:

    Your post has been featured on March’s “Nerdiest of the Net!”

    http://www.blog.designnerd.net/nerdiest-of-the-net-march-09

  20. Laura says:

    AWESOME tutorial! I’ve been self-teaching myself Photoshop for the past few years and could never quite grasp the concept of the pen tool. Your tutorial definitely helped and now I’m finally getting what everyone’s raving about!!

    Thanks so much!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for commenting Laura. I had the exact same experience! It was like my pen tool skills had been holding me back for ages.

  21. lawrence77 says:

    Laura same here, I too like u!
    I coule never quite grasp the concept of pen tool!!
    Thanks PSDFAN by Simon Hubbert!!!

    GOD bless u!

  22. Fabian says:

    Great beginners tip. I have some young friends I’ll send this way for sure:)

  23. Thanks a lot for the great tutorial. Helped me understand the tool like nothing else has been able!

  24. Mark says:

    Great Tut.

    Makes the pen tool so easy.
    much appreciated. Keep up the good work!

  25. Jablonski says:

    Thank you from Turkey,

    this great tutorial has thought me so much about the pen tool..

  26. Definitive tutorial… awesome! Thanks a lot.

  27. Johnboy says:

    Hi,
    I’m a real newbie at photoshop and I am really struggling to get the pen tool to bend as you describe in this tut…..what am i doing wrong ??
    I follow every step as you describe and still the line wont bend….Im using photoshop cs4 extended

    • Tom says:

      Hi Johnboy, I’m afraid that I’m not sure what you could be doing wrong. This tutorial is really the simplest explanation I’ve seen. Can anyone else help?

  28. jimjiber says:

    thanks ever so much for this simple little tutorial. i, like many others, have always struggled with the pen tool!

  29. Al says:

    Thanks you Tom
    Now i’m the master OF the Pen Tool :)
    any challenges Welcome :)

    J/k

  30. zEEROCKz says:

    Great tut specially for an entry level person like me…

  31. Levar says:

    Wow that was quite easy, once I did it, I can probably use the pen tool to trace over anything! Great tutorial here’s my outcome.
    http://imgkk.com/images/iv5hllmq.jpg

  32. Still the best tool for masking by miles!

  33. pskungfu says:

    This tutorials is very good for beginners.I have translated it into Chinese to share it with my friends.

  34. Cassie says:

    I have NEVER been able to understand the pen tool. I have gone through TONS of tutorials but I come here and just skim through this one and I GOT IT! haha FINALLY! THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  35. krizzy22 says:

    COOL! :D

  36. Loraine says:

    That was a great tut. I just finished a beginning Photo Shop class, but the pen tool was scary. NOt any more. Thanks

  37. Loraine says:

    Any suggestions on where to find shortcut keys for everything?

    • Tom says:

      I’m glad this tutorial straightened things out for you Loraine. I’m actually not aware of a main source for shortcut keys, but I’m sure Google could help you out.

  38. David says:

    Good tut!
    I have done a lot, but doing another one never hurts.

    Only tip I’d recommend:
    Add saving the paths(naming them)
    and then:
    control+enter to make selection
    then shift+f5 to fill with color(or just alt+backspace for foreground, control+backspace for background).

  39. Ian says:

    Why oh why has nobody explained it like this before? You have just de-mystified the very scary pen! One thing; can the AltGr key be used instead of Alt? It seems to do the same as Alt but the symbol when the key is pressed is different, it is a right b**ger being left handed!!

  40. Kesha says:

    nice tut, i have better understanding of pen tool now.

  41. Natalia says:

    Thanks a lot! Very clear tutorial. I’ve been struggling with the pen tool and I need to master it the most for my ongoing project. Thank you!!!!!

  42. yhea great tutorial , its so hard to learn the pen tool and you make it so clear , allow me translate it to spanish so i can share it ^^ thx again

  43. Ancalan says:

    Yes! Wonderfull Curves of you.

  44. marco says:

    best pen tool tutorial ever.
    i tryed lots of similiar tutorial before, but i’ve ever been in trouble with the pen tool. no one can learn something without working on the road!

  45. josh says:

    God bless u brother … now i m playin with it.

  46. [...] Become a Master of the Pen Tool in Under 30 Minutes [...]

  47. Wow. This is by far the most straight-to-the-point pen tutorial I’ve read. Good stuff. I’m now confident with the basics.

  48. Eric Shafer says:

    One of the most important and misunderstood tools in Photoshop. Thanks for the great tutorial Tom!

  49. really a lot of people are afraid of using the pen tool.
    i hope this post help them understand this useful tool

  50. Donna says:

    I was about to give up ever learning the Pen Tool until I landed on this page. YOU ROCK!!!!!!!! Thank you so much!!! xoxoxoox

  51. AK says:

    This one is a classic in its simplicity and u deserve all tks for your presentation. Your tut scored over others because u showed the importance of “alt” and “Ctrl” while drawing lines. Tks again.

  52. Ian says:

    At last i have some kind of grip on the pen tool. I see how it works.
    Many thanks for a straight forward tut.

  53. mikoKororo says:

    great tut man…thanks got the hang of the pen tool…..THANKS A LOT!

  54. MG says:

    Oh my! Boy am I grateful to the creator of this tutorial!! I’ve been using photoshop for quite a while now and needed to ‘breakthough’ with the pen tool. Thanks to you I now finally get the pen tool. Its straight to the point, quick and easy to follow. Thank you!

  55. Gabriel Law says:

    So Tom, I love you…that’s all I can say. I don’t know why I have been making the pen tool so difficult. You totally simplified it. You’re a hero. Thanks for taking the time to make this tut.

  56. Kristina says:

    Thank you so much for this great little tutorial … I have finally (after years) got the hang of the pen tool! I’m an old lady, and everyone knows it’s hard to teach us new tricks!

  57. This is a great place for me to visit as I need to understand more of this. Thanks for the tips.

  58. sutonuka says:

    this is a compliment from india.its very nice tutorial.i hope we’ll get more interesting work with pen tool in future.can u describe the other tools??

  59. dperryjones says:

    Like most people, I’ve struggled with the pen tool for a long time. This was extremely helpful and I’ll be using the pen tool more often. Thanks.

  60. Thanks Tom – now a master in the pen tool! Its a great tool once you’ve got the hang of it.

  61. Sarah says:

    My alt and ctrl key seem to do the same thing?!

  62. kropped says:

    I hate the pen tool, I wish it were easier to use!!

  63. elhuus says:

    If you hold the alt key and click on the last anchor point the second direction line gets automatically resized to zero this way you don’t have to manually drag it there.
    nice tutorial thanks

  64. rinoboy says:

    Hey Tom,

    A couple of things:
    1. Rather than hitting delete to remove the last point you drew, try using Crtl+Z (Undo). That way you don’t have to go back and click on the previous point to re-establish the connection the existing path.

    2. The tangent lines (for most curves) should be roughly 1/3 the length of the curve. While you are favoring a “looking back to draw”, this 1/3 rule will help if you are “looking forward” when you draw.

    Also, the lines (called guides or direction lines here) coming out of the anchor point are correctly referred to as “tangent” lines.

    Just tryin’ to help…

  65. Playnstop says:

    i hate the pen tool but i like this tutorial because its to easy to use pen tool

  66. Makes the pen tool look so easy to use when its a real art.

  67. Ian says:

    Wow, finally a tutorial that teaches then pen tool effectively thank you so much.

  68. Sandra says:

    Thanks for the tut. However, I am not getting the tric :-(
    When I select the pentool and the paths to start working the outline of the body I think I do exactly as you describe. But when I have made the anchor point on top of the head and click and hold on the start of the arm I get this (double) line with two anchor points on the ends. When I pull down the anchor point on the start of the arm the line is not following the curve of the head but it makes some sort of triangle. I tried different times but can’t seem to get the shape of the curve. Can you tell my what I am doing wrong? Thanks in advance!! Kind regards, Sandra

  69. jay says:

    this is really asowem

  70. roblesrt says:

    thanks nice tut…bookmarked!

  71. M8eld says:

    Wow, this is so awesome!
    Thanks, I’ve never understood how the Pen tool worked. Now I finally understand. THANKS!!!

    There are some points @ my Penguin wich I have to make a bit better. But it is the best I’ve ever used the pentool.

    M8eld (13 years)

  72. *claps nice work, bookmarked!

  73. Wow, I’ve always found trying to use the pen tool a bit tricky mainly because I had no idea what I was doing! This has cleared everything up!

  74. geet says:

    really its very nice tut…. thanx

  75. Great tutorial.

    Pen Tool gives always a lot of problems to a lot of users and this tutorial solves alot of them. :)

  76. Laser says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! Finally a tutorial that even I can understand. LOL I am now so excited to be able to use the pen tool.

    Thanks again from this over 70 year old PS user.

  77. Chris says:

    Great tutorial! My most under-utilized tool in Photoshop is probably the pen tool.

  78. hostingweb says:

    Its a great tutorial for beginners.Even to me that i am an illustrator guy.

  79. Edvins says:

    Great pen tool tutorial! I have struggled to grasp the tools use in the “other” tutorials out there, but yours made it crystal clear!!!
    Thanks

  80. xBris says:

    Why do you use the awesomeness of paths but only create a bitmap with it? Why not go all the way with forms? It kind of seems half-baked :( Other than that, the tutorial is very well written!

  81. Jasmine says:

    Ugh, yes, I finally know how to use the simplest, yet probably most important tool in photoshop.
    Thank you so much!

  82. niv says:

    Great.No shaking head.look like one on one tutorial.

  83. Kanika says:

    Great Tutorial ! Enjoyed learning !
    Thanks !

  84. Carly says:

    Thanks to you, I now know how to use the photoshop pen tool, when I struggling so much! Many many thanks!!!!

  85. Sa?acki says:

    This is awesome! Realy, it’s good tutorial, thank you. :D

  86. Gorgar says:

    Yay!!! Now i also know how to use the pen tool. Thanks so much!!

  87. Keith says:

    Thnaks again for this tutorial, now I will use the pen tool alot more

  88. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t know what I’m doing wrong! When I drag the line down to the arm, it doesn’t curve

    • Tom says:

      Hi Elizabeth, as you clicking just once, or are you clicking (creating an initial anchor point), releasing, and then clicking to create a second anchor point?

  89. Daniel says:

    Nice tutorial. I’m somewhat comfortable with pen tool now. Thanks!

  90. alexander says:

    thank you a lot for so efficientand simplw tuturial!

  91. Niko says:

    Thanks for this tutorial! Was really helpful in learning the pen tool for me.

  92. mike davis says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! :)

  93. Chan says:

    Purely awesome.

  94. Young Doc says:

    I just don’t know how to “thank u” man,,cuz only sayin it isn’t really enough lol,,,keep it up

  95. Siva Prakash S says:

    Great one this is my first lesson in PS.

  96. Mina Irani says:

    thanks a lot

  97. Dean Jumao-as says:

    Thanks !! :) )

  98. Anna says:

    Thank you!)) You don’t know, but your site is rather popular in Ukraine)

  99. wanhu says:

    What other tutorials forgot to include is that “alt” thing. Thanks.

  100. Louisa says:

    You ought to take part in a contest for one of the highest quality websites
    online. I will recommend this website!

  101. Paul J says:

    I’m a PS newbie and have played with the Pen Tool (as a part of a class I’m taking). What I find maddening is that changing the vector lines doesn’t just change that vector, it changes the one that precedes it. What am I missing?

  102. LittleMiss V says:

    Thank you sooo much! it helped me alot!
    I saw this when I was twelve (I’m 14)
    and it got all messed up but if you read it carefully,
    it will turn out to be very helpful!
    I was very impressed :)

  103. Keenan says:

    Thanks Man, It helped me SO MUCH!!!, I wanna be the very best, like no ones ever been!!!! know i am The master Bro THANKS!!!!

  104. ADONIS says:

    as an amateur it helps me a lot Thank you!

  105. Matt says:

    Worked with this today in my Comp. Graphics I class. Really solid tutorial, helped a lot and really simplified it :)

  106. Elder Henrique Souza says:

    Nice tutorial, I always struggled with the pen tool, but thanks to you, not anymore! Thanks!

  107. Amarili Galvez says:

    Hi, Tut,
    Thanks for the tutorial but I get stuck in the same point each time. I get thru the black Body, then when I outline the stomach and fill it…then open the eye on the Body again, I don’t have JUST the white u-shaped stomach on the screen, it is still the whole body and of course the overlap on the black just looks like the original, nothing different. I tried moving the up/down order of the layers, but still the same thing, i.e., Nada. Was the rest of the body supposed to disappear? The only way I can get it to disappear is by creating a Vector Mask on the right-click before filling with foreground (which you don’t include in the instructions; I read somewhere in these posts). I understand the V Mask is to “save” the path for easy reference if needed, but I must be doing something wrong if I am not making the rest of the image disappear except for the U-shape stomach when I follow your instructions. Please help. I am a self-taught newbie. The tutorial in general is very good! Thanks in advance for your help.

  108. kathrine says:

    Wow- i have never understood the pen tool at all, had no idea ctrl and alt keys can be used to adjust points etc. After reading and following this i was able to trace the penguin perfectly-Thankyou!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  109. Brad White says:

    Thank you so much for this !

  110. Emma S. says:

    Great tutorial! This was just what I needed.

  111. Shah says:

    Nice tutotial!! Thanks so much! Now I know how to pen tool properly!

  112. amal says:

    Thank you for making it easy :) :)
    thats superb tutorial :)

  113. Efe says:

    Haha :D that was so cool! thanks to you, I’ve learned how to use this thing!

  114. Zach says:

    I can’t believe I have avoided the pen tool for 15 years. I now realize its power AND can use it… thanks to you. Great job.

  115. Zak says:

    Hi there,

    Thank you so much for this great tutorial. Quick question: Sometimes, I hold Ctl (Cmd on Mac) and click on the end of a guideline, and it will ONLY move/adjust that guideline. At other times, however, it will move both guidelines on either side of the anchor point. Any idea what accounts for this difference?

    Thanks again!

    Zak

  116. Wyclef says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial and detailed explanations. Really helped me master the pen tool.

  117. Yosan says:

    Thanks very much! I had done it. :)

  118. andhyka says:

    million thanks Simon,

    finally after struggling using pen tool for years, this is the best tutorial, i will practive for more pictures. . .

    cheers

  119. Tanvir says:

    Thanks for your effort. Carry on and let us learn.

  120. OMG, I love you forever! This is the most clear and well explain pen tutorial!

  121. priyank says:

    luv u dear .thanks a lot

  122. priya says:

    OMG… thank you

  123. Vikas says:

    Thank you! Been struggling for years to get it right :)

  124. jiimms says:

    Thanks a ton for this awesome tutorial…practiced it and now I can see a ray of light after feeling quite ‘penned’ in for the last couple of days…. :)

  125. Abim says:

    Thanks a lot. It’s 2014 already, but your article still rocks!

  126. Alida says:

    Thank you so much. Only yesterday I was lamenting that I did not know how to use this tool properly. Great tutorial!

  127. Mark says:

    T_T at long last.a tut that i really understands..ty for this tut tom..im now becoming to master the pen tool by now ^_^

  128. DebJ says:

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful tutorial…You just made my life easier. :D

  129. Alex Roy says:

    Superb tutorial. Very well written. I finally got a hang of the pen tool!

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