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Using Photoshop pen tool tutorial, and an introduction to Bézier curves

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Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures

“Using Photoshop pen tool tutorial, and an introduction to Bézier curves” is part of my Photoshop book “Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures”, which is more revised and covers more concepts than the online tutorials, feel free to check out the book by visiting my Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures Book Page.

Photoshop pen tool is a very useful tools in Photoshop. I personally can’t imagine using the program without it. The pen tool is so common that you can find it on tons of graphics software. Like Adobe Illustrator.
Photoshop pen tool is used to draws what is called Bézier Curves. which are named after their founder, the French Engineer Pierre Bézier. So the name Bézier has nothing to do with what the curves are. These bézier curves can be used in many ways. Like turned into selection, filled with pixels and so on. We will take a look at each of those functionality in details.

A Word From The Heart:- Please take your time to learn Photoshop pen tool. And don’t skip this tutorial. Photoshop beginners tend to ignore this tool for the longest time possible. Which is quite a loss for them. Giving the amount of things this tool allows you to do.

Advantages of Photoshop pen tool over the other tools

  • Gives you lot of control over the lines you draw once you get used to the tool.
  • The curves you draw using the pen tools are vector graphics. Vector graphics is a term that refers to a kind of lines and shapes the computer draw using mathematical equations instead of laying down pixels beside each other(which is called raster graphics. Which is the kind of picture we mostly work on in Photoshop). The advantage of vector graphics is that no matter how much you resize them, they retain their quality. That is because the computer draw them from scratch when it is needed (again, using mathematical equations).
A comparison between vector graphics & raster graphics. The picture used in this example originally game from Wikiepdia
  • The ability to make complex selections:- Specially in the situations where the other selections tools fail or can hardly make the selection.

An easy start, drawing straight lines

  • Drawing straight lines with the pen tool is easy. All you have to do is to select the pen tool Pen-Tool. Click once on the canvas (where you want your line to start), then click again where you want it to end. And Photoshop will draw the line for you.
  • After that, each time you click on the canvas with the pen tool, you create a new anchor point (the name for the square points that you create when you click on the canvas). And a new line will be drawn starting from the last anchor point you inserted.StraightLines

Drawing curves. How the pen tool works

Before I show you how to create curves using the pen tool. It is better to look on how Bézier curves work. Don’t worry much about how to create these curves in Photoshop for now. This will be covered shortly. Just focus on understanding the concepts of them for now.
Note:- The lines you draw using the Pen tool are called Paths, I used the term “Curves” just to simplify the explanation. So when I say curve or Path. I mean
the same thing.
When you draw using the pen tool. You simply draw the tangents of the curve you are creating. Instead of drawing the curve itself. And Photoshop will draw the curves for you interactively for you
These tangents. Which you control using the handles (small lines that comes out of the lines you are drawing), Are what determine how the curve looks like (The best way to understand them is to get to Photoshop and start drawing with them once you are done with the tutorial).
  • Let’s take a look at the following straight line, which is straight because there are no handles coming out from the  anchor points. The curves goes from the first point to the second one
  • Now after I moved the handle a little that comes out from the point at the bottom (I forced it to come out of the point, more on how to do that soon) The straight line has turned into a curve, notice how the line seems to get attracted to the handle and following it. So by moving that handle, you control how the curve looks like. The good thing is, you come come back at anytime and modify the points and their handles, so no need to worry about making mistakes while creating the curves.
StraightLines Turned Into Curve
Note:- Anchor Points that has no handles are called corner points, and the ones that has them are called curve points.
  • To illustrate how the curve seem to follow the handle of the curve, I made an extreme move using the handle, which made the curve arcs sharply.
StraightLines Turned Into Curve-3
Notice how there is only one handle coming out of the point. It doesn’t really matter if the second handle exists or not. Because in this example, the second handle is useless at this point. Because it controls a line that doesn’t exist(it is supposed to control the line on the other side side of the point, as we will see shortly) In the next example. You will see how important the second handle is.
  • Moving to another example with three point instead of two, as it may seems obvious now. Having simple points with no handles coming out of it produces a straight line
  • After creating the handles that comes out of the anchor point, the straight line became a curve from both sides of the point. this is why the second handle point is important, it controls the line on the other side of the anchor point, which did not exist in the first example.
  • Again, I will sharply twist the curve to show you how the curve follows the handles of the anchor point:-
  • And of course, the two handles don’t have to be on the same line, this is just the default way the handles are when they are first created in Photoshop.
  • Here are few examples where the handles are not in the same line, which create curves that form a pointy edge where the two handles meet. That is because for the curves to follow the handles, they has to meet in such way:-
Notice how in third examples the second handle doesn’t exists (I placed it inside the anchor point), making the line it controls straight again.
Once you understand these concepts. You will be able to draw all the kind of shapes using Photoshop pen tools. Which is useful in an innumerable ways. Like making selections. Drawing shapes or creating creative brushes & patterns. Here are some of the shapes you could create using the pen tool:-
Various shapes that has been created using Photoshop pen tool
Various shapes that has been created using Photoshop pen tool
Pretty neat, huh? Even if you don’t know how to draw. You could still draw things with that tool. Since Photoshop will do most the work for you, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a drawing course if you are into drawing. Practicing how to draw shapes like that is important to get used to the tool. If you spent some time working with the tool. It will become intuitive to you, and it will become one of the main tools you use in your photo editing.

A Word From The Heart:- If you still feel confused about what you learned so far, don’t worry about this. It is normal to feel that way the first way you learn these concepts, but you will get used to them after some time. Many of these concepts will be repeated in the next few paragraph to ensure you end up with a good understanding of them.

Using Photoshop pen tool In Practice

Now I hope you have a good understanding on how Photoshop pen tool work. We will delve into how to use it in Photoshop, we will start with straight lines. And then how to create curves. And while we are at it, I will show you some useful shortcut that will make it faster to work with the pen tool

Drawing straight lines with Photoshop Pen tool

  • We first pick the pen tool Pen-Tool, which is located in the tools panel.
  • Then we click to create the first anchor point,
  • Then we click again somewhere in the canvas to create the second anchor point. Once you create the second point. Photoshop will draw a line between these two points.
  • You can keep clicking until you are done creating the shape we want to
  • If you want, you can create a closed shape be clicking on the first point you created when you started drawing the shape. A little circle º will appear besides the cursor once you hover the mouse over it. Here is the shape after I closed it:-

Getting to draw carves

Drawing curves with the pen tool Pen-Tool is similar to drawing straight lines. But because this is the most confusing part about the tool, I will explain it in more than a way.

Drawing Simple Arc With Photoshop Pen Tool 1

  • Select the Pen tool Pen-Tool
  • Click on the canvas to create the first anchor point, just like you did when you created the straight lines in the last tutorial
  • Now click on the canvas to create the second point anchor point. But this time, instead of releasing the mouse button. Keep holding mouse and drag it in any direction. The two handles will emerge out of the anchor points as you do that. And the straight line will turn into a curve. Adjust  the handles however you want then release the mouse button

Drawing Simple Arc With Photoshop Pen Tool 2

These steps are similar to the previous one, but instead of creating handles out of the second anchor point, we will do that from the first one
  • Select the Pen tool Pen-Tool
  • Click on the canvas to create the first anchor point, but instead of releasing the mouse button, keep holding it and drag it somewhere, the handles will come out of the newly created anchor point. But since you only created one anchor point so far. Nothing will appear on the screen, but that will change right now
  • Click somewhere on the canvas to create the second anchor point. And Photoshop will create a curve that goes from the first anchor point to the other. Depending on how you dragged the handles in the first step

Drawing Simple Arc With Photoshop Pen Tool 3

I admit that you may have gotten bored by now. But it is important to emphasise on these steps in different ways. Because if you understood them well, you can manage anything else in this tutorial.
  • Select the Pen tool from the tools panel Pen-Tool
  • Click on the canvas to create the first anchor point. But instead of releasing the mouse button. Keep holding it and drag it somewhere. The handles will come out of the newly creating anchor point
  • Click on the canvas to create the second point anchor point. and again. instead of releasing the mouse button. Keep holding it and drag it in any direction. The two handles will emerge out of the anchor points as you do that. and the curved will be emphasised. Adjust the second pair of handles then release the mouse button
  • A new curve will be drawn that is controlled by both the handles of the two anchor points you created.

Drawing various curves using 3 lines

Now you are familiar with drawing an arc using two anchor points. It is time to move to drawing a curve using 3 anchor points. And while we are at it. I will show you a few tips on how to control the handles of the curve to achieve very nice results. Drawing using 3 or more anchor point is the same thing. So once you understand these steps. Everything else will be easy.
Since you are now aware that you can create a handle from any point you draw, I will stop emphasising on that from now on~ :)
Candy Tip:- If you made a mistake while you are drawing your anchor point, simply choose Edit > Step Backward and Photoshop will undo the last step you made (this is applicable to anything you do in Photoshop, not just drawing paths).

Creating a simple curve

  • Select the Pen tool from the tools panel Pen-Tool
  • Click somewhere in the canvas to create the first anchor point
  • Click and drag the mouse button to create an anchor point with handles, adjust the handles however you want then release the mouse button.
  • Click somewhere in the canvas to create the 3rd anchor point.

Creating a broken curve

All the curves we have drawn so far are smooth ones, that’s because the two handles we learned to create are on the same line, like that:-
To create a broken curve. One that that has a corner at one of its anchor point, your handles should look similar to this:-
To create a curve like that, follow these steps:-
  • Select the Pen tool from the tools panel Pen-Tool
  • Click to create the first anchor point
  • Like you did when you created the curves. Click and hold the mouse button for the handles to appear. But after you adjust the handle. Don’t release the mouse button. But instead, hold the Alt/Option key along with it. This will cause one of the handles to freeze in its place, allowing you to control the other one.
  • Once you are done adjusting the second handle, release the mouse button.
  • You are now free to continue drawing the curve by adding more points to it. I added a third point to my curve after I was done with it.
  • Drawing curves like that is useful in more than a way, as it allows you to controls the curves you are drawing more efficiently. Just like how it allowed me to draw the following cat:- :3
Candy Tip:- The same way you hold the Alt / Option button to draw broken curves just now. Holding the shift button will allow you to draw anchor points that are of the multiple 45 degree from each other, like this:-

A Little Summary Before We Continue

  • Anchor points without handles create straight line. So  if there is no handles, no curves.
  • You can create a curve by creating handle out of any of the anchor points you are inserting.
  • Anchor points without handles are called corner points, the ones with handles are called curve points.
  • Handles can be on the same line. Which create smooth curves. Or they can be on a different line, making the curve appear abrupt or even broken.

Editing the path after you created it

With the concepts I explained so far. You can draw any curve you want with Photoshop pen tool after some training. But that doesn’t mean there are not easier ways to achieve the same things. Being able to modify your curve after you already drawn it means that you won’t have to worry about getting it right the first time you draw it. This is done using the path selections tools and the pen tools groups

The path selection tools group


This groups consists of two tools, the Path Selection Tool Path-Selection-Tool. And the the direct selection tool Direct-Selection-Tool. These two tools may seem similar at first. But they are completely different actually.

The path selection tool Path-Selection-Tool

The path selection tool allows you to do one thing. It allows you to select a curve and move it wherever you want. All you have to do is to select she path selection tool. And select and drag the path you want with your mouse.
The Path Selection Tool is very useful when you have a path that has more than one curve. Where you could select each of them independently.
Moving a path with your mouse using the direct selection tool

Candy Tip:- Holding the Alt / Option button before and while you move the path allows you to create a copy of it instead of moving the original thing

The Direct Selection Tool Direct-Selection-Tool

The Direct Selection Tool is much more interesting than the “boring” Path Selection Tool. It allows you to select and move the anchor points of the path. Here is how I edited the simple polygonal path of the previous example:-
If the anchor point you selected with the tool has handles, simply clicking on it with the direct selection tool will make the handles appear again, allowing you to edit them again:-
Unfortunately, I don’t know any way to make the corner point (a point that has no handles) turn into a curve point (one that has handles) and vice versa using only the direct selection tool. But that can happen using other tools, like the Convert Point Tool Counvert-Point-Tool, which I will explain in the next section.

The Pen Tools Groups


Add Anchor Point Tool Add-Anchor-Point-Tool

As the name suggests. This tools allows you to add new anchor points to your path with one click. All you have to do is to select the tool And hover the mouse on the part of the cursor where you want to add your point, once you do that. The cursor will have a little “+” sign besides of it. And a new anchor point will be added to the path once you make your click

Delete Anchor Point Tool Delete-Anchor-Paint-Tool

Completely the apposite to the Add Anchor Point Tool, the Delete Anchor Point Tool delete a point on the path that is already there, all you have to do is to hover your mouse on the point you want to delete, and the cursor will have a “-” sign besides of it. Once you click on the point, the anchor point will be gone.
Adding-Anchor-Point copy

The Convert Point Tool Counvert-Point-Tool

The convert point tool is- in my opinion- is the most useful tool among the ones in this group, it gives you the ability to convert corner points to curve points and vice versa. And to move each of the handles of the anchor points separately.
Let’s take a look at the following path, which has both corner and curve points. Clicking on the curve point at the right causing the handles to disappear. Thus turning it into a corner point
Convert Point Tool-1
And clicking and dragging the corner point at the left with the Convert Point Tool causes the handles to appear in the corner point
Convert Point Tool-2
And this nice tool allows you to move each of the handles separately, which is so convenient:-
Convert Point Tool-3png

Freedom pen tool Freedom-Pen-Tool

Because this tool has nothing to do with modifying curves, I made it the last one to be explained on purpose. the Freedom Pen tool works like the Lasso selection tool. It allows you to freely draw the path you want instead of inserting points and adjusting their handles. This is very useful if you have a graphics tablet and wanted to create a complex shapes quickly. And of course, you could edit the resulting path the same ways we explained above.
It took me only seconds to draw the following “R” using the Freedom Pen Tool:-

More on Photoshop pen tool and paths

And as always, the lesson is officially done. But more are explained in a dedicated part of it. If you don’t feel like reading this part right now, you can skip to the examples section by clicking here.

Turning a pen curve into selection

As mentioned in the selections tutorial, the Pen tool is considered one of the selection tool. And it is one of the most powerful one among them. Any path you create can turn into a selection with only one click.
  • First create the path you want to turn into selection, I have made the following house-like shape for demonstration purpose:-
  • If you can’t see the Paths Panel, choose Window > Paths from the main menu. The paths Panel appears.
  • Hover your mouse over the path you want to turn into a selection, then hold the Control button (Command if you are using a Mac), the cursor will have a little square Selection-Square besides of it.
  • While you are holding Control / Command, click on the path icon in the paths panel. And the path will become a selection right away.
  • Feel free to use that selection however you want, I filled the selection to create a house shape:-
Candy Tip:- Pressing Control + Enter (Command + Enter) on your keyboard is a faster way to turn the current path into a selection ;)

Filling a path with pixels right away

Instead of turning the path into a selection then filling it like I just did. You could fill the path right away. And with only one click. To do that, follow these steps:-
  • Right Click on the path you want to turn into a selection, and then choose “Fill Path” From the Context Menu
  • The Fill Path dialog appears.
  • Photoshop allows you many options of how to fill the path, some of these options are explained in the Infographic below. And some of them will be explained at a later lesson, but for now, let’s focus on filling the path with a simple colour.
Click on he picture to view it in full size
Fill-Path copy
  • After you choose the colour you want to fill the path with. Click the ok button. And Photoshop will the path for you with the colour you chose.

Stroking the path

Stroking the path means making it looks like you have drawn the path using the brush tool or any other tool. If the path stayed in vector state(not filled with pixels). There won’t be much use for it.
  • Right Click on the path you want to turn into a selection, and then choose “Stroke Path” From the Context Menu (If the path has more than one part, you will find “Stroke Subpath” options indeed of stroke path).
  • The Stroke Path dialog appears
  • The stroke path dialog allows you to select many tools to stroke the path with. The settings of the tool you select depends on where you left the sittings the last time you used it. For example, if the last time you used the brush tool you had a soft brush, the path will be stroked with that soft brush, so adjusting the tool you want to use before you use it to stroke the path.
  • Once you select the tool to stroke the path with, click on OK on the dialog, and the path will be stroked. Here is the house shape after stroked with two kind of brushes:-
  • Stroking paths is a common way to make precise drawings in Photoshop, though if you want to do that extensively, I highly recommend you to use a dedicated vector graphics software, like Adobe Illustrator.



Candy Tip:- Pressing Enter on your keyboard will stroke the selected path with the the selected tool in the tools panel, for example, if you pressed enter while you have the brush tool selected, the selected path will be stroked with the brush tool.


Creating more than one path in a single Photoshop document

You can have more than one path in your Photoshop document, which you can manage through the Paths Panel (Choose Window -> Paths to view it). Having more than one path is a bit unintuitive for new users. But it is not hard at all.
  • Draw a path like we always did so far, I drew a random shape right here. And as you can see, the path will appear in the Paths panel.
More than one path
  • Now, double-click on the path in the paths panel.
More than one path-11
  • The “Save Path” dialog appears. allowing you to pick a name for the path. I will keep the default name. Press OK after you are done naming the path.
More than one path-2
  • Make sure the path is unselected in the paths panel when the path is unselected. It is unselected when the name of the path won’t be highlighted, And the path won’t be visible in the canvas, like this:-
More than one path-3
Note:- If you forget to deselect the Path, anything you draw next with the Pen Tool will be added to the path. Instead of being added to a newly created path. I will explain adding a new parts to a path in the next section of the tutorial.
  • Now choose the Pen Tool and draw another path, the new path will appear in the Path panel. If you want to keep that path to use later, you will have to save it as well by double clicking on it.
More than one path-4
  • You can switch between the paths you have by clicking on the path you want to work on from the Paths Panel.
More than one path-5

Creating a path with more than one part / curve

Paths can have more than one part, the house shape we have been working on so far can look more like a house if it had a door or maybe a window. So in this exercise, we will draw the house from scratch, and then add a door to it.
Each part of the house, the door and the house itself, can be selected and moved using the Path Selection Tool Path-Selection-Tool
  • First, draw the path of the house itself. Just like we previously learned before. Holding shift while adding the point makes it very easy to create straight and 45º angles lines. selecting the Direct Selection Tool and clicking anywhere in the document.
  • Deselect the path by switching to the Direct Selection Tool and clicking anywhere in the document.
  • Select the pen tool again 
  • Draw the door part where you want to with the Pen tool.
  • You can keep repeating the steps of deselecting the path then drawing another part of the house as much as you like. I added two more parts to the house the same way here:-
Candy Tip:- You can switch to the direct selection tool quickly by holding the control button (command in Mac), while you are using the Pen Tool.

Candy Tip:- You can continue adding points to a path you already deselected by clicking on the last point you inserted with the pen tool (the pen tool will have a little shape besides of it when you do that). and then continue draw like nothing happened.

Note:- The path you are working on has to be selected in the path panels all the time during these steps. This is especially the case if you have more than one path in your Photoshop document

Learn Photoshop Pen tool with the Bézier Game

A game I found a while ago through Twitter, it interactively teaches you how to use the tool to draw various shapes. It is a great way to apply many of the things you learned here. The game may sound hard after a few stages. But the more you play it the easier the game will become. I talked more in details about the game in a previous post.
To play the Bézier Game, click here~


Making a hard selection
The pen tool is a very capable selection tool. Specially in the situations where the Want Tool and the Magnetic Lasso Tool fail miserably. In the following picture, the picture is all black and white. The man at the middle is also wearing a black suit. While sitting among men who are also wearing black suits. All the selection tools we learned about so far will fail miserably to select the man, but the pen tool can easily select it.
Though the lack of details can make the selection process hard, refining the selection after making it can mitigate the problem.
Creating a signature
The Freedom Pen Tool is a good way to make a signature in Photoshop, giving how you can easily edit the lines in case you messed things up. I will consider creating a signature with it to end all my posts with it^^
Creating Complex Drawings
To be honest, this line art has been created in Adobe Illustrator. Which has a much better Vector Graphics capabilities, but I found it a very good way to show you how vector graphics can create many things.
Lolita artwork that has been created using Photoshop pen tool. But can be created using Photoshop pen tool as well. Though that can be harder
Lolita artwork that has been created using Photoshop pen tool. But can be created using Photoshop pen tool as well. Though that can be harder

Would you like to learn Photoshop?

Check my Photoshop book Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures which contains a full course on how to use Photoshop in the simplest way possible.

See Also

I am an anime artist, and huge fan of digital art. I love drawing with pencils too. But I rarely do that anymore nowadays. Since some aspects of digital art can be tricky, I try my best to explain the concepts as easily as possible.

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