The pen tool in Photoshop is an extremely versatile feature used to create your very own vector shapes, and even make custom selections. With Photoshop’s pen tool, you can map and combine a series of lines and curves to create easily scalable images, you can create silhouettes by outlining objects on an image layer, and more.
It’s an extremely useful feature to learn, because it’s not exclusive to Photoshop itself either – many other graphic editing programs have a variation of the pen tool, and if you learn how to use one, it’ll be much easier to learn them all.
Vector Graphics vs. Raster Graphics
Before we learn about how to use the pen tool, it’s important to understand the difference between vector graphics and raster graphics. While raster graphics rely on arrays of colored pixels to compose an image, vector graphics rely on mathematical points and paths to compose an image.
One of the most significant differences between the two is that vector graphics can be scaled to any size without losing image quality. This is because a vector file stores the geometrical primitives used to map out the image – lines, curves, etc. – rather than the individual pixels.
You can learn more with this course on the fundamentals of Adobe Illustrator CC, the leading application for drawing vector graphics.
Drawing a Shape
Before you even get started, first thing’s first. Create a new Photoshop file, name it whatever you want, and set it to any size you feel comfortable working in. We’re just going to be experimenting for now, so it doesn’t really mater.
Next, locate the pen tool. It should be in the toolbar on the left, in the same section as the path selection tool, horizontal type tool, and the polygon tool, represented by the fountain pen icon. Or, you can press P to bring it up immediately.
Once you’re ready, let’s get drawing!
Step 1 – Create a new layer, and set up shape layers
Select the drop-down menu to the right of the pen tool icon at the top of the window. There should be three options total: shape, path, and pixels. Select the shape option, since we’re going to start this tutorial out by drawing shapes, and choose a fill color for your shape. Also make sure you’re working in a new layer.
This next part is optional, but if you’d like to work in a grid to make plotting points more precise, press Ctrl+’ (that’s the apostrophe key), and enable snap by pressing Shift+Ctrl+; (the semi-colon key). Or, simply go to View > Snap using the menu at the top.
Step 2 – Plot points to create your shape
Next, start plotting points on your grid to create your shape. Think of it like a game of connect-the-dots. You can start to visualize how your image is made up of various points, with straight lines connecting each point. As you plot these points, the pen tool will automatically begin filling the image in.
In the example above, you can see the makings of a very oddly proportioned gold star. Don’t worry if your shape is perfect, this is just an experiment.
Once you’re ready to connect the final dot and complete your shape, just click the point you started out with. When you hover over the initial point for your shape, the pen tool cursor will appear with a small circle next to it, as in the example above.
Step 3 – Making curves with the pen tool
You’ll notice something interesting happen if you plot a point and drag your cursor, rather than releasing click. That point will become an anchor for a curved line, which you can manipulate as long as you hold down the left click button after placing the point. You can use this to create shapes with curves, rather than rigid shapes composed only of straight lines, like our star example.
Cut an Image Out Using the Pen Tool
The pen tool can also be used to map out a custom selection. This is useful if you want to cut out only part of an image, like the sign in the example above, and not the whole image.
Before you begin, make sure your image is on a new layer, and that you’ve selected the path option in the pen tool menu. We’re going to be mapping a path this time, not drawing a shape. If you leave the shape option selected, we’ll just be drawing a shape over our sign rather than preparing to cut it out.
You might be asking yourself what a path is in Photoshop. A path is basically the line that connects two points. In Photoshop, even though we can “draw” a path using the pen tool, the path is not actually an image itself. There are no pixels involved. Remember what we learned about vector graphics and raster graphics?
If this is still confusing, you can learn more about paths in this Photoshop Essentials course – particularly this lecture on understanding how paths and the pen tool work.
Step 1 – Start mapping points!
There are two major steps in this guide, and the first uses techniques we learned in the previous guide. Just map points around the image you want to select, as though you were drawing out its shape.
You can zoom in if you want to be more precise. This image in particular is fairly easy to trace, because it’s made up of straight lines. Don’t forget to close the shape by clicking its starting point!
Step 2 – Load your path as a selection
This path doesn’t mean anything for what we want to do until we load it as a selection. Do this by clicking the Paths tab in the Layers swatch – there should be a path called Work Path in the shape of the object you just traced – and clicking the icon of the dotted line circle, as seen on the left.
You should see the part of your image that you outlined with a path highlighted with the dotted line, showing that it’s selected and ready to be cropped. You can do this quickly by using the shortcut Ctrl+J, which copies and pastes the selection onto a new layer. If you set the two layers beneath it to invisible, by unchecking the eye icons in the Layers swatch, you can see your newly cut-out sign over a transparent background!
Now you can overlay your sign on new backgrounds by taking advantage of layers. Learn more about using layers in Photoshop with this tutorial!