How to Use the Photoshop Pen Tool: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners
If you’re learning how to use Photoshop and still getting familiar with its many tools, the pen tool is a great place to start because it only requires you to click and drag, and you can easily create impressive effects with your images.
The pen tool in Photoshop is a highly versatile feature used to create your very own vector shapes and make custom selections. With Photoshop’s pen tool, you can create silhouettes by outlining objects, cut portions of an image out of the background, and combine lines and curves to make easily scalable images.
If you want to pursue a career as a graphic designer, being comfortable with the pen tool in Photoshop is a must. A professional graphic designer may rely on the pen tool to help them single out part of an image and remove it from its background, to give it a transparent background, or to place it on a new image.
Last Updated May 2021
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It’s not just graphic designers who can leverage the pen tool—photographers, artists, marketers, social media professionals, and other content creators can use the pen tool to build high-quality images and combine different parts of images for interesting effects.
The pen tool is an extremely useful feature to learn because it’s not exclusive to Photoshop itself—many other graphic editing programs have a variation of the pen tool. If you know how to use this tool in Photoshop, it’ll be easier to learn similar pen tools in other graphic design software programs.
This tutorial will start with an explanation of vector graphics and raster graphics as a foundation for understanding how the pen tool works. Then, we will dive into learning:
- How to draw straight lines and curves to create shapes
- How to add, remove, and modify the anchor points and path segments of a selection
- How to make a selection by drawing paths in an image
- How to cut a portion of an image out from the background
- How to use the Convert Point tool to change a straight line to a curve, and vice versa
Understanding 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-based graphics rely on arrays of colored pixels to compose an image, vector-based graphics rely on mathematical points and paths (lines) to form an image.
One of the most significant differences between the two is that you can scale vector graphics to any size without losing image quality. This is because a vector file stores the geometric factors used to map out the image—lines, curves, etc.—rather than the individual pixels.
Graphic designers often work with both raster and vector graphics between photographs, digital artwork, illustrations, and other types of images. Photoshop can store layers as Smart Objects, which can contain both raster-based and vector-based image data, allowing a graphic designer to edit the layer’s elements without destroying the raster or vector characteristics.
How to draw paths to create a shape with the Photoshop pen tool
The first thing to master if you’re new to using the pen tool is drawing and closing paths to create a unique shape. The pen tool in Photoshop makes it easy to simply click and drag to create paths of straight or curved lines.
What is a path?
A path in Photoshop is the line that connects two points. When you’re using Photoshop, even though you 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?
Let’s go through the step-by-step process to create a shape by plotting points that will be connected by paths.
Step 1: Open a new Photoshop file
To start, create a new Photoshop file, name it, and set it to any size you feel comfortable working in. We’re just going to be experimenting in this tutorial, so you can work with any file size.
Step 2: Select the pen tool in Photoshop
Next, select the pen tool in the toolbar on the left, represented by the fountain pen icon. You’ll find it in the same section as the path selection tool, horizontal type tool, and the polygon tool. You can also simply press P to bring up the pen tool immediately.
Step 3: Set up shape layers
In your Photoshop file, create a new layer to work in. Go to the pen tool icon at the top of your window, and select the drop-down menu to the right of the icon. You will see three options: shape, path, and pixels.
Select the “shape” option since we’re going to start this tutorial by drawing shapes. Choose a fill color for your shape.
This next part is optional: If you’d like to work in a grid to make plotting points more precise, press Ctrl+’ (the apostrophe key), and enable snap by pressing Shift+Ctrl+; (the semicolon key). Or, simply go to View in the menu at the top, and select “Snap.”
Step 4: Plot points to create a shape
By clicking around on your blank page with the pen tool, you can start plotting points on your grid to create your shape. To plot a point, you don’t need to click and drag, but simply click and release your mouse. You’ll notice that the tool will automatically create straight paths between the points that you plot.
Think of this as a game of connect-the-dots. You can start to visualize how your image consists of various points, with a straight line connecting each point. As you plot these points, the pen tool will automatically begin filling the image in with the fill color that you chose.
In the example below, you can see the makings of a very oddly proportioned gold star. Don’t worry about whether your shape is symmetrical or polished. This is just an experiment.
Creating a curve with the pen tool
Not all paths have to be straight lines—they can be curved as well.
Try plotting a new point, and then click and drag your cursor, rather than releasing your click. You’ll notice something interesting: that point will become an anchor for a curved line.
You can manipulate this curve as long as you hold down the left click button after placing the point.
You can use this technique to create a curve and make organic shapes, rather than rigid shapes composed only of straight lines (like our star example).
Creating a straight line after a curved segment
What if you want to create a curve in one spot, but you don’t want the next portion of your path to curve? The Photoshop pen tool allows you to interrupt a curved line, so you can add a straight line as the next segment of the path.
To do this, hold ALT (or OPTION on a Mac) and click on the point. The second handle of that point will disappear—this means the point is now cornered, or interrupted from curving. The next point you set now will be a straight line.
Step 5: Close the path to complete the shape
Once you’re ready to connect the final dot and complete your shape, simply click the very first point you started with. This will close the path you’ve created, or the set of lines stemming from your first point and wrapping back around to the same point.
When you hover over the initial point for your shape, the pen tool endpoints will appear with filled in blue squares will appear with a small circle next to it.
How to add a new point to a path
Once you have an existing path drawn, the pen tool in Photoshop also allows you to add a new point sitting along that path. A graphic designer may want to add a new point to a path for many different reasons. It may allow you to create a curved line coming off of a straight line, or vice versa. You may decide to expand your shape in a certain direction. Or, you may be looking for more control over the path segments that outline the shape.
Adding a new point onto an existing path in Photoshop is very easy—it only takes two steps!
Step 1: Open the Add Anchor tool
Click and hold on the Pen Tool icon in the toolbar to access options for pen tools. Select the “Add Anchor” tool. An “anchor,” in this case, is simply another word for a point along your drawn path. Photoshop considers these points to be anchors because they act as anchors for each line segment that makes up the entire path.
Step 2: Click along the existing path to create a new point
Find the place on your path where you’d like a new anchor point, and simply click and release. This will automatically place a new point in that spot. Success! You’ve added a point.
Once you’ve set a new point, you can always modify it by using the Direct Selection tools in Photoshop, as described below.
How to remove a point from a path
Removing an existing anchor point from a path is just as easy as adding one. Follow the steps below to delete an anchor point.
Step 1: Open the Delete Anchor tool
As we did in the tutorial above, we’ll start by clicking and holding the Pen Tool icon in the toolbar to bring up Photoshop’s pen tools. This time, select the “Delete Anchor” tool. This tool works just like the Add Anchor tool in reverse.
Step 2: Click on the point you want to delete
Simply click and release on the anchor point that you want to remove, and it will disappear. Now, the path segment will be connected by the two nearest anchor points that had surrounded the deleted point. This will impact the path segment’s curvature to match the path between its new anchor points.
Success! You have removed an existing anchor point.
How to cut an image out using the pen tool
You can also use the Photoshop pen tool to create a selection, and then edit it or transfer it from the original image onto a new layer. 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.
Step 1: Select the path option in the pen tool menu
Go to the pen tool menu at the top left of your window, and select the “path” option.
We’re going to draw a path in the image this time, not create a new 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.
Step 2: Start mapping points
This step uses the same technique we learned in the tutorial above when we created a shape. Simply map points around the image you want to select by clicking with your pen tool, 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 3: Load your path as a selection
The path we created in Step 2 doesn’t mean anything for what we want to do until we load it as a selection.
Do this by going to the Layers swatch and clicking the Paths tab—there should be a path called Work Path in the shape of the object you just traced.
Click the icon of the dotted line circle. You should see the part of your image that you outlined highlighted with a dotted line. This indicates that it’s selected and ready to be cropped. You have now created a selection.
Step 4: Crop your selection
You can crop your selection easily 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 will see your newly cut-out sign over a transparent background!
Now you can overlay your sign on new backgrounds by taking advantage of layers.
How to add a new path to an existing path
Imagine you have a photo of a donut on a cluttered table, and you want to crop out just the donut from the background image (removing the surrounding table) so that you can place the donut on a plain background color instead.
Using the steps above, you can easily draw a path around the outside shape of the donut. But what about the hole in the middle? When you create a selection with the steps above and crop it, you will get the donut and the part of the image showing through the hole.
To get just the donut itself, you’ll need a new path that outlines the inner circle—the donut hole—and removes that from your selection. Here’s how to add a new path to the path you’ve already created, to get more precise in the part of the image you want to select.
Step 1: Select the existing path in the Paths panel
While you have the Paths panel open, click on the path that you’d like to modify. This will highlight that path, making it active for you to work with.
Step 2: Select “Exclude Overlapping Shapes”
Select the Pen Tool in the toolbar, and choose the option that says “Exclude Overlapping Shapes.” This will let Photoshop know that you intend to remove the next path you draw from your current selection.
Step 3: Draw a new path
Just like we learned above, click around your image to create points and draw paths, outlining the area you want to exclude from your selection. Close the path by clicking on the initial point you started with. Photoshop will now exclude this new path from the selection.
How to modify points and curves on an existing path
Rather than adding or deleting, you may want to adjust an anchor point or a curve on your existing path, to change the shape of your selection slightly. For this, Photoshop provides Direct Selection tools, which allow you to select and modify individual points and curves along a path.
This is extremely useful for graphic designers who may need to select a precise silhouette of a subject in an image, crop out an unevenly shaped item in a photo, or adjust a shape to fit in the background space of an image.
Here’s how to use Photoshop’s direct selection tool to modify points and curves on a path that you’ve already created, so you can be more precise in the shape of your path.
Step 1: Select the Direct Selection tool
In your Photoshop toolbar, find the Path Selection tools—they are marked by an arrow icon that looks like a traditional mouse cursor.
When you click the icon, you will see two options dropdown: Path Selection Tool and Direct Selection Tool. For this tutorial, choose “Direct Selection Tool.”
Step 2: Click on a path segment that you want to modify
Click and release the portion of the path that you’d like to adjust. This will allow you to see all of the anchor points along that path segment, each one marked by a small white square.
Step 3: Click and drag to adjust points or lines
Now, simply click and drag the anchor point or the line segment in the direction you’d like to adjust it. With this tool, you may drag a curved line to create a deeper or shallower curve, drag a straight line to change its angle, or drag an anchor point that will adjust the path segments that connect to it. It’s that easy!
How to use the convert point tool in Photoshop
The Convert Point tool is one of the sets of pen tools that Photoshop offers. With the Convert Point tool, you can manipulate the handles of existing points in your image to convert straight lines into curves, or curves into straight lines.
Step 1: Select the Convert Point tool
To open the Convert Point tool, click and hold on the Pen Tool icon to bring up the various pen tools available. Select “Convert Point” from the list.
Step 2: Click on an existing anchor point to remove or add handles to it
If you click on an existing point with handles, the handles will disappear from the point. This has “cornered” the point, meaning this point will no longer impact the adjacent segments (whether they are curved or straight). Any surrounding anchor points with handles will still affect the curvature of the connecting path segments.
Similarly, you can select the Convert Point tool and click on an existing point that doesn’t have handles to add handles to that point. Now you’ll be able to use the Convert Point or Direct Selection tools to manipulate the point’s handles.
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