Tutorial 3: Photoshop’s Pen tools
(a.k.a. “clipping path tools, line tools, or Bézier curves)

One of the secrets of being a good digital artist lies in your ability to create good masks. The quality of your images is only as good as the quality of your masks. It is poor masking that often tells us an image has been manipulated digitally. There is no more precise way of creating masks in Photoshop than by using the Pen tools. Let’s take a look at the way they work.

It is only fair to mention right away that the Line tools in Photoshop will seem confusing at first. I promise that after you spend an afternoon using them, they will become second nature to you. Of all the graphics programs I use, Photoshop’s Pen tools are by far the best. The curves created by software pen tools, technically, are called Bézier curves (invented by Pierre Bézier, 1910 – 1999).

First make sure your version of Photoshop is set up to use the Pen tools the way we want them to. Since Photoshop 7, the default setting of the Pen tools will create vector art, the way Adobe Illustrator does. In order to create a clipping path, we have to change a setting in Photoshop’s option bar at the top of the screen. First choose the Line tool. Then press the Paths button at the options bar on the top of the monitor (Shape Layers is the default). Now we are ready to make a path. If you are currently in the Channels or Layers panels, switch over to the Paths panel.

Switch from Shape Layers (default) to Paths. Now we are ready to make a path.

Notice that clicking and holding the Pen tool icon reveals other tools used for creating and editing points in a path. Let’s start by creating a simple path of four points with the most basic Pen tool, the one at the top of the stack.

Pressing and holding the Pen icon reveals
all the Pen Tool's options.

Make four points like the ones you see below by clicking your canvas where you need a point. After you place the third point, you can close your path by clicking on the first point.

This is fine, but now we can’t see our points to move them around. Let’s fix that. Above the Pen tool there is an icon that looks like an arrow. Press and hold that icon, and you will see two tools that are used to edit a path.

Select the Direct Selection Tool. Now click and drag the Direct Selection Tool so you form a box around all four points. This will highlight the points so you can see them. You can move points around with this tool also. Any point that is selected will be moved, so selecting multiple points will move them simultaneously.

Dragging will select points and make them visible.
Selected points can be moved.

Now let’s make a path that has curves in it. Use the Pen tool to create a series of points, but this time drag the cursor as you create a point. This will create handles on the point. Use the Direct Selection Tool to highlight your points. You can move the handles around to create any shape you would ever need. Complicated paths can be drawn by using as many points as you need.

Dragging the cursor while creating a point will place handles on the point, making curves.
Try to make a curved path. I made Alfred Hitchcock. Moving the handles will edit the curve while the point stays in place.

Now let’s look at three more essential tools that edit points. The first two are easy. Click and hold the Pen Tool icon and select the Add Anchor Point Tool. Notice that the icon for this tool looks like a pen with a + next to it. Clicking anywhere on a path will add a point on the path. The Delete Anchor Point Tool will remove a point you click on.

The last of the Pen tools that I use is the Convert Point Tool. It will edit a point in one of three ways, but it does not create points. Use the tool and:

Click on a point: By clicking on a point in your path, the Convert Point Tool will remove the handles of a point that has handles.

Click and drag on a point: By clicking and dragging on an existing point, the Convert Point Tool will add handles to a point that doesn’t have them.

Click on a handle: Clicking on a point’s handle will let you move the two handles independently of each other.

The two sides of a handle can be moved independently
of each other with the Convert Point Tool.

Tip: The Pen tool I use the most often to edit an existing path is the Add Anchor Point tool. I like it because it lets me add points where I need them, and it also lets me move existing points already on a path. This saves me from constantly switching between the Direct Selection Tool and the Add Anchor Point Tool. The one tool will add a point or move one, which is how I spend most of my time editing paths.

Now that we have a path, there are a few things we can do with it. You can activate the path as a selection by clicking the “Load path as selection” button on the bottom of the Path panel. Once you do this, both the selection and the path are visible. This is irritating, and you will probably want to view the selection only. Click any empty area of the Paths panel to hide the paths. Now only the active selection is visible.

Clicking inside the Paths panel on an empty area will hide the paths. Now only the selection is visible. I'm ready to illustrate Hitch.

You can also have a brush follow a path by clicking the “Stroke path with brush” button at the bottom of the Path panel. This is useful for making long brush strokes that are difficult to do by hand.

David Phillips, June 2004.

Copyright © 2004, David Phillips. All rights reserved.
No part of this document may be reproduced without permission from the author.