Photoshop is primarily a pixel-manipulation tool. Nevertheless, it includes certain vector elements more commonly associated with programs such as Illustrator, saving them as paths that can be used in a number of helpful ways. One of the primary ways this is accomplished is by employing the pen tool.

This tool is one of the best ways to make complex selections involving lots of curves in Photoshop. However, if you’ve ever tried to use it without understanding how it works, you were likely pretty confused. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the pen really is, what it’s used for, and how to use it in Photoshop. Let’s jump in!

What Is the Pen Tool?

The most common use for the pen tool is to make selections of irregular shapes in Photoshop. Once selected, they can be cut out from backgrounds, placed in alternate images, and further manipulated. 

For those who don’t know how it works, making selections of irregular shapes is typically done in Photoshop with the lasso. However, the lasso can only make straight lines. While zooming into an image and carefully navigating curves with a series of short lines with the lasso can be sufficient, it’s not nearly as accurate as selections made with the pen.

What makes the pen tool different is that instead of selecting pixels, it draws lines known as paths based on mathematical formulae. It uses clean and controllable vectors that are perfect for precision cutouts and other similar things. 

Where Do I Find the Pen Tool?

Interestingly, despite all of this talk about using it to make selections, this tool is not with the other Photoshop selection tools on the palette. Instead, it’s grouping with Type Tool, Shape Tool, and selection arrows. 

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The reason for this is that it’s designed to create points and paths. A normal selection tool like the Lasso, Rectangular Marquee, and the Circular Marquee make selections based on the pixels in which the image is made. The pen tool creates paths based on vectors and, as such, is better grouped with Direct Selection (the black arrow) and the Path Selection (the white arrow) tools. 

Why Is It Called the “Pen” Tool?

One of the first things that anyone who tries to use the pen tool in Photoshop discovers immediately is that it’s not for writing, at least not in the traditional sense. Given that the Paintbrush and Pencil tools in Photoshop perform functions similar to their physical counterparts, no one can blame you for expecting this tool to act like a ballpoint pen.

If you were to try using this tool to write your name in Photoshop, you’d end up with a tangled mess. No matter how messy your signature might be, you’d be left with nonsensical loops, nothing like what you were trying to accomplish. So, why in the world is it called the pen tool?

The truth is, this particular tool has gone by several different names. Before it became known as the pen tool, it was the Bezier Pen or Bezier Tool, named after its creator, Pierre Bezier. It also goes by the Paths Tool, which is probably the most appropriate name for it.

Pierre Bezier was a French engineer who worked for the Renault automobile company. He played a significant role in the development of computer-aided geometric modeling. He applied mathematical principles to computer software to create three-dimensional modeling and design.

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Bezier took mathematical equations first developed by Paul de Casteljau in 1959 and created a notation consisting of nodes with attached control handles. These control handles are what are used to manipulate the curves that came to be called Bezier curves.

And thus, the pen tool was created. At first, it was used to design cars but was later adopted by image manipulation programs like Photoshop for all types of graphic design. 

So, why is it called the Pen Tool? Well, that’s the name Photoshop gave it because it draws paths. From there, those paths can be converted into a selection, but what the tool is really doing is drawing paths. 

How Does the Pen Tool Work?

As we’ve mentioned, Photoshop’s pen tool works by drawing paths. These paths can then be converted into a selection. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how paths work. 

What Is a Path?

At its most basic, a path is a line. It can be a straight line between two points or a curved one. Paths have nothing to do with pixels. They don’t care about the image beneath them or the millions of pixels that comprise it. 

In fact, it’s odd to see such a tool in a program like Photoshop, given that almost every other tool is devoted to pixel manipulation. However, being able to draw paths using vectors rather than pixels proves to be quite useful.

A path is a line between at least two points, but it can have as many as you’d like. If you create enough points to come around to the first point, you can create a shape using a path. In fact, that’s exactly what the elliptical and rectangular tools do. In both cases, paths are used to create the designated shape.

An excellent way to think about paths is as outlines. We can create a path in whatever shape we choose, but until we fill it with color, apply linework, or convert it into a selection, it’s just an outline. 

The path selection tool, also known as the black arrow, can be used to select a path. Alternatively, you can choose a single point or segment of a path using the direct selection tool or the white arrow. When making these selections, keep in mind that the path is actually the entire shape made up of individual points and line segments.

What Is a Vector?

As we’ve already mentioned, Photoshop is a pixel-manipulation program, while the pen tool creates paths made up of Bezier Curves determined by vectors. So, now that we’re familiar with paths and Bezier curves, what do vectors have to do with this Photoshop tool?

In mathematical terms, a vector describes direction and magnitude. For example, when a ball is thrown, it has a direction and magnitude (or speed) at which it is thrown. Using vectors, we can describe the path the ball takes from one point to another.

When creating digital images, there are two different file types: raster and vector. Raster images are composed of pixels, the tiny squares you see when you zoom in on an image. On the other hand, Vector files are created using mathematical formulas that establish points on a grid.

Vector files are more versatile in some situations, as their size can be adjusted without losing resolution. That said, they’re also large files and have their limitations. 

As for the use of vectors concerning the pen tool in Photoshop, they’re used to calculate the points and curvature of the line segments between each point. Using vectors, a path can be created with far more precision than a line drawn using pixels. 

How to Use Pen Tool in Photoshop

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Now that we know how the pen tool works in Photoshop, let’s get into how to use it. Most of us approach the pen tool with some preconceived notions about how it should work, and quickly discover it’s not what we think. 

Unfortunately, Photoshop’s pen tool is not natural or intuitive to use. While it helps to understand how it works before you use it, hence why we started this article with such things, it still takes some practice to use correctly. 

Unlike Photoshop’s pencil tool that draws on the page, the pen tool draws paths using points and handles. You start by adding points and then manipulating them to get the path you want. Then, when you’re done, hold down the Ctrl/Cmd key and click anywhere inside the document window to complete the process.

It should also be noted that there are two different modes for the pen tool. One will draw shapes as you go, while the other creates a path. When you first select the pen tool, you’ll see the two modes available in the Option Bar near the top of the screen.

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For the following examples, we want the second option. First, we’ll learn how to create paths, then how to convert them into selections.

Straight Line Paths

For starters, let’s use the pen tool to draw a straight line. Of course, if all you want is a straight line, it may be easier to use the pencil tool, but it’s an excellent place to start to learn how to use the pen tool.

Select the pen tool from the Photoshop toolbar. Then, choose the drawing options from the options bar. In this way, you can draw either a path, fill pixels, or Shape layer.

Click once to mark your first point. Then click somewhere else to mark the second point. A straight line connects the two points. From there, you can either continue to create lines or end the process by holding the Ctrl/Cmd key and clicking at the point where you want the line to end without dragging.

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Photo by Adobe Licensed Under CC BY 1.0

You can use the Photoshop pen tool this way to draw an irregular shape. To do so, keep creating lines until you have the shape you want and connect your selection back around to the first point.

U-Shaped Curves

Unlike Photoshop’s pencil tool, the pen tool can create curves. This feature is one reason it’s such a valuable tool, enabling you to match irregular shapes.  

Although curves are more difficult than straight lines, with a little practice, you’ll be happy to have such an invaluable ability. The trick is to place a point and then drag in the direction you want the curve to go. The further you drag, the larger the arc you’ll create.

To make a U-shaped curve, begin by placing two points. Then, drag downward. As you do, you’ll see the path bow into a U shape. Two handles will also appear, which you can manipulate until you get the curve you’re looking for. 

The handles determine the direction of the curve and how acute it will be. Drag the curve in the direction you want it to go. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly how you want it; you can always go back and adjust any curve.

Simple S Curves

A simple S curve can be created between two points. To do so, notice that you can change the angle of the drag. 

Begin by dragging the line to the left to create the direction handle near the top point. Next, drag the line to the right near the bottom point. As you change the angle of the handles, you can change the shape and arcs of the S shape. 

Hold down Ctrl and click away to complete your simple S shape. 

Complex S Curves

To create an S curve, you’ll need to introduce a third point. So, start by creating three points. From there, drag the top line segment to the left. Use the handles that are created to adjust the curve until it’s smooth.

Next, move down to the bottom line segment. Drag it to the right. Use the handles to manipulate the curve until it matches the shape of the first one.

You’ve now effectively created two connected U-shaped curves going in opposite directions. And thus, you have an S-shaped curve. 

Hold down Ctrl and click away to complete your complex S shape. 

Technically, every S curve created in this way is “complex,” meaning that it has three points instead of only two. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that you can warp and bend the S outward or inward.

You can also rearrange the original points to make your S larger. Click on the point and move it to the appropriate location. 

M Curves

Drawing an M-shaped curve can be a little trickier. Like the S curve, begin with three points. From the starting point, drag upwards to create the first direction handle. 

Next, move to the right and drag the center point downward. This will create an inverted U shape.

Then, hold the Alt/Option key down and drag upward. This will change the direction of the handle for the next curve.

Position your pointer to the right of the second point and drag downward. This will create an M curve.

To stop drawing, hold down Ctrl, and click away from the path. Also, you can drag any point to a new location by holding down the Ctrl key. 

Wait, What’s Happening Here?

To understand what’s happening here, you need to know how the pen tool works. The mouse’s initial drag sets the direction handle, while the next click defines the curve based on this direction. 

By using the Alt/Control key, you are converting the point. In this way, you can create a sharp curve without changing the previously drawn one. This sharp curve is called a cusp. 

Closed Paths

All of the previous curves we’ve made so far have been open curves. Now it’s time to create some closed paths.

If you are planning to use the pen tool in Photoshop to create an irregular selection, you’ll need first to place enough points in the desired configuration until they make an enclosed shape. In this way, you can make anything from a simple triangle to a multi-segmented outline involving a series of line segments.

In addition to converting closed paths into a selection, you can also choose to fill them with color, texture, or patterns. You can also create visible lines outlining the path. What’s more, a closed path is an excellent way to apply a filter or specific adjustment to an isolated part of an image.

For example, to create a rectangle in Photoshop, make four points with the pen tool on your image. Complete this shape by placing the cursor over the first point you made. You should see a small circle next to the pen icon. This circle means that when you click the point, you will enclose the path.

You now have an enclosed loop. When this happens, the pen tool will stop drawing, and you are free to use the various handles to manipulate and curve each line segment.

Combining Straight Paths With Curves

While creating a rectangle is all well and good, it’s not something you couldn’t just as easily have done using different tools. Where the pen tool shines is in its ability to combine straight lines with curved ones.

For instance, to make a heart shape, begin by placing three points in a row and a fourth centered below. Then, place the cursor over the starting point. When the small circle appears, click the initial point to close the path. 

From there, use the handles to pull the top two line segments into upward arcs. Then, edit the curvature of each segment until you have the shape you want. Now you have a heart shape. 

Of course, suppose you intend to select an irregular-shaped portion of an image in Photoshop. In that case, the process involving the pen tool consists of placing as many points as you need and then manipulating each line segment using the handles to create curvature. 

Making Selections With the Pen Tool

As we’ve discussed, Photoshop’s pen tool is one of the best ways to make a selection of irregular-shaped portions of an image. By combining straight line segments with curved ones, you can make a precise outline of anything you want with far more accuracy than using the lasso tool.

For this, Photoshop has the Paths palette. You’ll find it grouped with the Layers and Channels palettes. It looks a lot like the Layers palette, but for a different purpose.

Within the Paths palette, you have the option to name and save the path. If you don’t, Photoshop will only display the current path you are using, naming it the “Work Path.’

If you wish, you can double-click on the title, rename it, and save the path for later use. This option can be useful if you’re planning to select several different portions of an image that are all the same shape and size. Otherwise, there’s usually little need to save each path you create.

Nevertheless, if you do choose to save a path, it will be available to use later. If you don’t, then it will be replaced by the next path you create. 

Turning a Path Into a Selection

At the bottom of the Paths palette in Photoshop, there are several icons. Each icon does something different with the path. For instance, the first icon (that looks like a circle filled with gradient) will fill the selected path with the current foreground color. Good to know it’s there, but not what we’re looking for right now.

Use the third icon (a dashed circle) to turn your path into a selection. Officially, this is called the “Load Path as a Selection” icon. Clicking this icon converts the path into a selection, just as if you’d used one of the selection tools.

You can also achieve the same effect by pressing Ctrl+Enter for Windows or Cmd+Return for Mac users. Now you have a selection and are free to fill it with color, apply a filter, or cut the selected portion of the image to copy onto a different background.

Mastering Direction Handles

Once you have a solid understanding of some of the things you can do with this tool, you might be surprised to discover that there’s more. Drawing paths with Photoshop’s pen tool can be accomplished in many different ways. 

The key to mastering the this tool lies in knowing how to handle the direction handles. With a straight path, there’s no reason to have handles. However, as soon as curves are involved, the direction handles enable you to achieve the exact angle required. 

Also worth noting is how forgiving the this tool is when creating paths. You’re free to move points around after you’ve placed them, and with the direction handles, you can bend and curve each line segment however you wish.

Handle Basics

Direction handles are called handles because you can grab them and move them around. They control the angle of the curve and its direction. 

There are usually two of them, one on each side of a path segment. One controls the angle and length of the curve coming into the point, and the other controls the angle and length of the curve going outward from the point.

Anchor points are denoted by small squares, while the diamonds control the direction handles. The further away from the anchor point you drag, the longer the direction handle will become. The longer the handle, the longer the curve.

For example, using the pen tool, click once and drag. You have now established a single point and created a direction handle. The direction handle can be rotated depending on where you intend to place your next point and the curve of the path you are trying to achieve.

Rotating and Resizing Direction Handles

To rotate a direction handle, click on one of the diamond shapes at the end of an anchor point and drag it around to rotate. If you hold down Ctrl/Cmd while doing this, you’ll notice that both direction handles rotate simultaneously. 

To resize a direction handle, drag the handle either closer or further away from the anchor point while holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key. A shorter handle will make a shorter curve, while a longer one will make a longer curve. 

When you need to rotate or adjust a direction handle independently of the others, hold down the Alt/Option key and click on the end of a direction handle. Your cursor will change into the Convert Point Tool icon (a simple arrow made up of only two lines). From there, you can drag the cursor around to rotate the direction handle.

In short, rotating a direction handle using Ctrl/Cmd will keep the direction handles linked. However, if you use the Alt/Option key, you’ll be able to resize and rotate a direction handle on its own without affecting the others. 

Moving An Anchor Point

At any time, you can move an anchor point by clicking on it and dragging it to the desired location. In this way, you are free to add points, move them, and connect them as you wish.

When creating curves, you may find you need to move an anchor point before manipulating a direction handle to ensure the curve has the desired effect. The pen tool is often the best way to select curved objects in an image because of how forgiving it is to use. 

Despite its name, an anchor point can be moved anywhere at any time. As you do so, the line segments denoting the path you are creating will move along with them. 

The most common use for this is to go back after you have created the path you want and nudge the points around to fine-tune a selection. You can also move an anchor point using the arrows on the keyboard once a point is selected. 

Auto Add/Delete

When using the pen tool, it’s generally a good idea to have the Auto Add/Delete box checked. You can find this box in the Options bar when using this tool. 

This option enables you to toggle between the Add Anchor Point and Delete Anchor Point tool when you hover over an anchor point. It will also do this when you hover over an existing path.

Rubber Band Option

While you’re learning to use the pen tool and experimenting with Bezier curves, you may find the rubber band option valuable. This feature will show you a preview of the next curve before you go to place it. 

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Photo by Adobe Licensed Under CC BY 1.0

To enable the rubber band option, go to the Options bar. Under the Geometry Options drop-down (represented by a gear), you’ll see the Rubber Band option. Check the box next to it and play around with it. Some find this feature useful, while others prefer to keep it off once they’ve gotten the hang of how the this tool works.

Magnetic Pen

Another hidden feature is the magnetic pen. Like the magnetic lasso, the magnetic pen helps your lines stick to any edges identified in the image. For example, if you’re drawing a path around a bird silhouette in the blue sky, the magnetic feature will automatically draw path lines to the edge of the bird.

First, to enable the magnetic pen, switch to the freeform pen option by pressing Shift P to cycle through the various pen options. Then, in the tool options above the image, check the box labeled Magnetic.

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7 Top Pen Tool Tips and Tricks

When it comes to the pen tool, people either love it or hate it. Nevertheless, once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be amazed at the things you can do in Photoshop. 

That said, it’s going to take some practice to use the this tool effectively. Plus, many of us get away with using other selection tools, such as the lasso and the magic wand. While the regular selection tools may work for many projects, the pen truly is the best tool for outlining irregular-shaped objects made up of straight lines and curves.

With that in mind, we’ve put together some tips and tricks to help fastrack your mastery.

1. Assess the Object Before You Begin

Before you break out the pen tool and begin placing points, take a moment to assess the object you intend to outline. First off, if the object is made up entirely of straight lines and angles, you might be better served by using a different tool, such as the lasso.

Once you’ve come to the conclusion that the pen is the best tool for the job, plan out where you will be placing your anchor points. Which parts are curved and which are straight? Are the arcs smooth and continuous, or do the angles change at certain points? 

When placing an anchor point, you should do so with the next point in mind. What does the path segment need to look like between these two points? Visualizing where you need to place anchor points to make the path you want can save you from having to scratch what you’re doing and start over.

2. Click and Drag Before Placing Each Point

For smoother and more advanced curves, it helps to click to place an anchor point and drag the cursor outward before placing the next point. In this way, you’ll see the curved segment’s formation between these two points before placing it. 

Of course, once the segment is in place, you can still adjust it and move the anchor points as needed. Holding down the mouse button and dragging outward from a point will create your first handle and enable you to rotate and expand it. 

Using this method is much more intuitive than placing two anchor points and then working with the handles. Your curves will be smoother and look more professional.

3. Use the Alt/Option Key for Best Results

As we covered above, the alt/option key is an invaluable part of using the pen tool effectively. You can use the alt/option key to retract the last anchor point and create a closed path.

When creating a curved path and you get to a point where you need to create a straight line, use the alt/option key to retract the handle from the end of the last anchor point. Then, you can begin making straight path segments.

Also, when you create a path using the click and drag method, you can use the alt/option key to switch out of this mode and return to the standard one. In this way, we are no longer at the mercy of the handles and are free to click and drag anchor points and create an enclosed path. To join two points, hold down alt/option and click on the initial point.

4. Change the Appearance of Paths

As of 2018, Photoshop provides the option to change how your paths look. As such, you’re no longer stuck with the pencil-thin lines that designate a path by default.

There are times when it’s almost impossible to see the standard thin path lines. Your image may be too dark or already include similar linework, making it a challenge to identify what lines designate a path and which are part of the image.

In the options bar above the image, click on the gear symbol, and you will see options to adjust the thickness of path lines and the color. Note that this is the same place where you put the tool in rubber band mode. 

One thing you can do is select a color for your path that contrasts with the colors in the image. For instance, if you’re creating a path in an image of a blue sky, you may want to select a color like red that is opposite of blue to ensure the path is visible and easy to manipulate.

5. Set Your Fill and Stroke Settings to Nothing

Before you start building a path, go to the options bar above the image. Set the stroke to nothing and the fill to nothing. These settings will ensure you are getting a clean and precise path you can use.

While there are times you may need these options, most of the time, they will only dilute your results when working with the pen tool. It’s critical to be able to draw both curved and straight lines with maximum accuracy.

6. Use As Few Anchor Points As Possible

When creating a path, the best practice is to use as few anchor points as possible. Too many anchor points spaced too closely together can make your path appear lumpy and less precise.

Remember, you can always add and remove anchor points. The easiest way to do this is to ensure the Auto Add/Delete box is checked in the options bar. With this option enabled, whenever you hover the cursor over a line segment, you’ll see it change to the Add Anchor Point tool. Also, when you hover the cursor over an existing point, you’ll be able to delete it.

7. Don’t Forget the Freeform Pen

For incredibly intricate work, you can switch the pen tool to freeform mode. This enables you to draw a path by hand. Of course, we all know how difficult it is to use these kinds of tools, so you may want to check the Magnetic box to get the most out of this mode.

That said, the true power of this tool lies in its ability to create bezier curves in Photoshop. Nonetheless, it’s good to know you have this option.

Some Additional Tips

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If you’ve made it this far, you now have a pretty good idea about what the pen tool is all about and how to use it. In many ways, using the this tool effectively is one of the things that separates novice Photoshop users from more advanced ones.

How To Use the Pen Tool In Photoshop To Remove a Background

This tool is one of the most effective tools you can use to make a selection in Photoshop. The fact that you can draw a path around an irregular-shaped object and then convert it into a selection, makes it ideal for cutting a foreground object out of an image to remove its background,

Once you’ve drawn your path and closed it to outline the desired object perfectly, you can save the path, cut it out to add to a different image or convert it to a Layer Mask. You can then create a new layer and add a bright, contrasting color to see how your path looks. 

How to use the pen tool in photoshop to cut out images

You can use the pen tool to cut out images. Start by creating an enclosed path around the desired image. From there, you can convert the path into a selection following the directions above. Then, simply go to Edit > Cut. 

The cut image will disappear, and you can then go to Edit > Paste to either move it to a different location in the image or paste it into another image. 

How to color the pen tool in Photoshop

You can color the path you are creating in Photoshop using this tool by going to the options bar above the image. Click on the gear symbol and select a color you’d like your path to be. You can also adjust the thickness of your path lines here if you want. 

If you wish, you can also set the stroke settings to draw lines on your image, following the path created using the pen tool. Don’t forget this technique is an option, especially if you’re struggling to achieve the desired result with the paintbrush or pencil. 

A Tool of Elegance

The pen tool is an elegant one. You can’t take it and start clicking all over the place and expect results. It takes finesse, practice, and understanding to use effectively. However, once you’ve mastered it, you may soon find it’s one of your favorite tools in Photoshop. 

What’s more, you’ve now joined the ranks of elite Photoshop users, amazed at the things you can do.