How to Use the Pen Tool in Photoshop

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May 10, 2021
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The Various Types of Anchor Points Used With the Adobe Pen Tool​

Every time I use the Pen Tool, I’m filled with amazement at its ability. Honestly, it can do so much. The problem with this tools is that it truly requires some training to use. You really can’t just pick it up, like we do with so many other tools, and willy nilly have at it. There are different related tools that control various aspects of what this tool can create. With this in mind and knowing that it can be sort of challenging to get used to and be proficient with the Pen Tool, I’ve decided to write a series of posts that tackle many of the issues surrounding it. If you’re an illustrator or someone who enjoys working with text or shapes in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign, you’ll surely get something from what I share. If you’re simply interested in learning more about this tool, read on because it’s actually not as difficult as you might think.

If you’d like to catch up with the previously related posts I’ve written on the topic, please check these out below.

Introducing the Path & Direct Selection Tools in Adobe Photoshop

Identifying the Parts of a Path in Adobe Photoshop

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about the three different types of anchor points that exist in many areas of the applications I just mentioned above. Each anchor point, whether it be used in a drawn path with the Pen Tool, in a piece of text or part of a shape, does something different. It’s critical that you understand this foundational concept, because without it, there’s very little you can do in the way of drawing or modifying shapes, paths and outlines to any great extent.

To illustrate the characteristics of these anchor points, I’ll simply create an image of each one and describe what it does and how it operates right inside of Adobe Photoshop. My goal is to keep things ultra simple, so you can get the most out of the area of this tool in these applications.

The Corner Point​

If I took the regular Pen Tool and decided to create a new path on a blank document, I could easily click once, click again someplace new and then click again somewhere else, I might end up with something that looks like a “V.” Here, take a look at what I just did.


If you look super closely, you’ll see that the center anchor point is solid, which means it’s currently selected. The two end points are hollow, so they aren’t selected. If I wanted to select and move the entire path, I could use the Path Selection Tool and if I wanted to move just one of these anchor points, I could use the Direct Selection Tool. I wrote all about these tools in this post.

Now, I know the image above is absolutely terrible for use in a post such as this, so instead of boring you with its unattractiveness, I decided to create a nice, and more colorful, illustration of the same thing. Here we go with that.


Again, the center point is solid and the two end ones are hollow.

The important thing to realize with these types of anchor points is that they are considered Corner Points. All this means is that there are no handles attached to any of the points to modify the direction and curvature of the paths that stem from them. If I moved one of these points, the distinct corner at the center would remain. Well, unless you made a straight line run through the center, of course. With Corner Points, you can’t bend any of the paths between them. In order to do that, you’ll need to use one of the types of points I share below.

The Smooth Point​

If I were interested in warping the paths that travel between the anchor points, I’d have to convert the Corner Point into what’s called a Smooth Point.


In later posts, I’ll get into how to convert anchor points, but for now, just know that a Smooth Point is an anchor point that has two handles protruding from it and those handles move in tandem. This means that if you move one handle in one direction, the other handle moves in the opposite direction. One handle controls the other, but it doesn’t matter which one is which.

In my “prettier” illustration, if I were to go ahead and add an anchor point with the Add Anchor Point Tool, I could get a better picture of what’s going on. I’ll add an anchor point towards the center of the right line. Once I do that, I’ll drag the path down and to the right. Let’s see how that looks.


In the screenshot above, you can see how, after I created the anchor point, two handles were also created. Once I pulled the anchor point away from the other paths in the illustration segment, the handles became more apparent. Also, notice how, on either side of the anchor point, the two handles are shown and the path curves symmetrically. Like I said, one handle also controls the other.

Let’s see if I can pretty my illustration up so it’s more fun to look at. I love drawing in Photoshop.


Wow, that looks pretty good. It took way too long though, so I think that will be my last pretty illustration.

The Cusp Point​

This final anchor point is quite interesting and is the most versatile of all three. Basically, if you were to cut the Smooth Point in half, you’d get the Cusp Point. Instead of having both handles locked together like they are with the Smooth Point, the Cusp Point’s handles operate independently.

If I were to use the Convert Point Tool and click on one of the handles, the handles that belong to that Smooth Point would immediately belong to a Cusp Point. The Convert Point Tool converts the anchor point into something new and splits the actions of the handles. No longer do they move in tandem. They now move independently of one another. Take a look at the example below.


In the above screenshot, do you see the two handles with the round ends? Check out how they are now going in their own directions. Because of this flexibility, the anchor point they belong to can act like a Corner Point, a Smooth Point or a Cusp Point. That’s pretty good.


In future posts, I’ll be covering all of the Pen related tools. I know I briefly touched on a few of these, but I’ll be going into much greater detail. I’m looking forward to it too because, as I think I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy working with these tools in Photoshop. For today though, I merely wanted to identify and discuss what types of anchor points exist.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding this post, please leave them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!


May 10, 2021
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  • #2

How Do Anchor Point Control Handles Work With the Adobe Pen Tool?​

One of the most challenging areas to grasp when working with the Pen Tool, paths and anchor points in Adobe’s applications that supports these features (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign) is the idea of working with handles. If you read through my last post, you already know what handles are. If you aren’t aware, they are small control bars with knobby ends that control the curvature of a path. For more information on this, please take a look through these posts below.

Identifying the Parts of a Path in Adobe Photoshop

The Various Types of Anchor Points Used With the Adobe Pen Tool

Once you understand the idea behind how handles work and get a little practice with them, you’ll fall in love with what they can do. You’ll also begin to understand how digital illustrators create the magic they create. Everyone starts at the bottom and those who persevere become proficient and may even reach success.

In today’s post, I’m going to walk through a very brief explanation of how handles work. I’ll create some handles out of thin air, convert them into the type I want to work with and then explain how they can effect a path. Once you’re finished reading this post, you should have the knowledge you need to start experimenting yourself in the application of your choice. It’s all very simple once you get the hang of it, so be sure to read on!

Creating a Shape​

Don’t get too hung up on how to create shapes. I’ll be talking about that topic a lot in later posts. For now, just know that I used the Rectangle Tool to draw a random rectangle in the middle of my workspace. I also filled it with the color blue and gave it a nice black stroke. You can probably guess how I did that by looking at the options bar up above the workspace.


And here is the rectangle itself.


This shape I created is going to set me up for the rest of this post.

Looking at the Current Anchor Points​

If I change tools to, say, the Move Tool and click away from the shape layer, any anchor points that may have been visible disappear. To get these anchor points to reappear, I’d need to use either the Path Selection Tool or the Direct Selection Tool. If I used the Path Selection Tool, I could click on the shape and move it in its entirety. If I clicked the Direct Selection Tool, I could click on just one anchor point and move only that one. Or two – however many I decided to select. To learn more about these two tools, please take a look at this post.

For now, I’ll use the Direct Selection Tool and I’ll click on one of the corners of the rectangle. Let’s see what happens.


You’d have to look at the corners closely to see this, but the anchor point that’s inside the red circle is solid while the others are hollow. That means that the solid one is the one that’s currently selected.

What you may not realize is that when initially dealing with anchor points in shapes, they are considered Corner Points, meaning, the have no handles or abilities to change the curvature of the paths that are connected to it. To learn more about this type of anchor point and the other two as well, please read through this post. I wrote all about them just this week.

My goal for this post is to create a Cusp Point that will give me the ability to control the curvature of paths independently – right now, my focus is on the top one. In order to accomplish this, I’ll use the Convert Point Tool.

The Convert Point Tool​

Again, don’t get caught up on how to use this tool. I’m merely walking you through the process I need to take to get to the point of this post. But follow along anyway because you might learn something.

Now that the upper left corner is selected, I can activate the Convert Point Tool. I’ll head over to the left vertical toolbar and click and drag out the Pen Tool. At the bottom of the list that appears is the one I’m interested in.


Now, if I head over to the anchor point, I can click right on the point and drag out in any direction. The goal of doing this is to convert the Corner Point to a Smooth Point. This is me clicking and dragging out. I haven’t let go of my mouse button yet.


And this is what the shape looks like after I let go of the mouse button.


Notice how both sides of the anchor point are curved. That’s how the Smooth Point behaves.

The next thing I’d like to do is to convert the Smooth Point into a Cusp Point. This type of point doesn’t keep the handles bound to one another. So, if I hold down the Alt key on my keyboard and then click and drag out on the anchor point again, one of the handles will disappear and another one will form. This time though, the new handle will be independent from the opposing one and I’ll have the ability to modify the curvature of the paths independently.


For this example, I’ll drag the lower handle right into the upper left anchor point corner, which will give me a nice straight right side edge. Also, I’ll go ahead and follow the same instructions I just gave and I’ll create a Cusp Point at the upper right corner. I’ll end up with something that looks like this below.


How Do Control Handles Work?​

If you use control handles for any length of time, you’ll likely figure this out yourself. But for the uninitiated, I’ll go ahead an explain a few key concepts.

Think of the end of a control handle as a magnet. Also, think of a related path as made from something metallic. If you move a control handle out, away from the anchor point, it’s going to attract part of the path. The area that’s being attracted is going to bend towards the end of the handle. You can see the result of this in the screenshot above.

To clarify the point I’m trying to make, I’ll add some arrows that point from the area of the path that’s being attracted to the end of the handle that’s doing the attracting.


What To Expect When Using Control Handles​

When working with control handles, you need to remember that the curvature you create has nothing to do with the anchor point. Any curve you acquire is a relationship between the end of the handle and the path itself. While there is a line that connects the end of the handle to the anchor point, you can almost ignore that. It’s merely there to remind you which anchor point it belongs to. If you were to somehow remove that connecting line, the magnet would have the same exact effect.

This is sort of tough to understand. I get that. As you pull the ends of the handles around, it seems like the curve is emanating from the end of the path. That’s simply because that’s where the path is originating from. If you disconnected the path from the anchor point, the entire thing would snap to the control handle end. Here’s another example of what the top path looks like after I move the handles. I kept the arrows in this screenshot for you.


If you unattached the path from the anchor points, you’d end up with another straight path right between the two handle ends.


I’ll admit that the Pen Tool, anchor points and control handles can take a lot out of you. The thing is, you need to constantly remind yourself that the more challenging something is, the fewer people there are doing it proficiently. The fewer the people, the less competition. That means that if you become an expert at working with the Pen Tool in any of the supporting Adobe applications, you’ll be more valuable to someone who is willing to pay you for it. You’ll be able to dictate your price. That’s a wonderful thing.

Anyway, I hope I gave you some valuable information in this post. There’s a lot to learn on this subject and I’m trying to break it down into small chunks. Eventually, it’ll all be out there and you can chew on it as often as you’d like. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this post, please leave them in the comment area below. Thanks for reading!


May 10, 2021
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  • #3

Using the Pen Tool to Create a Vector Mask in Adobe Photoshop​

Masking is an essential part of working in Adobe Photoshop. It allows us to non-destructively edit something out or into a photograph or a number of other things. While masking can be a tricky concept to pick up during the first few minutes of learning, things begin to flow rapidly after a few moments of that learning.

I’m sure you’ve heard of layer masks and layer masking. I’ve talked about these things a bunch on this website. The thing is, what I’ve primarily be discussing is the pixel based form of masking, which is great, but has its pitfalls. The greatest pitfall is that these types of masks rely on the pixels of an image, which, as you know, can look distorted if an image is resized.

An alternative to pixel based masking is something called vector based masking, which doesn’t rely on pixels. Like vector images, these masks rely on mathematical algorithms to produce crisp, sharp lines no matter the size. Here’s what Adobe has to say about vector masks:

A vector mask is a resolution independent path that clips out the contents of the layer. Vector masks are usually more accurate than those created with pixel-based tools. You create vector masks with the pen or shapes tools.

While I won’t be getting into how to use the Pen Tool per se in today’s post, I will be discussing how to use that tool to mask out the background of an image. In all honesty, the Pen Tool is a beast unto itself and this post wouldn’t be big enough to handle all I have to say about it. As a compromise, I’ve decided that I’d use today to focus primarily on the topic of masking something out. I’d like to keep it simple.

In today’s post, I’m going to open a photo inside of Adobe Photoshop. Then, I’ll use the Pen Tool to go through the process of masking the background out of a photograph that contains a camera. I purposefully chose the camera picture because it’s got more straight edges than curved. The reason for this is because the topic of creating curves with the Pen Tool, while fairly simple and straightforward, needs space to breath. That will have to wait for another time. I may touch upon it below though. What I really want to impress upon you is the fact that vector masks exist and that they are extremely simply to take advantage of for all types of purposes. One such purpose might include cutting an object out of one photo to include in another. You’ll see what I’m referring to below.

Today’s Demo Photo​

Again, for this post, I chose a photo of a camera. Notice the straight lines.


This image shouldn’t take too long to work with.

The Easiest Vector Mask Ever​

Okay, so we already know that vector masks can be created with the Pen Tool. The issue is, there are many methods for using this tool in conjunction with the mask itself, so which one is best? In this section, I’m going to give you a quick example of how this camera photo can have its background “removed” from it.

The very first thing I’ll do (after opening the photo in Photoshop) is to head up to the Layer > Vector Mask > Reveal All menu item and click.


Once I click that menu item, I’ll notice a new vector mask thumbnail appear in the Layers panel, to the right of the layer thumbnail.


Now, both the thumbnail and the vector mask thumbnail should already be selected. If I move over to activate the Pen Tool in the left toolbar, I can begin working.


Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to click on the canvas with the Pen Tool a few times in an area that surrounds the camera. This will create what’s called a “pen path.” The first click won’t make a change. The second click will make everything disappear. The third click will bring back a portion of the photo and every successive click will shape the mask area. This is the final product.


While this method did the job, it didn’t do it well. First of all, who in the world clicks around a photo they can’t see? As I mentioned above, the image disappears after the second click. Also, because of the random way I masked this photo, I wasn’t near the target at all. I can see see a lot of the background and some of the camera has been removed. I’d have to spend way too much time editing the path if I did things this way. I do want to show you a few things before I go any further though.

First, take a look at the Layers panel. You can see the path I just made in the vector mask thumbnail.


Next, I’d like you to see the path in the Paths panel.


And finally, I want you to see how each handle along the path can be manipulated. If I choose the Path Selection Tool (the black arrow) from the left toolbar, I can click on any handle and move the entire path area.

path-selection-tool-1.jpg moved-path.jpg

And if I click on the Direct Selection Tool (the white arrow) in the left toolbar, I can select just one (or more) handle(s) along the path and move only it or them.


So, as you can imagine, I do have the ability to modify the path after the fact. The problem is, that’s a terrible job to have. I’d have to add all sorts of anchor points and then try to fit them into small spaces. Trust me when I say this – there’s a better way.

Creating a Vector Mask, the Better Way​

In this section, I’m going to create the path before applying the vector mask. Things will be much better this way. I’ll need to remove the path I just made though, so I thought I’d show you the process for doing that.

Basically, there are two really easy ways to delete vector masks. First, you can simply click and drag the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel down to the little trash can at the bottom of the panel or you can click and drag the vector mask path layer in the Paths panel I showed you earlier down to the trash can at the bottom of that panel. It’s up to you. They both do the same thing.

What I’m going to do now is reverse things. I’m going to first start off tracing the camera with the Pen Tool and then I’ll apply the vector mask when I’m finished. And after that, I’ll show you a few tricks that can really help when it comes to dealing with curves and the edge between the object and its background. This last part is going to slightly delve into how to use the Pen Tool, but I’ll try not to go too far.

To create the outline I want around the camera, I’ll use the Pen Tool. I’ll click at every corner I come across as I work around the circumference. Actually, the more I click right now and the more anchor points I include, the more accurate the outline will be. Here’s what I quickly came up with. I didn’t go nuts with this because I’m trying to save time.


Now that I have the outline done, I can create the vector mask. To do so, I’ll head up to the Layer > Vector Mask > Current Path menu item and click.


Now look at the result. Isn’t this much better? With the menu item I just used, I told Photoshop that I’m working on a layer and that I’d like to create a vector mask within that layer. Then, I said that I’d like to use the current path I just created with the Pen Tool for that vector mask.


At this point, I can do whatever I want with this camera. I can drag it over into a new file or do something with it in the current file. It’s up to me.

Editing the Mask​

When using paths with vector masks, I think you’ll find things quite flexible when it comes to editing. The first thing I’d like to discuss is what to do when you encounter a curve in whatever it is you’re attempting to mask. Here’s the rule; when you get to a curve, click and drag. That’s it. Take a look below.


If you look closely, you’ll notice that I’m beginning to create a path around a curve. I clicked to set the first anchor point and then when I clicked a second time, I didn’t let go of my mouse button. I continued holding it down and then I dragged away from the curve. When the handles appeared, I knew I was on the right track. This technique will take some practice, but you’ll get it soon enough. You’ll also likely need to click to adjust other handles as you work. To do this while you’re in Pen Tool mode, simply hold down the Ctrl key on your keyboard to switch from Pen Tool to the Direct Selection Tool. That’s the one you want to use when moving handles. Again, this line of thought is edging towards how to use these types of tools, which I don’t want to get into today. I just thought this one tip would help.

The next tip I have for you really will make your life easier when creating path based vector masks in Photoshop. As you can see from the camera above, the background is transparent. When it comes to refining masks (editing them later on), it helps to make the background somewhat opaque. To change how visible the masked background is, I’ll need to go to the Window > Properties menu item and click. I’ll need to make sure the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel is selected first though because Photoshop needs to know which Properties panel to open up.


Inside of this Properties panel is a Density slider. If I push the Density slider to the left, the background that’s been hidden will become more visible.


Now, if I wanted to use some other tools to edit the path so it more accurately follows the edge of the object I’m trying to outline, I can do that with no issue at all.

I think I’m going to stop here. Rest assured though, I’ll be covering the Pen Tool and the other vector based tools a lot more on this website, so get ready!


I hope I clearly explained how to create a vector mask in Adobe Photoshop with the Pen Tool. If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them for me in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

COMMENT: Excellent tutorial. Thanks for your help. I always read your guides. Thanks for sharing such a helpful article.


May 10, 2021
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  • #4

How to Use the Pen Tool to Create a Selection in Adobe Photoshop​

The Pen Tool in Adobe Photoshop is a remarkable tool with all sorts of special powers. I’ve actually written a number of posts that discuss this tool that you can click through to view below.

The Various Types of Anchor Points Used With the Adobe Pen Tool

How Do Anchor Point Control Handles Work With the Adobe Pen Tool?

Using the Pen Tool to Create a Vector Mask in Adobe Photoshop

If you take a look at the last post in the above list, you’ll see that this tool has the ability to create vector masks. This is an awesome feature that can truly come in handy during a project that calls for these types of masks. Another incredible feature is that we can use the Pen Tool to create selections as well. This isn’t something the average, everyday user of Adobe Photoshop knows. As far as most people are aware, to make selections, they need to take advantage of one of the selection tools. Of course, there are a few additional methods for creating selections as well, but none as popular as the selection tools themselves.

In today’s post, I’d like to walk you through the process of using the Pen Tool to make a selection in Adobe Photoshop. The benefits of using this tool for this purpose are many. You can draw with this tool, you can create shapes with it, you can trace existing shapes and so much more. If you’re an expert at using the Pen Tool in either Photoshop or Illustrator, deriving a selection from an existing path is something you definitely need to know how to do.

Today’s Demo Image​

I wanted to locate an image that had some sort of a curve in it because tracing curves with the Pen Tool is so much more exiting then tracing straight lines. When I saw this guitar, I knew I hit the jackpot. Take a look.


While there are many beautiful curves on this guitar, I’ll merely trace the bottom part of the white area that’s located in the lower right corner. I’m not going to go nuts with this either. I’m simply going to trace part of the curve and then close up the shape. The real reason for this post isn’t to teach you how to use the Pen Tool, but rather how to transform a path into a selection.

Tracing the Curve​

To do my tracing, I’ll go ahead and select the Pen Tool from the left vertical toolbar.


After that, I’ll click on the image where I’d like the selection to begin. Then, I’ll continue clicking, which will create an anchor point each place I click. To create a curve, I’ll click on one side of the handles that appear on either side of the anchor point. I’ll then drag them closer or further from the anchor point and move them around until I see the path curve in a way I like.


And when I’m ready to close the loop of the path I drew, I can simply return back to the first anchor point I created and when I see the mouse cursor change to the shape of a pen with a little circle next to it, I’ll click. That will close the path.


There, that looks pretty good. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do for this demonstration. There’s actually quite a bit that goes into learning how to use the Pen Tool in this application and others and if you’re interested in learning about that, I encourage you to click through to those posts I linked to above.

Converting a Path into a Selection​

What I’ve created so far is what’s referred to as a “path.” If you’ll notice in my Layers panel, all I’m working with is the original background layer.


This is kind of strange because I’m so used to working with layers. I figured there’d be something else there, but there isn’t. Paths are a beasts unto themselves and it would require me to write many posts on the topic to explain them thoroughly. For now though, I’ll merely tell you that paths are vector-based (line) drawings. The good news is, they have their own panel that saves and showcases them clearly. If I click either the Window > Paths menu item or simply click the Paths tab to the right of the Layers tab, I’ll see the path I just drew.


If I double-click on the path name, I can rename it.

Now for the main point of this post. I’ve already gone ahead and created a path. Now I’d like to convert that path into a selection. To accomplish this, all I need to do is hold down the Alt key on my keyboard and click the path thumbnail once. After that, I’ll see the familiar marching ants that I usually see with any selection I make.


Once the area is a selection, I can go ahead and do anything I would usually do with a selection, such as add a layer mask or an adjustment layer. And what’s even more spectacular is that the path is still there. Just because I turned it into a selection doesn’t mean I can’t continue to adjust the path itself. While the selected area will remain, the path can always be stretched any way I want with one of the selection tools. How cool is that? I don’t want to go off topic too much here, but I wanted you to be aware of that.


I hope I clearly explained how to turn a path into a selection in Adobe Photoshop. If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them for me in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

COMMENT: I’ve been using Photoshop for 30 years. I just made my first vector drawing. Wow.