Adobe How to Use Pen Tool

Make selections with the Pen tool in Photoshop

When it comes to making selections in Photoshop, there are two types of people - those who know how to use the Pen tool and those who have difficulty. Most people stop using the pen tool for as long as possible while others never learn because they think it's just too confusing, too complicated, and just unnatural.

Ultimately, their work in Photoshop suffers as they cannot rely on the Lasso tool for almost anything they cannot select with the rectangular or elliptical selection tools. In this Adobe Photoshop tutorial we will put an end to suffering. We'll learn how easy it is to make selections with the Pen tool.

When I say "easy" now, it doesn't mean that you will read this tutorial and instantly turn into a pen master. Learning to use the pen tool is similar to learning to ride a bike. Once you learn it will seem all natural and you will wonder how someone possibly cannot know how to use something so simple. However, it takes a little practice and effort to get to this point. If you read every book about how to ride a bike, you may learn the basics of how pedals, gears, and brakes work to balance that real learning begins.

One of the great things about the Pen tool is that it's not exclusive to Photoshop. Far from it! Virtually every popular image editing, graphics, and page layout program uses the pen tool in one form or another. So, once you learn how to use it in Photoshop, you already have a good understanding of how to use it in many other programs, too!

Where can I find the pen tool?

Before we talk about what the Pen Tool is or how to use it, let's first take a look at where to find it in Photoshop. You can find the pen tool in the tool palette, grouped into the tools shape tool, type tool and path selection (white arrow) and direct selection (black arrow) (see figure on the left).

Photoshop pen tool

This, of course, may raise the question of why, if we can make a selection with the Pen Tool, it isn't grouped with the other Selection Tools (the Rectangular Selection Tool, the Elliptical Selection Tool, the Lasso Tool, etc.) under the very top of the Tools Palette? Why is it down there with these other tools that are clearly not selection tools?

That is an excellent question, and there is an equally excellent answer, which we'll get to in a moment.

Why is it called the "pen" tool?

One of the first stumbling blocks in learning to use the Pen Tool, as with many other things in Photoshop, is the name, because if there is one thing anyone who has ever tried to use knows, it is no Pen. At least not the kind of pen you normally think of when you hear the word "pen". Try writing your name the way you could write it on a piece of paper with a pen and you will likely end up with a twisted, jumbled mess and things superimposing on top of each other (of course I suppose) could very well how to sign your name).

Pierre Bezier

So if it doesn't act like a traditional ink pen, why is it called a Pen Tool? The pen tool has actually been called different things over the years, and by that I don't mean the kind of thing you might have called it in moments of frustration. You may have heard that it was the Bezier pen or the Bezier tool, and that's because it was written by a man named Pierre Bezier (who he is on the left), a French engineer and all-round savvy who came up with this, created fancy math that powers the tool while it works for the Renault car company (the pen tool was originally developed to help design cars).

You may also have heard of the Pen Tool called the Path Tool, and that really is the most appropriate name for it. You can draw "paths" with the pencil tool. To make a selection with the Pen tool, we simply convert the path or paths we have drawn into a selection. However, it always starts with a path.

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What is a way

A "path" is, in all fairness, something that may seem a little inappropriate in a program like Photoshop. The reason for this is that Photoshop is primarily one pixel-based Program is. It takes the millions of tiny square pixels that make up a typical digital image, and things are done with them. Paths, on the other hand, have absolute Nothing to do with pixels, which is why I said they might not seem in the right place in a program primarily used for editing and drawing pixels.

A path is really nothing more than a line that goes from one point to the next, a line that is completely independent of and doesn't care about the pixels below. The line can be straight or curved, but it always goes from one point to another and, as mentioned, has nothing at all to do with the pixels in the image. A path is completely separated from the image itself. In fact, a path is so different that if you try to print your picture with a path visible on your screen, the path won't show up on paper. If you saved your image as a JPEG.webp file and uploaded it to a website, it will not appear in the image on the website even if you saved the image using the path shown on the screen in Photoshop. The paths are for your eyes and Photoshop only. Nobody else will ever see them unless they pass your computer while you are working.

We always need at least two points to create a path because we need to know where the path starts and where it ends. If we use enough points to bring our path back to where it started, we can make various shapes out of paths. This is exactly how Photoshop's various shaping tools work. The rectangle tool uses paths connected by points to draw a rectangular shape. The Ellipse tool uses paths connected by points to draw an elliptical shape, and so on. This is how Photoshop's Type tool works, although Photoshop treats text a little differently than normal shapes, but all text in Photoshop consists essentially of paths. In fact, you can convert text to shapes, which gives you the same options for editing paths with the text you get when working with shapes.

You may also have heard of paths called outlines, and that's a pretty good description of what a path is, or at least what a path can be. We can draw a square path, and if we don't do anything with it other than fill it with a color or give it a stroke, then we only have a plan of a square. The same goes for a circle or any other shape we draw. The path itself is just the outline of the shape. It is only when we do something with the path, like fill it, apply a stroke, or convert it to a selection, that the path actually becomes something more than a basic sketch.

You can select an entire path with the Path Selection tool (also known as the "black arrow"), or you can select individual points or Path segments Select with the direct selection tool (the "white arrow" tool). A path "segment" or "line segment" as it is sometimes called is a path between two points. For example, a rectangular path consists of four points (one in each corner), and the individual paths that connect the top, bottom, left, and right points to create the shape of the rectangle are the path segments. The actual path itself is the combination of all of the individual path segments that make up the shape.

This can be a little confusing so let's see what I mean. Open a new document in Photoshop. It doesn't matter what size it is. I'll choose the 640x480 size from the list of presets, but like I said, it doesn't matter which size you choose. Select your pen tool from the tools palette. You can also select the Pen Tool simply by pressing the letter P on your keyboard.

The two pen tool modes
Before we go any further, we must first make sure that we are working with paths. This is because the Pen Tool has two different modes it can work in and uses the other by default. When you've selected the Pencil tool and looking in the options bar at the top of the screen, you'll see a group of three icons:

The options bar in Photoshop shows the group of three icons that represent the three modes of the Pen tool.

I know there are two modes the Pen Tool can work in. To make matters even more confusing, there is three Symbols. The icon on the right, the fill pixel icon, is grayed out and is not available when you are working with the pen tool. It is only available when you are working with the various shaping tools. So we only need to look at two symbols.

The icon on the left is the shape layer icon, also known as the "not what you want" icon, and is selected by default. When we work with the Pen Tool and select this icon, we are drawing shapes as if we were using one of the various shape tools, except that we couldn't draw a predefined shape like a rectangle or an ellipse to draw any shape we wanted. Like I said, that's not what we want. We want the icon next to it, the path icon, so click on it to select it:

Photoshop Tutorials: To use the Pencil tool, click the Paths icon in the Options Bar.

With the Pen tool and path icon selected in the options bar, click once anywhere in your document. Don't click and drag, just click. When you do this you add a small square dot. I enlarged it here:

Click once in the document with the Pen tool to add a point.

This first point that we just added is the starting point of our path. At the moment we don't really have a way. We only have one starting point. The "point" is technically referred to as an anchor or anchor point and is so named because it keeps the path in place anchored . This first point anchors the beginning of the path at this point in the document. As we add more points, each of them will anchor the path in that place.

Let's add another point. Click anywhere else in the document. It will go anywhere. I click somewhere to the right of my starting point:

Photoshop tutorials: Add a second anchor point by clicking anywhere else in the document.

I've now added a second anchor point and see what happened. I now have a straight line connecting the two points! This straight line is my way. As mentioned earlier, we need at least two points to create a path because we need to know where the path starts and where it ends, and now that we have both a start point and an end point, Photoshop was able to join the two Points together that make our way.

Let's add a few more points, just for fun. Click a few more times in different places in the document. Again, don't click and drag, just click:

Add more points by clicking on different places in the document.

In the image above, I've added seven more anchor points by clicking different spots with the Pen tool. Every time I've added one, the length of my path has increased as a new path "segment" has been added between the previous point and the new point. My path now consists of nine anchor points and eight path segments. I could keep clicking around the document to add more anchor points and path segments, but now I really want my path shut down, so that it forms a complete form.

Close a path
To close a path, we just have to click our starting point once more. When you move the mouse pointer over the starting point, a small circle appears in the lower right corner of the pencil symbol:

A small circle appears in the lower right corner of the pencil icon when you hover over the starting point of the path.

This circle tells us that we "circle" ourselves along the way and end it where it began. Simply click directly on the starting point to close.
We can see below that my path has become a closed path and is now a basic shape of a shape:

The path is now closed and ends at the starting point. This creates a closed path.

Although this path was drawn just for fun as an example of drawing a simple path with the Pen tool, I can easily convert this path to a selection. We'll need the Photoshop Paths palette to do this, and we'll look at that next.

Turn a path into a selection

So far we've looked at what a path is and how to use the Photoshop Pen tool to draw a simple path. But how do you make a selection from the path?

Easy! There are several ways to turn a path into a selection, including a handy keyboard shortcut. However, before we look at the fast route, let's take a look at the official route. The "official way" is to use the Photoshop "Paths" palette, which is divided into the Layers and Channels palettes:

Photoshop Paths palette.

At first glance, the Paths palette is similar to the Layers palette in Photoshop. Adobe purposely designed them to make you feel more confident using them. We can see a preview of the shape of the path we just created, and by default Photoshop calls the path "Working Path" which is basically a fancy way of saying "temporary" as if you were creating another path If If you do not rename this path to a different path first, this path will be replaced by the new path. You can only have one "work path". So if you want to keep it, you'll need to double-click its name in the Paths palette and give it a different name before creating a new path.

Since my path looks a bit like a crown, I double click on the name "Work Path". This will bring up Photoshop's Save Path dialog box, and I'll rename my path to Crown:

You can save a temporary "work path" simply by renaming it.

When I'm done, I'll click OK. If I look again in the "Paths" palette, I see that my "work path" has been renamed "Crown":

The Paths palette indicates that the path has been renamed Crown.

Renaming it now saves the path and doesn't disappear on me when I create a new path. Also, any saved paths are saved with the Photoshop document. Now when I save my document, the path is saved with it, and the next time I open the document, the path is still in the Paths palette.

Saving a path is not something you have to do to turn it into a selection. In most cases, when you make a selection with the Pen tool, you no longer need to save the path. If you still want to save it, just rename it to something other than "Working Path" and it will be saved.

If you want to turn the path into a selection, you'll see several icons at the bottom of the Paths palette. These symbols allow us to do different things along the way. The first icon on the left is the Fill Path With Foreground Color icon. When you click on it, as the name suggests, the path will be filled with our current foreground color. Interesting, but we don't want that. The second icon from the left is the stroke path with the brush icon, which will apply a stroke to our path with the currently selected brush.

This is a great way to create interesting effects in Photoshop, but for what we're doing here, turning a path into a selection, isn't what we want either. The desired one is the third symbol from the left, the loading path as a selection symbol:

The Load Path As Selection icon at the bottom of the Paths palette.

As soon as I click this icon, my path in my document becomes a selection, as if I had made it with one of Photoshop's most popular selection tools:

The path has now been converted to a selection.

As simple as that! It's even easier because there's a keyboard shortcut that lets you turn a path into a selection without having to go to the Paths palette. When you've drawn your path and you're ready to convert it to a selection, just press Ctrl + Enter (Win) / Command + Return (Mac) to have Photoshop convert the path to a selection.

By now it may be a little more obvious to you why the Pen tool is a selection tool but isn't grouped with the other selection tools at the top of the Tools palette. The reason for this is that the pen tool is primarily a path tool. It creates selections by first creating paths. Because of this, they have more in common with the various Shape tools and the Type tool, which all use paths, than they do with the basic selection tools like the Marquee or Lasso tool, which only make selections based on pixels.

Let's look at a practical example of what we've learned so far. Here we have a photo of a stop sign in front of some rocky cliffs:

A photo of a stop sign.

Suppose I wanted to select this stop sign so I could copy it onto its own layer. The stop sign is nothing more than a series of straight lines which will make this extremely easy. First, I need a starting point for my path, so I'll start at the top left corner of the sign by clicking once to place an initial anchor point. In this case, it doesn't really matter where I start the path, but I start in the top left corner:

Click once in the upper left corner of the stop sign to begin the path with an initial anchor point.

Notice how I zoom in when I click here. You'll find it easier if you use the Pen tool to make a selection to enlarge the image a little. That way, you can be sure that you are keeping your path only in the area you want to select.

At the moment I don't have a path, I only have a starting point for my path. To create the path I just need to go around the sign and add an anchor point at every corner where the path needs to change direction. As I add each anchor point, a new path segment appears connecting the previous anchor point to the new one until I have completely circled the character. To close the path, I just click on the starting point again. It's a little hard to see in the image below, but I now have a path around the entire stop sign, including the post it is attached to. Just click in the corners where the path needs to change direction:

A path is now displayed around the stop sign in the image.

Now when I look at my Paths palette, I see very clearly that I have a path in the form of the stop sign:

Photoshop Paths palette with the path drawn around the stop sign.

Notice how Photoshop named the Work Path path. This means that this path is temporary and I will lose it if I create another path without saving it by renaming it first. Even if I don't create a new path, it will be lost when I close the document unless I save it first. I don't need to save this path though, so I don't worry about that. In most cases, you don't have to worry either.

To convert my path to a selection, I'll click the Load Path As Selection icon at the bottom of the Layers palette, or just hit Ctrl + Enter (Win) / Command + Enter (Mac):

In the Paths palette, click the Load Path As Selection icon or press Ctrl + Enter (Windows) / Command + Delete (Mac) to convert the path to a selection.

Once I do that, my path will be converted to a selection and the stop sign is now selected:

The stop sign is now selected after converting the path to a selection.

I switch back to my layer palette and copy the stop sign onto a layer of its own. To do this, I use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + J (Win) / Command + J (Mac), which is used to place the character on its own layer above the background layer:

The stop sign has now been copied to a separate layer.

With the sign on its own layer, I can do what I want, swap the background with another image, or make the background black and white while the sign stays in color whatever comes to mind. The point is, I could just select the character by clicking in the corners with the Pen tool, which created a path around the character, and then just turning the path into a selection.

So far, when making selections with the Pen tool in Photoshop, we've found that the pen is a selection tool in every way, as Photoshop uses more common selection tools like the rectangular marquee and lasso tools, but they are not based on the selection that the pixels draw Pen tool like other tools Paths, which can be easily converted to selections using either the Paths palette or the quick keyboard shortcut.

For this reason, the pen for these other pixel-based selection tools is not at the top of the tool palette, but is divided into the path tools such as the various shape tools, the text tool, and the path selection and direct selection tools. The Pencil tool is all about paths, not pixels.

We learned that we can add anchor points in our document that keep the path in place anchorby simply clicking different spots with the pen tool. As we add more and more anchor points, we create a path for each new point is connected to the previous point by a new path segment. We also learned that a path is what is commonly referred to as a "non-printing element" which means that no matter how many paths we add, none of them will be visible on the paper when we print the image. They are also not visible when we display the image on a website. Paths are only visible to us when you are working in Photoshop (although other programs like Adobe Illustrator also support paths). Only when we do something with the path, such as filling it with a color, assigning a stroke to it, or converting it to a selection, does the path become more than just a simple, non-printable outline of a shape.

We saw how easy it would be to use the Pen tool to select something like a stop sign by sketching it with a path made up of a series of straight path segments, and then converting the path to a selection. This is great, but basically we haven't done anything we couldn't have made easier with the Lasso Tool, or even better the Polygonal Lasso Tool, which was specially designed for selecting flat shapes like our stroke characters . Chances are, sooner or later you'll want to pick something more interesting, and by "interesting" I mean more challenging, unless you have a curious fascination with road signs. And by "challenging" I mean something that has curves in it. Typically, when you select a curved object in Photoshop, you lose all respect for the basic selection tools. Fortunately, it's also the time when the pen tool really shines!

Before we go any further, I should point out that everything we've done up to this point has been pretty simple. Click here, click there, convert the path to a selection, done. The next part, where we'll look at drawing curves, isn't that easy, although it certainly isn't difficult. However, if this is your first time using the Pen tool, or if you don't have a lot of experience with it, working with curves seems a bit unnatural and even a little overwhelming. This is definitely where the "cycling" analogy comes into play. You may fall off a few times at first, wondering how someone does it, but the more you practice and the more you hold on to it, the more meaningful it will start to do. In no time it will seem like a matter of course, and you'll suddenly understand why so many people swear that the Pen Tool is the greatest selection tool in Photoshop! Seriously, it really is.

Directional handles under control

Let's start again with the Pen Tool. Open a new blank Photoshop document or just delete what you've been doing in the existing document so we can start over. Then, with the Pencil tool selected and the Paths option selected in the options bar (remember, by default, the Shape Layers option is selected so you need to make sure the Paths option is selected), click any of the same in the same way Position in your document, we have done that before. This time, however, don't just click to add an anchor point; instead, drag the mouse away from the anchor point a little before releasing the mouse button:

With the Pen tool, click anywhere within the document, then drag it away from the anchor point.

When you're done, you'll see an anchor point that two lines start from. At first glance, you might think we somehow managed to pull out a path with the Pencil tool. After all, it looks like we have three anchor points, one at each end and one in the middle, connected by two path segments. If we look a little closer, we can see that the dots are a little smaller at either end than in the middle and that they actually have a different shape. The middle one is square, and as we've seen one anchor point is square, but the ones on either end appear to be diamond-shaped. Are some anchor points square and some diamond shaped?

No All anchor points are square and the same size. This means that the smaller, diamond-shaped points at the ends are not anchor points. And if they aren't anchor points, it means the lines are not path segments because we need at least two anchor points to create a path and the only anchor point we currently have is the one in the middle. Then what exactly are the lines emanating from the anchor point? They are directional handles!

"Ah, directional handles!" you say. "Now I understand it!"

... ... ................

"Wait, no I don't. What the hell are directional handles?"

Direction handles are actually handles and are only used when creating curved path segments. Direction handles are not required when creating straight path segments. Usually there are two of these, sometimes only one, and as we've already seen, they extend from anchor points. They are called "handles" because, as we'll see in a moment, you can actually grab and move them.

Direction handles control two things. They control the angle of the curve, and they control the length of the curve, and they do it in a really neat way. The reason there are usually two of these is because one controls the angle and length of the curve that in enters the anchor point, and the other the angle and length of the curve, from flows out of the anchor point.

Before we dive into drawing curves with the directional handles, let's first see how the handles themselves are controlled, as our success at drawing curves depends to a large extent on our ability to control the handles. Don't worry, it's not rocket science. There are just a few simple things that you need to learn. We saw earlier how to create direction handles by clicking with the Pen tool and then dragging away from the anchor point. The further we pull away from the anchor point, the longer the directional handles are. The longer the handle, the longer the curve. Short grip, short turn. Long handle, long curve.

One of the nice things that you will learn about the Pen Tool pretty quickly is that it is extremely is forgiving. There's absolutely no need to worry about things going right the first time when drawing paths, as we can go back and just fix things when we're done! Did you place an anchor point in the wrong place? No problem! Just move it where you need it! We'll see how to do that in a moment. Did you drag a direction point in the wrong direction? No problem. Grasp the handle and turn it in the direction you want. We'll see how to do that again. Is one of your directional grips too long or too short? No problem. Just click on it and then drag it longer or shorter as needed (yes, we'll see how to do that too). The paths can be fully edited at any time. So there is absolutely no need to worry whether you are making a mistake or correcting it the first time. Don't you feel a little better then?

Rotate and resize direction handles

As I mentioned earlier, they are called directional handles because you can grab and move them like handles. Let's see how it works. First, we will examine how both handles are turned at the same time. Using the anchor point and the two directional handles you created, hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac). The pen tool icon temporarily changes to the direct selection tool icon (white arrow). When the Pen Tool is selected, holding Ctrl / Command becomes a quick shortcut to temporarily access the Direct Selection Tool which we use to select different parts of our path. Then just click right on the little diamond shape at the end of one of the direction handles (clicking the "line" itself doesn't work, so you always have to click the diamond shape at the end of a handle to do something with it) and drag it around the anchor point to rotate it. When you turn one of the handles, the other turns in the opposite direction, similar to a seesaw. You may also find that your pointer icon changes again once you start dragging the handle. This time it becomes the icon for the move tool as we move something from one place to another:

Hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) and click the end of one of the directional handles. Then pull the handle to rotate it around the anchor point.When you pull one handle, the other rotates in the opposite direction.

You can release the Ctrl / Command key once you start dragging the handle. You don't have to keep it up all the time.

To resize a directional handle as you rotate it, simply drag the end of the handle toward the anchor point to shorten it, or drag it away from the anchor point to lengthen it. As mentioned above, a shorter handle will make the curve shorter, and a longer handle will make the curve longer. However, you cannot enlarge or reduce both handles at the same time. So if you want to increase or decrease both handles, you'll need to drag them individually. You can only rotate both at the same time. If you've already released your mouse button after rotating the handles and the cursor has switched back to the Pencil Tool icon and you need to resize one of the handles, you will need to hold down "Ctrl / Command" again to temporarily work. Switch back to the Direct Selection Tool, and click and drag the end of the handle to change its size:

Drag the ends of the handles toward the anchor point to shorten them, or drag them away from the anchor point to lengthen them.

Now let's look at how to rotate the handles independently. To rotate one handle without affecting the other, first release the mouse button when you have rotated or resized the handles so that the cursor changes back to the pencil tool icon. Instead of holding down Ctrl / Command to move both handles at the same time, hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click the end of one of the handles.Your cursor changes to the dot conversion tool icon, which looks like a simplified arrow made up of just two lines, almost like an upside-down letter "v" (except that it's not all the way upside down). Then just drag the handle around the anchor point to rotate it like before. This time the handle rotates independently of the other, breaking the connection between them:

Hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click the end of one of the directional handles. Then drag the handle to rotate it around the anchor point independently of the other handle.

You can release the Alt / Option key after you've started dragging. You don't have to hold it down all the time.

You can also use the Alt / Option key to resize directional handles in the same way as the Ctrl / Command key. If you're rotating a handle, just drag it towards the anchor point to make it shorter, or away from the anchor point to make it longer. If you've already released the mouse button and the pointer returns to the Pen Tool icon, hold down Alt / Option again, then click and drag the end of the handle to resize it.

Is there a difference between resizing the handles with Ctrl / Command and using Alt / Option? Yes there is. If you have not yet "broken" the connection between the handles by dragging a handle independently of one another, changing the size with "Ctrl / Command" connects the handles with one another. Both handles will not resize at the same time, but they will not break the connection, so you can still rotate them together if necessary. If you change the size of a handle with "Alt / Option", the connection between the handles is broken. Even if you don't turn the handle when you resize it, the connection will still be broken.

What if you've broken the connection between the handles by rotating them with "Alt / Option" and then want to rotate them back together? Can you "reconnect" so to speak by selecting one of them while holding down Ctrl / Command like before? Good question and the answer is no. If you've broken the connection between the handles, pressing the Ctrl / Command key will not restore the connection. You'll need to select one of the handles while at this point holding down Ctrl + Alt (Windows) / Command + Option (Mac) to reassemble the handles.

Previous summary ...

We covered a lot of information about working with direction handles here. So before we go any further and start drawing some actual curves, let's do a quick review:

  • To add an anchor point, just click with the pen tool.
  • To add an anchor point with direction handles protruding outward, click the Pen tool and drag it away from the anchor point before releasing the mouse button. The further you pull, the longer the directional handles are.
  • To rotate the directional handles together, hold down Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac). This will take you to the direct selection tool temporarily. Then click on the end of one of the handles and drag it around the anchor point. The other handle rotates in the opposite direction.
  • To rotate the direction handles independently, hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) to temporarily switch to the Convert Point tool. Then click on the end of one of the handles and drag it around the anchor point. The other handle does not turn.
  • To resize handles without breaking the link between them, hold down Ctrl (Win) or Command (Mac) to switch to the direct selection tool. Then click on the end of one of the handles. Drag it toward the anchor point to shorten it, or drag it away from the anchor point to lengthen it.
  • To resize and disconnect the handles, hold down Alt (Win) or Option (Mac) to switch to the Convert Point tool, and then click the end one of the handles. Drag it towards the anchor point to shorten it, or drag it away from the anchor point to lengthen it.
  • To rotate the directional handles together after they are disconnected, hold down Ctrl + Alt (Windows) / Command + Option (Mac), click the end of one of the handles, and drag it around the anchor point. The other handle turns again.

Okay, that pretty much covers the basics of controlling the directional handles. Let's see how we can use them to draw some curves!

We have done a lot so far. We know anchor points and direction handles. We know that all we need to do to draw straight path segments is set a series of anchor points wherever we need them, simply by clicking with the Pen tool. As we add more and more anchor points, we add more straight sections to our path. We know how to create directional handles and rotate them either together or separately and how to resize them.

We can turn a path into a selection by clicking the Load Path As Selection icon at the bottom of the Paths palette or by simply pressing Ctrl + Enter (Win) / Command + Return (Mac) on the keyboard . One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that regardless of whether our path is straight lines,
curves, or a combination of straight lines and curves converted into a selection, happens the same way. we've already learned how to do that. that means we are well on the way to mastering the selection with the pen! We just need to practice a little how to draw curves and that is exactly what we are going to do!

Are you still scrolling? Download this tutorial as a PDF!

Draw a curve

Let's start all over again by either opening a new blank document in Photoshop or deleting what you've already done. We are going to draw our first curve so that we can use all of our newly acquired knowledge of directional grips. First, with the Pen tool selected and the Paths option selected from the Options Bar, click anywhere in your document to add an anchor point. Just click, don't click and drag. You should have a single anchor point on the screen by the time you're done.

Then move the pointer up and to the right of your original anchor point. Click again to add a second anchor point. This time, drag the mouse a little to the right of the anchor point to pull out the directional handles. Hold down Shift while dragging to constrain movement in a horizontal direction. When you pull out the direction handles, your path will show up as a curve between the two anchor points! The further you drag the mouse, the longer the direction handles become and the more a curve is created:

Click once to add an anchor point, then use direction handles to drag out a second anchor point to create a curved path segment between the two points.

Click down to the right of the second anchor point and to add a third anchor point. This time, don't click and drag, just click:

Add a third anchor point down and to the right of the second by clicking with the Pen tool.

As soon as you add the third anchor point, you will see a second path segment connecting the second anchor point to the third. And since direction handles extend from our second anchor point, this new path segment is also curved! We now have a nice, smooth arch that starts from the first point on the left, then goes up through the anchor point with the directional levers and ends at the third point.

One thing you may have noticed, and that you can see in the screenshot above, is that when you added the third anchor point, the direction handle that spanned the left side of the second anchor point disappeared. It's still there, Photoshop just hidden it. Use the keyboard shortcut you have already learned to display it again. Temporarily switch to the Direct Selection tool by holding down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) and then clicking the second anchor point to select it. Once you do that, the missing direction handle reappears as if it was there all along (which it was):

Hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) to temporarily switch to the Direct Selection tool, then click the top anchor point to select it.The missing anchor point is displayed again.

If you continue to hold down the Ctrl / Command key so you can still access the Direct Selection tool, try resizing each of the directional handles by clicking the ends of the handles to select them and them then pull towards and away from the anchor point. Hold Shift again as you drag to constrain movement horizontally and see what happens. As you increase the length of a handle you get more curves, and as you decrease the length you get fewer curves. Also note that each handle controls its own side of the curve. The left handle controls the curve that enters the anchor point from the left, and the right handle controls the curve that flows from the right anchor point.

Here I've made my left handle shorter, and as we can see the curve is now much smaller than it was originally and becomes almost a straight line. I've also made the handle on the right longer and as a result the curve on the right is now much more pronounced. The weak curve is the original for comparison:

Change the shape of the curves by resizing the direction handles.The left handle controls the left curve and the right handle controls the right curve.

I undo my changes by pressing Ctrl + Alt + Z (Win) / Command + Option + Z (Mac) multiple times to reset my directional handles back to their original size so they are the same length again. Now let's try turning the handles. Hold down Ctrl / Command again to access the direct selection tool. Then click the end of one of the handles to select it and try rotating it around the anchor point. Since we selected the handle with "Ctrl / Command", both handles rotate together. Here I dragged my left handle down and to the right and the angle of the left curve has changed accordingly and now appears as a kind of slope as it rises towards the anchor point. By pulling the left handle down and to the right, I rotated the right handle up and left, and again the angle of the curve on the right changed and now rose just above the anchor point before creating a steep descent to the anchor point on the right. Again, the weak curve is the original for comparison:

Rotate the direction handles to change the angle of the curves.Select a handle while holding down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) to rotate both handles together.

The dreaded "loop"
One thing to avoid is rotating the handles too far, which will cause your path segments to overlap and create loops. Here I turned my handles all the way around so the left handle is now on the right and the right handle on the left, and notice what happened. My path segments now overlap and form a loop:

If you turn the direction handles too far, the path segments will overlap and create an undesirable loop in the path.

Loops can be caused by turning the direction handles too far, like I did above. In most cases, however, a handle is too long, making the curve too long and overlapping. When this happens, which is sometimes the case when drawing a path, simply shorten the length of the direction handle. Most users create a number of loops along the way when they first use the Pen tool. So don't think that you are the only one. No need to panic or get frustrated. As I said, the problem is most likely caused by a direction handle being too long. All you have to do is shorten the handle to "de-sand" the loop!

I hit Ctrl + Alt + Z (Win) / Command + Option + Z (Mac) a couple of times to undo my changes and return my path to the nice, smooth arc I started with. Now what about turning the directional handles independently of each other? As we learned on the previous page, instead of using Ctrl / Command to select them, you can rotate the handles one at a time. To do this, just hold down the Alt (Win) or Option (Mac) key to temporarily access the Convert Point tool. Click the end of a handle to select it, then drag the mouse to rotate it. This time the other handle stays in place, breaking the connection between them.

Here I selected the handle on the right with the "Alt / Option" key pressed and then turned it down and left. Notice that the angle of the path segment on the right changes again to match the new direction of the handle. This time, both the handle on the left and the path segment on the left stay in place. My path now looks a bit like a shark fin:

Hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) to temporarily access the Point Transform Tool, then click the end of a direction handle to select it and rotate it independently of the other handle.

Move an anchor point

One thing we haven't looked at is moving an anchor point. If you remember, I mentioned on the previous page that the Pen Tool is extremely forgiving, and one of the reasons it does is because we can not only rotate and resize our direction handles after we create them, but also that we can easily move the anchor points from one point to another if we have to. As we've already learned, anchor Anchor points a path in its place. The anchor points themselves are, however not fixed anchored. You can move an anchor point anytime, anywhere, and any associated path segments will move and adjust accordingly.

To move an anchor point, hold down Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac) to temporarily access the direct selection tool. Then just click on the anchor point to select it and drag it to its new location using your mouse. All associated path segments are moved to the new location. Here I have dragged my middle anchor point down a bit from its original position (again the weak path marks the original position for comparison). Notice how the path itself has changed shape to accommodate the new location of the anchor point:

Hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac), and click an anchor point to select it. Then drag it to a new location.All of the path segments connected to the point move with it and change shape as needed.

Typically, when you sketch an object with a path to select it with the Pen tool, you don't have to go as far to an anchor point as above, but it's very common that you will go back around the path after you created it and here and moved a few anchor points to optimize the path. Once you've selected an anchor point, you can use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move it up, down, left, or right.

Combine straight paths with curves

What if I didn't want both path segments to be curves? What if the first segment of the path had to be curved and the second segment had to be straight? Let's see how it works. I will delete my existing path and start over. First, I'm going to click to add an anchor point that things start from. Then I click like before to add a second anchor point up and to the right of my starting point and this time I pull out directional handles, creating a curved path that connects the two points giving me exactly what I had at the top of this page:

Click once to add an anchor point.Then click to add a second anchor point and drag out the direction handles to create a curve.

I now have my starting curve, but I want my next path segment to be straight. Now, if I just clicked anywhere to add another anchor point, I would get another curve as this direction handle comes from the right side of the last anchor point added. What I have to do is get rid of that one directional grip. Without a direction handle to control the angle and length of a curve, we get a straight line.

To remove the handle and just leave the handle to the left of the anchor point, I just need to hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac). This will temporarily switch me back to the point conversion tool and then to I just click the anchor point directly. When I do that, the direction handle on the right disappears and only the one on the left remains:

Hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click directly on the anchor point to remove the direction handle on the right. Just leave the one on the left.

Now when I click a new anchor point with the direction handle removed, a straight path segment appears between the two points:

When you right-click the direction handle to add a new anchor point, a straight path segment is added between the two points.

I now have a curved path segment on the left and a straight one on the right! What if I wanted exactly the opposite? Suppose I had to start with a straight segment of the path and then follow it with a curve? To do this, I'll start by clicking to add a first anchor point. Then, since I want a straight path segment, all I have to do is click somewhere else to add a second anchor point and I automatically get a straight path connecting the two points:

Click the Pen tool to add an initial anchor point, then click again to add a second anchor point and create a straight path segment in between.

I'll be holding my mouse button down after clicking to add my second anchor point because I want my next path segment to be curved and we know we need a direction handle to create a curve. To add a handle that protrudes to the right of my anchor point, I hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and just drag the mouse button to the right of the anchor point. Meanwhile, a direction handle is dragged along with it:

Hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and drag a direction handle out to the right of the anchor point.

Notice that the direction handle only extends from the right side of the anchor point, not both sides, and leaves my straight path segment in place on the left. And now that I have the direction point on the right, all I need to do is add a third point to create my curve:

Click to add a third anchor point that creates a curved path segment between the previous and new anchor points.

And let's go! I now have a straight path segment on the left, followed by a curved segment on the right. Of course, most of the paths you draw consist of more than three anchor points. Suppose I wanted to continue on this path and move to the right in the same general direction, and I want my next path segment to curve as well. Just like a moment ago, I released my mouse button after clicking to add my third point. I would hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and drag a different direction point. So far we've only dragged handles to the right, but you really want to drag your handles in the general direction that you want the curve to follow. I want to create a curve that goes up and to the right, so I'll drag a little handle in the same general direction:

Drag the direction handles in the general direction of the curve.

Tip! It's best to keep the direction handles small the first time you drag because you never know exactly how long or at what angle they will need to be before the actual curve appears and the curve does not appear until you've added both anchor points . Once you've added both points and the curve is showing, it's easy to go back and make the necessary adjustments to the sizing handles. You may even want to wait until you've drawn the entire path before worrying about adjusting the handles.

After my direction handle has been created, I'll add a fourth anchor point by clicking and also pull the direction handles out of it:

Adding a fourth anchor point along with directional handles from it.

I have now added a third segment to my path, this is a curve. Notice that this curve is actually over two Has direction handles, one extending to the right of my third anchor point and one to the left of my fourth point:

The third path segment now has two direction handles on either end that work together to steer the curve.

The overall shape of this curve is now controlled by the length and direction of these two handles. Watch what happens to the curve when I move the handles. I drag the lower handle down and to the right and the upper handle up and to the left. I also pull both handles longer. The weak curve is the original for comparison:

Changing the direction and / or length of any of the handles changes the overall shape of the curve.After rotating and extending both handles, the curve is now displayed in an "S" shape.

The curve is now a bit "S" shaped, and that's because the bottom handle controls the angle and length of the curve as it starts from the third anchor point, while the top handle controls the angle and length of the curve it does flows into the fourth point. Changing the length and / or direction of any of the handles changes the overall shape of the curve.

I hit Ctrl + Alt + Z (Win) / Command + Option + Z (Mac) a couple of times to undo the changes I made. So the curve is again in the shape of a simple arc like in a moment I think I'll end this path with another straight segment, which means that I have to remove the direction handle that comes from the right side of the fourth anchor point. We already learned how to do this by holding down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and clicking directly on the anchor point:

Hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click directly on the anchor point to remove the direction handle on the right.

After the direction point is gone, all I need to do is add one more anchor point to add a straight path segment:

The direction point on the right has now disappeared. So you can add a straight path segment simply by clicking to add another anchor point.

We could continue this path as long as we wanted, adding more straight segments and curves, but I think we'll stop here because we've covered pretty much everything we could about drawing paths with the Pen tool at this point need to know. That was a lot of information, especially if this is your first time learning about paths. As I mentioned at the beginning, you won't become a pen master just by reading this tutorial, just as you won't learn to ride a bike or drive a car, learn to swim or play the piano. Hopefully by this point you have some sense of how to draw paths with the Pen tool, how to draw straight path segments, how to draw curves by pulling out directional handles, how to adjust the length and angle of the curve by rotating and resizing change the handles and how to combine straight and curved segments in a path.

To finish making selections with the Pencil tool, let's look at a practical example of selecting an object with curves.

Here we have a photo of a couple of dolphins jumping out of the water. Definitely some very curvy creatures:

A photo of two dolphins jumping out of the water.

Suppose we want to select these dolphins so we can use them for a design or a collage, or whatever. If you tried to select them with the Lasso Tool, which would most likely be if you didn't know how to use the Pen Tool, you would not only have a hard time but an even harder time to get around convince yourself that you were satisfied with the results when you finished. The reason for this is that the Lasso tool cannot make very good curve selections. The biggest problem with this is that not only are you using a pixel-based selection tool, but you also have a steady hand to move it around the curves smoothly. Even if you don't have a caffeine addiction, you could go insane trying to draw a perfectly smooth curve with your mouse or even a pen tablet and if you finally give up you will still be left with a selection full of harsher choices , jagged edges that only scream "amateur". Nobody likes to be called an amateur, especially when there is no need to do so thanks to the pen tool!

First, examine the object
If you want to select something with the Pen tool, before you begin, take a moment to carefully examine the object to determine where to place your anchor points. Forget all the details in the object and focus only on its shape. Where are the areas where the shape is changing? Which parts of the shape are straight? Which parts are curved? Is a curve a smooth, continuous arc, or does the angle change at some point along the curve? Imagine where to place your anchor points because when you place one you always want to think about the next and what the path segment between the two points should look like.

A tool of elegance
Also note that the pen tool is meant to be a tool of elegance. It is not a nail gun or a staple gun. You don't want to just click around your shape and add anchor points (that's a technical term). When you use it to draw curves, you want those curves to be nice and smooth. Otherwise, you might as well stick to the lasso tool. In order for the curves to go smoothly, we need to limit the number of anchor points we will use to create them. Because of this, you'll want to take a moment to examine the object first and visualize where the anchor points need to be. If you can sketch a large section of the shape with just one curve with an anchor point on either end, this is what you want to do because it will give you the results you want. The kind of results that scream "definitely." no Amateur!".

Let's pick these dolphins. I start my path in the center of the photo where the side of the dolphin on the left overlaps the back fin of the dolphin on the right. There is no right or wrong place to begin a path. This is where I've decided to start. The first part of this back flipper is straight. Since I don't need a direction handle to create a straight path segment, I just click once with the Pen tool to add my first anchor point, which will serve as the starting point for my path:

Add the first anchor point.

As I mentioned earlier, it will likely help to enlarge the image as you draw the path. Hold the spacebar to pan the image on the screen while zooming in. This will temporarily switch you to the hand tool. You can move the picture around the screen by clicking and dragging it.

The top of this flipper actually has a slight curve as it approaches the dolphin's tail section. So for my second anchor point, I'll click the point where the flipper and tail section meet and go to drag the short directional handles up and right in the direction the tail section is moving. Notice that I've now created a slight curve along the fin:

Adding the second anchor point and dragging out small directional points to add a slight curve to the first path segment.

If I drive further along the stern, I see that it stays straight for a short distance, followed by a curve on the right-hand side. So I'll add a third anchor point where the curve starts. This gives me a straight stretch of path between the previous and the new point. I know there is a short directional handle starting from the previous anchor point which usually means my new path segment is a curve, not a straight section, but because the handle is so short and also moves in the same direction as the path segment , no curve can be seen. Think of it as a "mostly straight" path segment:

Click to add the third anchor point and create a (mostly) straight path segment.

Next we come to the first real bend on our way. To do this, I need to drag a direction handle from the anchor point I just added, so hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and then drag a handle in the general direction where I want the curve to flow when it starts. Notice that I'm only dragging one handle out from one side of the anchor point, not both:

Hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) to drag a direction handle out from either side of an anchor point.

To add the curve, I click and drag where the curve ends and shape the curve while dragging the handles out until it matches the curve of the dolphin's tail. If necessary, I could also go back and change the length and direction of the handle at the beginning of the curve to fine tune it. In this case, however, I don't have to do that:

Add an anchor point at the opposite end of the curve and drag out directional handles, rotate, and resize until the curve matches the curve of the object.

The dolphin's next area is fairly straight until its back merges with its dorsal fin. At this point there is another curve. So just before the dorsal fin curve I will click to begin adding an anchor point, which will give me another "mostly straight" path segment between the previous point and the new point. Then I'll hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) again and drag out a direction point as I prepare for my next segment of the path, which will be curved:

Click to add an anchor point, hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) and drag out a direction point to prepare for the next segment of the path.

The left side of the dorsal fin consists mainly of a continuous curve upwards until it is at the very top. At this point the shape changes. To create this curve, I'll click and drag near the tip where the curve is and the curve will change direction. As we can see in the screenshot, a curved path segment is added between the previous and the new anchor point, but the curve does not yet follow the shape of the fin. Fine tuning will be needed:

Add a curve along the left side of the dorsal fin.The curve still needs to be adjusted.

To adjust the curve, I just hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) to temporarily access the Direct Selection tool and drag the handle from the bottom out anchor point to the right to make it longer, making the angle of the curve is pulled to the right together with the curve of the fin. I also turned the top directional handles slightly clockwise to be a little picky, but most of the adjustment was done with the lower directional handle:

Adjust the curve by adjusting the direction handles.

To add a curve above the fin, I click and drag on the opposite side to add another anchor point with short directional handles. Note, however, that we are encountering a problem. The direction handle on the left side of the curve is too long and pulls the curve away from the top of the fin:

The direction point on the left side of the curve is too long so the curve does not follow the shape of the fin.

To fix that, all I have to do is hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) one more time, then click the end of the handle to select it and drag it shorter until the curve is the right shape:

Shorten the direction handle to adjust the shape of the curve.

Let's finish creating our path around the dorsal fin. The rest of the fin is basically a straight line so I'm going to click on the base of the fin to add another anchor point which will add the straight path segment and complete our path around the fin:

Add an anchor point at the base of the fin to draw the path around it.

Since you and I would be here all day, if I continued to comment on each anchor point, direction point, and section of path as we slowly move around the dolphins, and since we've covered everything we need to know at this point, I'll cover the rest of the Draw the path and sketch the two dolphins:

Both dolphins are now outlined by the path.

The dolphins have now been outlined with the path, and if we look at the Paths palette we can safely tell that we have a path in the shape of the dolphins:

Photoshop Paths palette with the outline of the dolphins in the preview thumbnail.

As we've learned, Photoshop automatically names the path "Working Path," which means that it is temporary and will be replaced when we start a new path. If you want to save it you will need to double click on the name "Working Path" and rename it to something else, in this case "Dolphins". I'm not worried about that as I don't have to save it. At this point, I just want to convert my path to a selection. Since I'm already in the "Paths" palette, I click on the "Load path as selection" icon at the bottom of the palette:

Click the Load Path As Selection icon at the bottom of the Paths palette.

I could have used the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Enter (Win) / Command + Enter (Mac). Either way, my path is converted to a selection, and when I look at my photo I can see that my path has actually become a selection around the dolphins:

The path around the dolphins has now been converted into a selection.

Where to go next ...