This is a quick guide for anyone new to digital graphics. Coming from an old product, Macromedia Flash (which was bought by Adobe and later became Adobe Animate), I was used to drawing a line and dragging that line into a curve. Changing curves from their points was unfamiliar and took some learning.
Almost all Adobe products have a ‘pen’ tool that allows you to manipulate curves and lines. Learning how to properly use this tool will make things easier, from creating shapes in Adobe Illustrator to cutting out backgrounds for images in Adobe Photoshop. While the tool function is about the same across all applications, here we will look at its use in Adobe Illustrator.
Drawing straight-line paths
Like connect-the-dot drawings, the basic function of the pen tool is to connect dots, or clicks, with straight lines. Let’s make a few basic shapes.
- Select the ‘pen’ tool (P). The mouse cursor will change to what looks like a calligraphy pen tip with an ‘X’ at the lower-right corner. This means it will create a point when you click.
- Click where you want to start, move the cursor to the next point and click again. A straight line now connects the two points.
- After making a few points, move back to the first point. Notice that the cursor changes to a pen with an ‘O’ instead of an ‘X’. This means it will close the path when you click.
We now have a basic closed shape like #1 shown below.
SHIFT + CLICK
- If you want to create straight lines and perfect boxes, simply hold ‘SHIFT’ after the first point. The next point will be stuck either horizontal or vertical to the last point.
- In order to line-up points with other points and objects, you may notice green guide lines show with an ‘X’ symbol and ‘intersect’ show up.
- Click when the ‘X’ shows and the point will snap to line up with the other objects (as #3 above). You can make perfect squares this way, or align objects as you draw.
CONTROL + CLICK
If you want to select a shape or create an open shape, holding control lets you do this.
- Hold ‘Control’ and notice that the mouse pointer changes to a black arrow. This means it will select a shape.
- Draw a shape, but instead of closing it, ‘Control + click’ on the white space. The object will be de-selected and the next click will start a new shape.
- ‘Control + click’ the shape you drew and it is now selected again.
- Hold ‘Control’ and click/drag the path to move it.
- Let go of the ‘control’ key and hover over the path. The mouse pointer now shows a ‘+’. Click on the path and a new point is created.
- With the path still selected, hover over a point. The mouse pointer shows a ‘-‘ now. Clicking here will delete that point.
Direct Select Tool (A)
In order to move points around, press ‘A’ to select the ‘Direct Select’ tool. The mouse pointer changes to a white arrow. In the example #4 below, we have added and moved five points to create a star.
- With the Direct Select tool, hover over the shape and the points will show little white boxes.
- Click on a point and drag it around.
- ‘SHIFT + click’ on points to select multiple points. The points will turn to solid boxes meaning they are selected.
- Click and drag one of the solid-box points and all selected points will move together.
Creating curves with ‘Convert Anchor Point’ Tool
Now you should be pretty comfortable creating shapes with straight lines in Adobe Illustrator. Let’s add some curves now. The ‘Convert Anchor Point Tool’ can be accessed directly from the pen tool or separately by pressing ‘Shift + C’. Let’s access it from the pen tool so you can make curves on the go.
- Select the first path (the star) with a ‘Control + click’.
- Hold the ‘ALT’ key down. Notice the mouse pointer changes to an angle shape.
- ALT+click/drag on a point. You will see two lines come out from the point and get bigger the further away you go. Simultaneously, the lines going to that point will begin to curve.
Change the position and distance from the point to create curved shape. In #5 below, we created a ‘starfish’ shape by converting all of the points.
Fine-tuning curves with the Bezier handles
Notice in Example #5 that all of the selected points have lines with dots on the ends. These are Bezier handles. Dragging them around changes the angle and size of the curve. The curve is always smooth. If we want to make a sharp curve, we use the ‘Convert Anchor Point’ tool again.
- Hover over one of the Bezier handle ends.
- Holding the ‘ALT’ key, click and drag.
- The side of the curve you manipulate now moves independent of the other side. You can make angles on that side and control both sides.
If you want to go back to a smooth curve, simply ‘ALT’ + click/drag the point on the curve and it will go back to a smooth curve.
Functionality in other Adobe applications
The pen tool works pretty much the same in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Animate and so on. If you need to cut the background out of an image, using the pen tool to create your mask is a great way to quickly create a mask and fine-tune the curve to get the perfect cut-out. Using the shortcuts and clicks, creating and editing paths in Adobe Illustrator can be quick and easy.