Making the leap from traditional illustration mediums (pencil, pen and ink, paints, etc) to vectors is tough. Your first foray into vector software can leave you frustrated, disappointed and confused. In this tutorial, we’re going to start at the drawing board and show you how the Pen Tool works, rather than make you struggle to figure it out on your own!
Many artists assume you open your vector program and then doodle right onto the screen. You can do this in Photoshop and it works fairly well. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple with vectors! There is a tool that will let you draw on-screen (the pencil tool), but it’s tricky to use. It’s not at all like drawing on paper and you probably won’t be too happy with your first results. Instead, we’re going to show you how to use the Pen Tool.
What is a Vector?
First off, let’s talk about what makes a vector different from other digital imagery. Digital images (which we call ‘rasters’) are made up of tiny pixels of color. When you enlarge one of these rasters, the pixels will get bigger and bigger: Eventually you will start to see some degradation in the image quality, as the pixels look pretty jagged and lousy at large sizes.
Vectors are completely different. Instead of being made of teeny dots of color, a vector file’s appearance is defined by the outlines on each shape. These outlines will print sharp and clear no matter how big you resize it, because the file’s appearance isn’t defined by little dots, just the outlines.
We call these vector outlines ‘paths’. When you’re in a vector program, you can switch your view of a file to see the paths (as opposed to all the nice colors and shading you’ve added). This is how a vector looks in outline view (which you can get to in Adobe Illustrator by hitting ‘Command-Y’ on a Mac or ‘Control-Y’ on a PC):
As you can see, the only data in your file are the outlines (paths) around all your shapes. But how do you draw paths?
Paths are created by drawing a series of points (also called ‘anchors’ or ‘anchor points’). Think of points like a connect-the-dots game: you’ll be drawing lines in between points to create an image. You can add curves to your paths to create rounded shapes, and use points as corners. Let’s play around with some options using our Pen Tool.
In Adobe Illustrator, you can bring up your pen tool at any time by hitting ‘P’ on your keyboard. You can also find it in your Tools palette.
The Pen Tool cursor looks like a little crowquill pen with a tiny ‘X’ on the bottom right corner.
With a new document open, click the pen tool once onto your artboard. Congratulations, you have just created your first point! It will show up as a small blue square. Now move the pen tool somewhere else and click again. Here’s what you’ll end up with:
If you continue clicking, you’ll notice that whichever point you’ve placed last will show blue, while all the other points are outlined with a white inside:
This is because, at any point, you can go back and edit your points. A blue filled point means you’ve got that point selected and it’s ready to modify. You can move them around or even turn them into curved shapes (which we’ll cover shortly). This is one of the best things about vectors: you can tweak them as much as you like, without degrading your file. You can’t do that with a pen and ink drawing!
As you’re clicking, you’ll notice that little ‘X’ icon that was appearing next to your pen tool has disappeared. This is because there are a lot of options for your pen tool that only show when you’re hovering over a point. Let’s take a look at what you can do with your Pen Tool while you’re drawing.
Editing Paths and Points
Here we’ve drawn a star. OK, I didn’t actually draw this: stars are pretty hard to draw freehand, so I cheated and used the Shape tool’s ‘Star Tool’. Now we’re going to play around with some of the points, to show some of the things you can do to edit a shape.
Select the star, then bring your pen tool up again (‘P’ on your keyboard). Hover your Pen Tool cursor over one of the points in your star: You’ll see a little minus sign icon appear to the bottom right of your Pen. If you click on the point while this icon is showing, you will delete that point, like this:
As you can see, by removing that point, the path adjusts to align in between the 2 closest points. Now let’s figure out how to add a point to a path.
Again, hover your pen over your star shape but this time, hover it on the path we’ve just created. Now you will see your Pen icon gets a little plus sign icon. If you click on that path, you will get a whole new point to play with:
Since your new point is selected (filled with blue), you can move it around. Click on your direction arrows on your keyboard, and you’ll see the point moves around:
Tip: If you hold down your ‘shift’ key while using your keyboard’s direction arrows, the points you are moving will move much faster. This can be handy when you need to move an point a great distance.
Selecting Points and Paths
You can also move points around right on screen. To do this, you’ll need your ‘Selection’ arrows. There are 2 different arrows in your tool palette. One is black, the other is white.
Click on the black arrow first (or hit ‘V’ on your keyboard). Click on a shape with the black arrow and you will notice all of the points will be selected (filled with blue). You’ll also get a little blue square around your entire shape, this is called the ‘Bounding Box’:
The bounding box will show you what shape you’re working on: this gets very handy when you have a very complicated illustration full of shapes layered on top of each other.
As you can see, the black arrow is useful when you need to move an entire shape around. To edit an individual point or path, you’ll need to use the ‘Direct Selection’ arrow, the white one. To bring it up, click on the white arrow icon in your Tool palette, or hit ‘A’ on your keyboard.
Click and drag your Direct Select arrow over one of your points. You will see that that point fills with blue, while all the other points fill with white. You’ve now selected the blue point and can manipulate it separately from your other points. You can also select multiple points at once.
Creating Curved Paths
Now let’s play around with curved lines. We’re starting with a polygon that we made using the Shape tool. Notice how each point is placed in between a straight line. These are known as ‘corner’ points, because, well, they’re corners 😉 To add curves, we’ll need to learn about Control Handles.
Curved paths in vector software are controlled by Control Handles. Think of Control Handles like strings attached to a marionette, the marionette in this case being the path: if you move the Control Handle around, the path will move along in a curved shape, just like a marionette’s arm will raise if you pull that string up.
Let’s start with a simple curve on a point. Select one point on your polygon with your Direct Select arrow (‘A’ on your keyboard), and bring up your pen tool again (‘P’). Hover the pen over the point you’ve selected but this time, hold down the ‘Option’ key. Your Pen Tool icon will now turn into a little ‘V’ shape.
Click on your point but hold down your mouse button and drag your cursor slowly to one side. On either side of your point, you’ll get a blue line with a dot on the end. These are your Control Handles, and as you can see, they give the paths on either side of your point a curve:
Random Fact: If you want to get fancy, these curves are also called ‘Bezier’ curves (beh-zee-ay), named after Pierre Bezier. He’s a French mathematician who developed a formula for defining mathematical curves.
Play around with your handles. You can select each handle using your Direct Select arrow. Moving them around will change the shape you’re working on, and making them longer or shorter will modify how much of a curve your path will have. Here are a couple of examples of different Control Handle effects on the same shape:
While you are drawing with your pen tool, you can create a curve at any time. To do so, click with your pen tool to create a curve but hold down the mouse button as you do so. Slowly drag the mouse away from your point while still holding the mouse button down, and you’ll get Control Handles on either side of your point.
Converting a Smooth Point into a Corner Point
As you play around you will notice that while you can adjust the length of each handle, both handles will move together, like they’re connected along a flat plane. This kind of point is known as a ‘smooth point’. To change this, hold down ‘Option’ as you select one of your handles and move it. Now your point is a corner point again:
Now your handles can move independently of each other. If you decide you want to go back to having your handles attached, bring up your Pen Tool again, and hold down ‘Option’ while clicking on the point. This will reconnect your handles for you.
You can also control your curves by modifying along your path. To do this, bring up your Direct Select arrow again, and click and drag your cursor over one of your paths (in our example, we’ve selected the curved path at the top of our polygon). Nothing will happen to your points, but you’ll see that now only one Control Handle is showing:
Click on your keyboard’s direction arrows and this will move your curve around for you. It’ll also add a Control Handle to the point next to your original curved point:
Now you have 2 handles to play around with, one on either end of your path:
That’s how you use some of the basic functions your Pen Tool! It sounds complicated but you’ll get the hang of the keyboard shortcuts down very quickly.
Tip: The best way to experiment with your Pen Tool is to trace something. This will give you practice using the Pen Tool features, and give you experience in adjusting your points and paths to align with an existing shape (the objects in your photograph). At first it will feel very tedious, but over time you’ll get much faster, we promise!
© 2009 Jennifer Borton