How To Use Photoshop Pen Tool

MichaelM 24-06-2009

how-to-use-pen-tool-in-photoshopGood evening, Ladies and Gents,


Allow me to re-introduce myself, my name is Mike, also (hopefully) known in the online community as Commodore 64 or C64 for short. I have spent the last 12 years, since Photoshop 5.5, exploring the many realms of this staple of the graphic designer’s diet. Aside from the usual plethora of features, Photoshop offers tools for anyone ranging from budding photographer to astrononomer.

Throughout the years, I’ve known Photoshop to be ultra powerful in the pathing arena. The pathing tool, or pen tool, might very well be the most powerful tool in the Adobe arsenal mainly because of its origins.

I’ll keep this history lesson brief: The idea behind the pen tool, or less commonly known as the Bezier tool (pictured above) is that geometric constants can be used to create flowing, curvacious lines and designs. It was because of this tool, developed by Pierre Bézier in 1962 and then put to work in the auto manufacturing industry, came about the advent of curvy, smooth cars rather than the Caprice Classics of the day. Fast forward to 2009 – Adobe has put Beziers mathematic principles to good use in many of it’s previous versions of Photoshop and Illustrator up until today.

I use the pen tool primarily to make quick, smooth, profesh cutouts of anything ranging from a bikini model with hair blowing in the wind to a tree with a multitude of branches (in combination with some color specific selections).

Today, we’ll concentrate on pathing out a simple object from its background, let’s say a freshly cut orange with shadows on a white surface:



Firstly, we need to identify a few key features we’ll need to pay attention to as we path. First, the base shadow and the shadow reflection on the actual oranges. We will be removing the base shadow and leaving the shadow reflection on the orange for now.

Secondly, let’s choose our pen tool (How To Use Photoshop Pen Tool penbutton).

We need to verify that the pen tool is set correctly for what we’re doing – the graphic below depicts how your pen tool options should be set:



Now, we begin to path. Usually, I like to start at a spot where two circular shapes meet at a rough, sharp angle. In this case, it’s on top. Click once there as shown to create your first anchor point.

How To Use Photoshop Pen Tool step1

Next, follow (with your eyes) along to the right around the circumference of the orange. Since the orange is not a perfect circle, follow until you see a jitter of some sort in the smoothness of the circle, in this case its near the stem.


Click and HOLD the left mouse button where you see a jitter to create another anchor point and pull the handle it creates to manipulate the resulting path to snugly fit around the shape of the orange as shown on the left. Don’t be afraid to take the tool outside of the white work area. You can now release the mouse button.

Step 2

The next step, while holding down the Alt key, grab (click and hold) the handle that extends in the direction you’re traveling with the pathing tool (clockwise), in this case the handle on the bottom right. Drag this handle point into the origin of the anchor point as shown and release. You’ve just created your first path line!

Step 3


Note: The Bezier tool is only capable of creating partial circles with each pair of path points. Anything more than a quarter-circle will require another pair of anchor points as it will become oval, thus losing its roundness.

Continue these 3 steps while following snugly around the oranges. Make sure not to spread your anchor points too thinly.

Once you follow around the oranges, taking care to exclude the base shadow from your path as shown. Close the path by simply clicking and holding on the path point where you first started as shown, while pulling the handle out until the desired final shape is achieved.

Step 4

You now have a completed path. You can use this path to create a cutout selection using the paths panel alongside the layers panel, while also knocking out the shadow that was previously given to this picture.

All Done!

In order to knock out the shadows remaining on the oranges themselves, you have to simply grab the dodge tool at maybe 10% and start to lightly brush away the shadowy areas on the bottom until the area is a nice orange. On top of that, you can also create your own shadow and lighting direction since you will have knocked out the original shadow and now have a layer with an actual shape to it.

I hope this helps all of the aspiring Photoshoppers out there to begin delving a little deeper into the powers of the Photoshop. Thanks for reading folks.

Have questions? Drop them in the comments. Have comments? Drop them in the comments. See any discrepencies between Gimp and Photoshop? Drop them in the comments.

If you’re new to Photoshop make sure to download An Idiot’s Guide To Photoshop Learn Photo Editing in Photoshop: Get the Basics Down in 1 Hour Photoshop is an intimidating program—but with just one hour, you can learn all of the basics. Grab a photo you want to edit, and let's get started! Read More .

Related topics: Adobe Photoshop, Image Editor.

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  1. Shams Us Sakeeb
    August 11, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Great article!! Your in depth research will help me an amateur designer like me to explore different tools on Photoshop.

  2. Anonymous
    October 18, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Well explained...Thanks..

  3. Anonymous
    October 1, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    I have seen your post complete, a super way you have adopted for better understanding. The Pen is a super tool for cutting but as well as it can be used in creating custom shapes or contours. I have created a BAT shape with help of Pen Tool See here

  4. Cindy
    October 19, 2009 at 10:02 am

    You are an absolute lifesaver! I've tried to learn how to use the pen tool properly on several occasions and failed miserably every time. I'm very excited to finally get to work with this handy (so I've heard) little tool! :) Thanks!

  5. Karl L. Gechlik |
    June 25, 2009 at 9:55 am

    You are the man. Awesome tutorial Mike!

  6. bubbles
    June 24, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I had no clue you could hold the mouse button down and move the curve of the line that way, nor did I know about the Alt-key trick.

    Thank you kindly, you introduced me to using the Pen tool after staring at it for eight years wondering how to use it

    • MichaelM
      June 25, 2009 at 9:58 am

      If not for a friend showing me, I might never have known. It's these little tricks that get people's juices flowing. Thanks for reading and I'm glad to be of help.

  7. [g]
    June 24, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    WOW thanks a lot ,
    i just started learning photoshop a few months back
    and i was never able to use the pen tool , because i could not understand how to use it , Now i am totally addicted to it ,

    this has helped me a lot

    • MichaelM
      June 25, 2009 at 9:57 am

      It really is awesome, and once you dive into the many capabilities of paths and masks, the pen tool becomes REALLY powerful...

  8. Ian Swenson
    June 24, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    For years I hated the pen tool because I could never quite figure it out. The turning point for me was learning the ALT-click trick (removing one of the two handles from the point). Ever since the pen tool and I have been inseparable.

    This is a great write-up and I urge all burgeoning Photoshoppers to use the pen tool!

    • MichaelM
      June 24, 2009 at 8:35 pm

      I came about the pen tool in much the same way. It was useless to me until an old friend of mine showed me the Alt-drag modifier and I was off and away.
      Thanks for reading...

  9. Guy McDowell
    June 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Awesome. I knew it was a powerful tool, but never used it. This simple, straightforward explanation will certainly help.

    • MichaelM
      June 24, 2009 at 8:34 pm

      Glad to have helped... enjoy