Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard application for graphic design. It’s the best tool for working with vector-based files.
Sadly not everyone has Illustrator, but lots of people do have Photoshop. And Photoshop has basic support for vector images. In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to work with vector graphics in Photoshop as an Illustrator replacement.
What Is a Vector Image?
Photoshop is primarily designed for raster images. These are polygonal images drawn pixel by pixel. They support huge amounts of detail, so are used for photos. The file sizes can be big, though, and you can’t enlarge without a loss of quality.
Vector images are lines and curves generated by mathematical formulas. This means you can resize them infinitely, and the file sizes are often very small. Vectors are great for graphic design work, including designing logos and icons.
A piece of vector art consists of multiple objects. Each object is a line or shape whose edge is defined by a path. In Photoshop, the path is shown as a thin blue line (although it’s technically invisible).
You can apply two types of color to each object.
- A Stroke is a line that follows the path.
- A Fill adds a solid color or pattern to the space surrounded by the path.
You set both in the options bar at the top of the screen. You can also set either to No Color if you want them to remain blank. For the stroke, you can also set the thickness in pixels and the style. A solid line is the default.
In Photoshop, you draw vector images with shapes, lines, and text.
Draw Vector Shapes and Lines
Photoshop comes with tools for drawing several common shapes. By default, the Rectangle Tool is highlighted. Click and hold on that icon to reveal the full set of tools:
- Rectangle Tool
- Rounded Rectangle Tool
- Ellipse Tool
- Polygon Tool
- Line Tool
- Custom Shape Tool
You can always select the highlighted tool by pressing U on your keyboard. Alternatively, press Shift + U to cycle through the tools until you find the one you want. Keyboard shortcuts are a good way to quickly navigate Photoshop.
Draw Basic Vector Shapes
Select the tool for the shape you want to draw, then add your Fill and Stroke colors.
Now click and drag in your canvas. The shape is drawn from the corner in whichever direction you’re dragging. To create a symmetrical shape, such as a circle or square, hold down the shift key.
To draw a triangle, select the Polygon Tool. Click once on your canvas to open the Create Polygon settings box. Set Number of Sides to 3.
Modify and Edit Vector Shapes
You aren’t restricted to basic shapes when creating vector graphics in Photoshop. They can be modified very quickly.
First, select the shape. This will highlight the shape, and show anchor points along its path. These are points where the shape has corners or curves.
Choose the Direct Selection Tool from the toolbar (click and hold on the Path Selection Tool icon to find it). Click one of the anchor points and drag it in any direction to deform the shape.
For more advanced edits, move two or more anchor points at the same time. Click one to highlight it, then Shift + click another. Now use the cursor keys on your keyboard to move both points simultaneously.
Merge and Combine Vector Shapes
For even more complex shapes, you can use Path Operations. This allows you to combine multiple shapes into single new ones.
Start by drawing a shape on your canvas. Next, click the Path Operations button in the options bar at the top of the screen. Normally, every new path or shape goes onto its own layer. Change that by clicking Combine Shapes.
Now draw another shape. This will go on the same layer as your first shape. When you need to move the objects individually, use the Path Selection Tool.
Drag the second shape so that it overlaps the first. The two merge together into a single shape, although they remain as separate objects. Click Merge Shape Components in Path Operations to combine them into a single object.
Use the Path Selection Tool to select the second shape you drew. Now, in Path Operations choose Subtract Front Shape. The shape is now deleted, along with the area where it overlaps with the first shape.
Highlight both shapes. In Path Operations select Intersect Shape Areas. This removes both shapes, apart from the areas where they overlap. We’re using this option to create a semi-circle.
Finally, highlight both shapes and select Exclude Overlapping Shapes. This removes the area where the two shapes overlap, and leaves everything else in tact.
These tools are an effective way to build new shapes, or to split or cut pieces out of existing ones. They work with the Pen Tool and Text as well.
Draw Vector Lines
There are two other shape-related tools to know about. First is the Line Tool.
Select the tool, and set the Height in the options bar. This sets the thickness of the line. Then click and drag in your document to draw it. Hold down the shift key to snap the line to zero or 90 degrees.
This tool does have a few hidden features, but for the most part you’ll be using it to draw a straight line.
Draw Custom Vector Shapes
Finally, the Custom Shape Tool. Set the fill and stroke colors, then click the Shape option in the options bar. Here, you can choose one of countless preset custom shapes that Photoshop provides.
To add more shapes beyond the initial selection, click the Settings cog and choose a category to add. There are shapes for all uses—icons, speech bubbles, arrows, textures, and more. You can also load third-party shapes.
Click and drag to add the shape to your image. You can also click on the canvas to specify an exact width and height.
Drawing Vectors With the Pen Tool
If you’ve got any experience with Illustrator, you’ll know that you use the Paintbrush Tool for freehand drawing. Photoshop has a Brush Tool that does a similar job. But in Photoshop the tool is not vector-based, so you shouldn’t use it for drawing. You should use the Pen Tool instead.
The Pen Tool is one of the most powerful features in Photoshop. You’ll use it a lot in photo editing in Photoshop, since it enables you to create very precise selections. It’s also great for drawing and vector art.
Get Started With the Pen Tool
The Pen Tool works by drawing a path between anchor points you create when you click on the canvas. Add a stroke to the path and you can draw an outline; add a fill and you can draw a solid object. For more, check out our full guide to using the Pen Tool.
Here’s a quick primer to get you started:
- Select the Pen Tool (P). Click on the image canvas to drop an anchor point.
- Move the cursor a few inches and click again to drop another anchor point. A path will be created to connect the two. Set the stroke to 5px, black, to help you see it better.
- Click a few more times to develop the path. Click and drag to create a curved path. This will also add handlebars to the anchor point. Drag these to control the angle and depth of the curve.
- Click Enter to create an open path (a line), or click the first anchor point to create a closed path (a shape).
What makes the Pen Tool so useful is that you can go back and edit your shape at any time:
- Get the Direct Selection Tool (A). Select an anchor point on the path and drag it to a new position. Use this tool with an anchor point’s handlebars to edit a curve, too.
- Select the Add Anchor Point Tool by clicking and holding on the Pen Tool. Click somewhere on the path to manually add a new anchor point, then drag it into place. This enables you to fine tune your shape.
Three Pen Tools
Photoshop offers three different pens for drawing.
The Pen Tool is the default, and most flexible option. For beginners, we’d recommend using this primarily for drawing straight lines. As you get more advanced you may find yourself using it for everything.
The Freeform Pen Tool lets you draw freehand, similar to the Brush Tool. It still creates a path that you can tweak and edit later. The anchor points are generated automatically as you draw. This is a great tool if you use a graphics tablet.
The Curvature Pen Tool makes it easy to draw curves without needing to play with the handlebars as you do with the main Pen Tool.
Trace an Image as a Vector in Photoshop
Once you’ve learned how to use the different pen tools, you can use them to trace images. This is how you turn a sketch you’ve scanned, or an object in a photo, into a vector image.
Open the image in Photoshop and zoom in. Now select the Pen Tool and place your first anchor point on the border of the object you want to trace. Your new drawing will automatically go onto its own layer. Continue clicking around the edges to create your path.
If the object you’re tracing is against a plain background, try the Freeform Pen Tool with the Magnetic option activated in the options bar. This snaps your path to the edge of the object.
Work With Vector Text in Photoshop
Using text in Photoshop is fairly self-explanatory. Select the Horizontal Text Tool (T), click on the image canvas to create a text box, then type. You can adjust the font, size, weight, and everything else, just as you would in any other app.
For normal text, set a fill color but no stroke. Only apply a stroke for heavily stylized text.
When you’re done you can convert the text into a vector object. Select the text and go to Type > Convert to Shape. This enables you to access the anchor points on each character, so you can tweak them individually. It’s good for changing the color of a single letter or tweaking the look of the font.
Once converted, the text is no longer editable. It’s a good idea to duplicate then hide the original text layer, just in case you need a back up.
Managing Vector Objects
In order to create your artwork you need all these objects to be in the right position and at the right size. Here’s how to do that.
- Move objects by selecting them with the Path Selection Tool (A) and dragging them into place.
- Resize objects by selecting them with the Path Selection Tool then hitting Ctrl + T on Windows or Cmd + T on Mac. This shows a box around the object. Grab a handlebar along the edge and drag in or out to resize. Hold the Shift key to maintain the original aspect ratio.
- Rotate an object by holding your mouse just outside one of the handlebars until the cursor turns into a rotate icon. Now click and drag.
- Reorder objects by clicking a layer and dragging it above or below another layer.
- Align objects by selecting them all with the Move Tool (V) (or holding Shift and clicking multiple layers), then using the align controls in the options bar.
Vector Graphics in Photoshop: Put It All Together
Now you know how to use all the tools, you can put them together to create your own pieces of vector art.
Photoshop isn’t a genuine alternative to Illustrator for anyone who’s serious about graphic design. But for simple things like logos, icons, and small images you want to use in other documents, it’s more than good enough.
Do you use Photoshop for vector graphics? What other tips do you have for creating vectors in Photoshop? Share your thoughts below!