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The Pen Tool - The Pro Way to Make Selections.

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  • The Pen Tool - The Pro Way to Make Selections.

    This will be an in depth guide to using the pen tool. Although based around the current version found in Photoshop CS 2 this guide should work for most image editors that have the same tool, give or take a few aspects of it. I will fill you in on the basics and guide you onto some pro applications of this tool.

    Before and After

    So why use the pen tool when the selection tools do such a good job... reasonable question isn't it?

    The selection tool is a crude way of making quick selections. It has very little scope and once a selection is made there isn't a lot you can do to it once done... other than start again and remake the selection. This can be a pain when you have just spent 45 minutes getting a selection just right only to notice it isn't.

    The pen tool is vastly more powerful when making selections and you'll thank me once you have learnt how to use it.

    So where is the pen tool in Photoshop?

    As seen here, in the main tools palette.

    Note there are secondary options from this tool bar (above)
    and the pen palette (seen below).

    The Pen tool is a vector based way of making selections. We will come back to vectors, but for now know that this make your life easier and will provide you with some pretty cool ways of improving your workflow and editing your images.

    The first thing you need to know about making your selections is that they are based on 'ANCHORS'. An anchor is a selection point that you can edit, as you go along or once you are happy with all the anchors you lay down.

    To start laying down anchors, first open an image that you wish to edit and decide on an aspect of it that you wish to make a selection of and then isolate.

    The best way to demonstrate this is perhaps with an image of mine that needs some basic editing via a pixel perfect selection.

    Here you will see an image of a Celtic cross/tombstone. I want to edit this, the cross is great but I want to improve the background. I need to isolate the cross first.

    Note that I will appear to be making more than one path. As far as your image editor is concerned, it is one single path. These multiple paths are there to isolate the interior of the cross as well.

    Note I have demonstrated the main anchors in the
    animation, the internal anchors haven't been animated.

    I am going to make some intentionally very crude anchor points. The animated GIF above will give you an idea of what is happening. Select the PEN TOOL and start to lay down the anchor points. To make a selection complete via the pen tool you have to tie up the two ends. Although this is obvious, not all applications of the pen tool need to have tied ends. So like the marquee tool, hover the pointer over the start anchor and click on it to complete the selection area.

    GURU TIP: Sometimes the view of the pen tool can be a real pain If you are working on a selection that needs that extra degree of precision you can change the way it looks. By toggling the CAPS LOCK button you can change the view from the large nasty cumbersome 'fountain nib pointer' to a more useful 'cross hair pointer'. Note that you can do this to most tools in PS.

    So now we have our selection made... well technically this isn't a selection yet. It is a PATH, remember that name. The path needs to be converted into a selection. But the path is too crude and we have to edit it! You are now on path to enlightenment... ok a bad pun, but you truly are.

    How to edit a path!

    Once you have laid out all you anchors you may want to edit them before turning it into a selection. You can not do this with the selection tools. The editing options you have for the anchors are numerous. We will start with the simple edit functions and work onto the more complicated methods.

    To edit a single anchor point:
    You will need to have the 'Convert Pen Tool' active. By clicking and holding the left mouse button down on the pen tool you will be presented with this option.

    Then click on the path and the single anchor point you wish to convert. By using the arrow keys on the keyboard you can nudge (key nudging) this anchor around to your hearts desire.

    GURU TIP: Whilst the pen tool is active you are able to toggle to nearly any other tool. So for example, whilst laying down a path or nudging an anchor with the convert tool you can switch to the magnify tool for example. This is great if you want to zoom right in for more accuracy, something you can not do with the selection tools.

    In our working example we will want to curve the anchor point. Each anchor point and the curve is based on 4 anchor lines. To see this, hold the mouse over a given anchor point press down and drag the anchor lines out. Initially you will only see two. These two anchor lines work together on the first drag of the anchor and give you a smooth curve based on the direction and distance of the drag.

    Drag these lines out to the desired point and let go...
    you can then click on each of the anchor lines little
    solid boxes and move these to perfect your desired curve.

    Note if you ever go back and click on the original anchor point once, it will revert to its original layout and you can re-edit the curve. If you have done this by mistake... have no fear. Just Press CTRL-ALT-Z to step back once in the edit history.

    This gives us a problem however. Say we edit a point and are not happy with it. We have to select that anchor point with a click... but hang on! That reverts the line/curve back to its original form! So what do I do?

    I donít know the official way of reselecting an anchor point without reverting it, but this is what I do. Identify the anchor point you wish to edit. If there is another anchor point very close to it, zoom in so you have a little room between them. Place the mouse just off the anchor point add drag the mouse over the anchor point, effectively making a selection of the point. You'll be presented with the anchor lines again and you may edit them with the curve still intact.

    So where are the other two anchor lines? Well if you look at the anchor points on either side of the selected anchor point you will see two more anchor lines. These lines can be edited to determine how the curves from two anchors interact with each other. See how they work and get some experience in fine tuning your curves.

    Move on, select another anchor and get your path just right.

    What happens if I want to move a whole bunch of anchor points, keeping the curves intact as well?

    This is quite simple. Just make a selection of the anchor points with the mouse as demonstrated when selecting a single anchor. Or if this isn't possible, select one or more, then press the CTRL key down and make some more selections till you have all the points you want. Then by place the cursor over a point on the line, note not the anchor, and dragging it or key nudging it... you can move all these selections.

    So where is the selection we set out to achieve?

    Right in front of you! Bring up your PATHS PALETTE and select the path you have just created, click on it once if it isnít highlighted. At the base of this palette you will see an option to load the path as a selection. Simple click on that. You'll be presented with a few options at this point.

    The one you want is load path as new selection. You will have other options, such as 'subtract from selection', 'add to selection' and so forth. I hope these seem simple and straight forward enough.

    Now you have your perfect selection. As you can see from my images, I can now edit the final look of the background and improve the foreground independently of each other.

    Wow!!! That was a bit long winded! Was it worth it?

    Well thatís down to you to find out. Say you wish to edit that selection a few days later, no history to fall back on... oh dear!

    Never fear! Just go back into the PATHS PALETTE, click the path you want... and edit it again to your hearts content. Now did that not just save you a heap of work?

    Remember you can also export your paths as shapes for use at a later point.

    You can add Anchors to a path if you wish. Use the 'Add Anchor Point Tool', select anywhere on your path to add the point. Then with the 'Convert Point Tool' move and edit the curve to get the desired aspects right. Equally you can use the 'Delete Anchor Point Tool' to remove given anchors on your path. Simply hover over the anchor, left click and it is gone, remember to deselect this tool when done... I have deleted many anchors by mistake whilst not concentrating.

    This article and images included are protected by copyright: Contravisual Media © 2005.
    Permission is given to HTMLfourms to publish this article at
    Please do not publish this article elsewhere without express permission.

  • #2
    Sub note to this tutorial... Trying to fit this into 10,000 letters was hard (the max post length), so I have had to edit here and there to fit it in.

    As a result I will publish a rider to this tutorial in the not too distant future with some extra hints, tips and some cleaner directions.

    I hope you get some decent use out of the pen tool and it improves your work flow!

    Post any questions in the Graphics forum, and NOT to me personally.


    • #3
      Omg thankyou! I've been looking for a tutorial for ages about the Pen Tool to use it to select renders etc...and now here it is! I did it and made an awesome selection, thanks!


      • #4
        What an awsome tutorial! This is a revolutionary thing and someone should pay money for this


        • #5
          wow thank you so much entimp for this guide. you are my main man


          • #6
            Nice guide, the pen tool is indeed a powerful tool!


            • #7
              Thank you!


              • #8
                I'm trying to nudge the point, but it isn't moving. I have selected it with the proper tool, I can drag it to adjust the curve, but for the life of me I cannot seem to nudge the point around. Help?


                • #9
                  You're using the arrow keys to do the nudging?

                  Cat-herder Extraordinaire