The Pen Tool

For years I figured the pen tool was one of those baffling tools in Photoshop that only a handful of people understood.

Every once in awhile I would bravely select the tool and then try to figure out just what the heck it was good for experientially (by that I mean I would use it and hope its purpose would become clear through the end results).

It never did ...

Even using the pen tool was a challenge! 

It seemed to have a mind of its own so after a few minutes of frustration it was returned to its little hidey-hole on the tool bar and ignored for months.

I've recently come to learn that it is a very useful tool if you want a precise selection with a very sharp, well defined edge.

As a matter of fact, there are those who insist that the Pen Tool is the best selection tool in Photoshop!

Let's find out if it's true ...

Pen Tool

The Pen Tool lives in the tool bar and when you click the flyout you will see all of the different ways it can be used.

The one we will use to do most of the work is the top one.

Less time will be spent with the other ones as they are mostly used for editing the path we create (Adding, Deleting and Converting Anchor Points). 

The Freeform Pen Tool acts very much like the Magnetic Lasso because it tends to cling to edges but when the path is completed the result is not as accurate as the Pen Tool.

There are also some options that need to be selected on the Options Bar at the top of the screen. They are highlighted on the screen shot of the Options Bar.

There are a few very powerful reasons why this tool is so useful and so powerful.

  • You can easily zoom in and out to see how things are coming along.

  • You can pan around the screen with the space key and if you have your Wacom Tablet set up with the lower pen button set to the space key then it is even easier to pan about.

  • You can save your path and open it again. If you have ever become involved in a big selection job and had to leave it for whatever reason then you had to keep the file open and hope no one messed with it - if they did then you had to start all over again later.

  • If you are not happy with a path it's a simple matter to change it and just be happy.

You have to know that the first few times you use the Pen Tool you will likely find it confusing and annoying. The darn thing does not act like any pen you have ever used.

NOTE:  this is the perfect project to use a Wacom Intuos, Wacom Intuos Pro or Cintiq tablet because precision is important and any Wacom tablet is an extremely precise tool.

Ready to learn how to use the Pen Tool? OK - let's get going ...

Original Image

You see that little Mustang insignia in the middle of the grill? That's what will be cut out and removed.

Now maybe you're thinking that you could do a better job with one of the selection tools - probably not.

Open the image and zoom in on the part you want to cut out.

The image has been converted to Black and White because there was an annoying blue cast on the edges of the horse. If I knew I was going to use this image on a page then I would have used a flash when I took the shot. 

It just goes to show that you should always take the best shot up front - anyway ...

Choose a starting point and place an anchor point by tapping your pen or left clicking your mouse. It is way easier to use this tool with a Wacom tablet but if truth be told - you can create a good path with a mouse as well.

Lift your pen and select a second anchor point position and don't lift the pen or release the mouse button. Place your pen on the tablet (left click if you must) and without lifting the pen (or releasing the left mouse button) start dragging away from the second anchor point.

As you drag your pen (or mouse) the handles will get longer and when you change the orientation the line between the first and second anchor point will start to bend or become a curve. Keep adjusting the line by moving the handle until you have a nice smooth curve that just touches the edge that you want to cutout.

When you are satisfied lift your pen or release the mouse button. 

Now you have the start of your path - do the same thing over and over and over again until you have completely outlined the object your are cutting out.


There are different modifications you can make to your path.

Freeform Pen - if you have a steady hand then the Freeform Pen is for you.  when you place a check in the "Magnetic' box then the tool will seek contrast differences in the image and snap to the difference to make the path.

Add Anchor Point - adds a new anchor point anywhere you click on the path.

Delete Anchor Point - delete an anchor point on the path.

Convert Anchor Point allows you to modify the curve of the path after it has been completed.

Below the Text Tool are two additonal tools - the Path Selection Tool (which selects the complete path) and the Direct Selection Tool to select any individual anchor point.

The first few times you use the Pen Tool to make a path it probably will drive you nuts until you get a grasp on how the little handles work.

Hang in there - you will get it and it will be worth it.

When you get back to where you started by going completely around the object you will see a little circle right next to the pen tool. The little circle is telling you that clicking on the next anchor point will complete the path.

When it is complete then you have a nice little path right around the object which you can turn into a selection!

Creating The Selection

Take a look at the Paths Palette.  The completed path is called the Work Path - if you double click on it you can change the name to something else - in my case the new name could be "badge".

Now when you save the file the path will be saved as well because you have changed the name - neat, huh?  If you do not change the name and close the file then your path is gone and you will need to re-do it.

OK - now to the selection - see the third icon from the left in the paths palette image?  That's the Convert Path To Selection button.  Click it and your path becomes a selection! The first icon is Fill Path with Foreground Color and the second is Stroke Path with brush.

Now switch over to the Layers Palette and press Ctrl-J (Windows) or Cmd-J (MAC) to create a new layer with the selection.

Turn off the Background layer (click the little eyeball) and you will see the results of your diligent work!

Pen Tool Videos

Creating A Simple Path

A More Complex Path

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