Mastering the Pen Tool in Adobe Photoshop Part 2: Bezier Curves

Article posted on Friday, 16th, August, 2013 at 5:53 pm

So you’ve learned a bit about paths, and made a very basic shape that you filled with colour. Now it’s time to learn about making paths with bezier curves – don’t be frightened. It’s easy when you know how!

Bezier Curves

Bezier curves are basically a method for drawing smooth curved lines. They are used all over the place in design, animation, fonts and all sorts of graphical applications. There is a little bit of maths behind how they work, but all you need to know is that they are a very lightweight method of storing curved lines without doing it pixel-by-pixel. This saves memory and allows for rescaling without loss of quality.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Well, what’s the catch? The catch is that it’s not as easy as using the brush tool, but it is well worth learning how to use them, so you’ve come to the right place. The good thing is, since they are used everywhere, if you learn how to use them in Photoshop, you can show off your mad bezier skills in other programs too!

Alrighty then, lets dive right in! Create a new file in Photoshop (mine’s going to be 512 x 512 pixels), and as with last time, make a new layer, and a new path.

Now, select the pen tool [P], and double check you’re in ‘Paths’ mode, and not in freeform mode either. Place a path component (point) somehwere in the middle of the picture by clicking once. Now make another point somwhere above it, but this time hold the mouse button down and drag towards the left of the canvas. Notice how the line changes from being a straight line between the two points to a curve. Let go of the mouse and inspect what you’ve just done.

First Bezier Curve

Ok, so what happened? Well, when you clicked your mouse, you told Photoshop that’s where you wanted you point to be, but by holding and dragging, you started altering the bezier handles. These little beauties are the backbone of great looking paths.

Complete the path by clicking (but not dragging) on the starting point of your path, and notice how you’ve made a guitar pick shape. Why is that? Well, lets dive a little deeper…

First Bezier curve complete path

If you inspect the image above (or your own, which should look similar), we have one path point which has these handles coming from it, and one that doesn’t. The one that doesn’t creates an angle, whereas the one with the handles creates a smooth curved line. Trying to be as un-technical as possible here: This is because the handles influence the direction of the path en-route to the path (or anchor) points. By dragging the handles in a specific direction away from the point, the path itself gets pulled away from being a straight line from point A to point B (like we saw in the last blog post). There are loads of examples out there if you want to get more technnical with this – have a look on Google.

You can edit the position of the handles by first selecting the point (hold [ctrl] + click on it), which should bring up the handles for that point. Secondly, hold alt, and click and drag the handles endpoint to move it around. See what happens with the curve.

If you find that you can’t select an individual handle to drag by holding [alt], you’ve probably gone back into the move tool (shortcut [V]), without realising. Make sure you’re still in Pen mode by pressing [P] (or clicking on the Pen tool button).


Notice how with [alt] you are only moving one handle. See what happens when you hold [ctrl] instead. You alter the length of that handle, but if you move the angle of the handle, the corresponding handle moves with it. This is useful for keeping angles / smooth lines where you want them.

Hopefully you should notice that the closer the two handles are to 180 degress to each other, the smoother the curve will be. This is very important to remember!

More path shapes

Okay, that was really basic, and unless you’re going into the guitar business, that example won’t be very useful. Delete the path by highlighting the path in the Paths window, and pressing [delete] (or just leave it in your list of paths). Now make a new path. Lets hit the ground running and make the first point with handles. You do this by clicking in the centre of the of the image and dragging out the handles. This time try it vertically.

Next place another point to the right, and drag another vertical line, the same length this time drag in the opposite direction (i.e if you went up last time, drag down now). If you drag the same way, you will end up with a path that looks like an S.

Complete the path by clicking on the original point – no need to drag, because the orginal point has the handles set already. If you do drag, it will reset the handles you initially dragged out. You should be left with an ellipse:

Circle Path

If you want to move the actual path points, hold [ctrl] so that the cursor turns to a white pointer, and drag to you hearts content. This will help if you want the ellipse to be a specific shape.

Now have a go at shortening the handles on the bottom half of the ellipse. Remember to use [alt] and make sure that you’re using the pen mode [P].

Android Path

Now we have a path that has the makings of the Android logo! I wonder how much the designer got paid to do that?

Overlapping Paths

Next up, make a new path, and do exactly the same as before to make an ellipse, but this time drag the second point so that the handles go the same way. You’ll initially get a bendy line, but on completing the path, it will join up and make a sideways hourglass (lemniscate or infinity/ouroboros symbol).

Infinity Path

Now we have a path that has the makings of the Microsoft Visual Studio logo! I wonder how much the designer got paid to do that?

See what happens when you fill the path with a colour. If you overlap path lines, photoshop will fill all the closed areas the are next to unfilled space.

Multiple Lines in the Same Path

Okay, we’ve been making a lot of shapes that are complete, but you can also make lines that aren’t joined up. Examples of these would be for text to follow a path, or you’re just wanting to use the ‘Stroke Path…’ option for some funky waves.

Start by making a wavy line, like we did for the previous example, but don’t join it up. It should look something like this:

Multiple Paths

Now all you do, is deselect the path by holding [ctrl] and clicking anywhere that isn’t the path or handles. If you want to ‘pick up’ the path again, hold [ctrl] and click on the point you want to play with. Anyway, drag out a few more lines like this underneath…

Multiple Paths

Now we have a path that has the makings of the Aquafresh logo! I wonder how much the designer got paid to do that?

Anyway, I think that’s a lot to get to grips with in one post. Hopefully you should understand how bezier curves work in Photoshop. I’ve deliberately avoided the maths and theory, because you probably just want to get and use them!

Go and play with the Pen Tool as much as you can to get familiar with how the handles work and how you can create different shapes. The next post will be about shortcuts and handy hints for making more complex paths.

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