Mastering the Pen Tool in Adobe Photoshop Part 1: Paths

Article posted on Monday, 12th, August, 2013 at 10:18 pm

For me, the pen tool used to be a world of the unknown. A tool that I did not know how to use, and when I tried, strange things happened. If this sounds like you, this mini series of posts should help you master the pen tool…


First of all, before even looking at the pen tool – we need to understand the concept of paths. Paths are lines drawn in photoshop using mathematical co-ordinates in order to reduce the amount of processing required and image data to store.

The beauty of paths is that since they are stored as points rather than pixels (like drawing a line with the brush tool), so you can scale them as big or as small as you like, and they won’t pixellate / distort. This makes them vital for large scale media projects and logo design.

Getting started

So how do you get started with paths? I won’t lie, it’s tricky for the beginner. This is because the way you interact with paths is different to how you would with layers / pixels. First of all, get familiar with the Pen tool button (shortcut key P).

Pen Tool Button

Your icons may be arranged differently to mine, that’s because I set the layout to how it was in Photoshop CS1

So once you have the pen tool selected, take a minute to familiarise yourself with the options available to you in the menu bar at the top of the screen. The picture below should help with understanding what some of the buttons do.

Pen Tool Bar

To explain: The layers window is the one that has all your images layers in it – where you can add and edit each layer individually. It typically appears on the right of the screen, but if it’s not there, go to Window > Layers (F7)

You should also have the Paths window visible too. Sometimes this is a tab behind the layers window. We want to see both the layers and paths for convenience, so drag it out into its own area. If you can’t see it, go to Window > Paths.

Layers and Paths Windows

Your First Path

Right, assuming you have a new image file open that is ready for drawing on, make sure that you have selected the pen tool (P), and the Paths option is selected, along with the Pen tool one (not freeform). Make a new layer and then make a new path (same icon at the bottom of both windows). Now you are able to draw using the pen tool!

For now, just click four points to make a shape, and ‘close’ the path by clicking on the first point you made. By closing the path, you are creating a shape where all the sides are connected, so you can fill it in.

Simple path

To fill the path, right click on the path in the Paths window, and select ‘Fill Path…’. Choose foreground colour, and hey presto! The new layer you made should now have the shape in it! If you want to start playing with the layer, you need to deselect the path first.

You can tell if your path is selected because it is highlighted blue in the paths window. Strange things will happen if you try to play with the layers whilst a path is selected, so don’t do it! To deselect a path, hold shift and click on it.

That’s it! You’ve learned how to make a path and fill it. See if you can use ‘Stroke Path…’ instead of fill to add a different coloured border to your shape.

Simple Path Filled and Stroked

Hint: Stroking the path will use the currently selected brush (shortcut B), which includes the size you have it set at.

This post was deliberately very basic, and didn’t discuss anything more complex than straight line points. With a bit of knowledge of the theory of how paths are made, and the controls / shortcut keys in Photoshop, you should have the pen tool mastered in no time!

Stay tuned for the next post in the mini series – bezier curves…

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