In this article, we’ll discuss:

The basics of the Pen Tool in Photoshop

How to use the Pen Tool in Photoshop

Other Pen Tool options

What is the Pen Tool in Photoshop?

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The Pen Tool in Photoshop creates paths and shapes which can be duplicated and manipulated to create complex selections, masks and objects.

Unlike the Brush Tool and Pencil Tools, which “draw” pixels onto your image, the Pen Tool always creates a vector path when used. These paths appear as either Work Paths or Shape Paths in the Paths Panel.

What are some common uses for the Pen Tool?

Because you can modify, store and reuse the paths created with the Pen Tool as often as you want, it could become your go-to tool every time you need to remove a product image from its background or select a portion of a product image to change its color, for example. You can create multiple paths within an image, and you can create multiple path segments within a path.

Shape Paths created with the Pen Tool allow you to create custom shapes on your image which you can use to call out specific portions of an image. Unlike shapes created with the standard Shape Tools (such as the Rectangle Tool or Ellipse Tool), shapes created with the Pen Tool can be manipulated any way you want.

Where is the Pen Tool in Photoshop?

By default, the Pen Tool is located in the lower half of the Toolbar. If you click and hold on the Pen Tool in the Toolbar, you’ll see six separate Pen Tool options in both Photoshop CC 2018 and 2019 (if you’re using an older version of Photoshop, you may only see five Pen Tool options).

You can also access the Pen Tool by typing “P” on your keyboard.

 

Where is the Paths Panel in Photoshop?

The Pen Tool and the Paths Panel go hand in hand, so Paths should be visible when you begin to use the Pen Tool.

In the Essentials (default) workspace, Paths are accessible by clicking on the Paths tab visible in the Layers Panel. If you don’t see a Paths Panel in your workspace, you can access Paths by clicking on the Windows drop-down menu and selecting Paths.

 

Pen Tool settings overview

In Photoshop CC 2019, there are four different Pen Tools you can use to create a new path:

  1. The standard Pen Tool
  2. The Curvature Pen Tool
  3. The Freeform Pen Tool
  4. The Magnetic Pen Tool (only visible by adjusting the settings of the Freeform Pen Tool)

The other Pen Tool options are the Add Anchor Point Tool, the Delete Anchor Point Tool, and the Convert Point Tool. These tools are used to modify an existing path.

 

When you access either the standard Pen Tool, the Curvature Pen Tool or the Freeform Pen Tool, you can set your Pen Tool setting to either Path or Shape in the options bar at the top of the application window.

Drawing with the Pen Tool when Path is selected creates a new Work Path that appears in the Paths Panel. Drawing with the Pen Tool when Shape is selected creates a new Shape Path that appears in both the Paths Panel and the Layers Panel.

When you choose Shape, you can also change a few different settings, including stroke color, thickness and fill color of the shape. We’ll go over the specifics of creating a shape with the Pen Tool at the end of this article.

 

When you choose Path, you’ll see an icon that looks like two small overlapping squares (this icon is also available when Shape is chosen once you’ve already begun drawing your path). If you’re creating an initial path to become a selection, set this option to Combine Shapes.

 

You’ll see a few other icons in the options bar, but for the purposes of this tutorial, you should leave those at their default values.

How to use the Pen Tool in Photoshop to create a path

The standard Pen Tool allows you to create straight and curved paths with amazing accuracy, but mastering it takes some practice. Don’t get discouraged if it’s difficult at first. You can always adjust a path after you create it.

To create a path that you can then use as a selection, choose the standard Pen Tool, and then choose Path in the options bar drop-down menu at the top of the application window.

Creating a new path with the Pen Tool

To start your path, click on your image with your mouse where you want to begin your path. To keep things simple, choose a starting point that is at the edge of a straight line, such as the edge of the coffee cup in the image below.

Click again along the edge of your object with the Pen Tool to draw the first segment of your path. You should now see a straight line appear.

Also, note that a Work Path appears in the Paths panel as soon as you place the second point.

 

Creating a curved path segment with the Pen Tool

To create a curve with the standard Pen Tool (such as the curve at the edge of the coffee cup), click to create the next point and drag with the Pen Tool before you release the mouse button. You’ll see lines, called handles, appear.

These handles are tangential to the curve being formed by the path. Moving the mouse around will adjust the handles, which will then adjust the line’s curvature. Once you’re satisfied with the shape of the curve, release the mouse button.

Note that the handles formed from curved line appear before and after the point. Therefore, the next portion of the path that you draw after creating a curved line will follow the trajectory of the handle from the last point.

When you click the next point, drag the mouse to create new handles and modify the curve that appears with your new point.

Creating a straight path segment after a curved path segment with the Pen Tool

If you want to prevent the next segment of your path from curving along the handle of your last point, you can “corner” the point by clicking on the point with the mouse while typing ALT (OPTION on Mac). The second handle will disappear.

The next point you set will be unaffected by the previous curve.

Closing your path with the Pen Tool

Once your path is complete, close your path by hovering the Pen Tool over the very first point you set down. When you see a small circle appear to the right of the Pen Tool, click on the point.

Your path will now be closed.

How to save your path

Saving your path is super important here. Without saving, you could accidentally overwrite your hard work when you create another path.

To save your path, go to your Paths Panel and look for a new Work Path. Double click on Work Path to name your path and save it.

How to modify an existing path with the Pen Tool

Once you’ve created your path, you can modify any areas that need tweaking. It’s helpful to zoom in on different areas of your path to ensure the path follows the object exactly.

If you don't see your path in your image, click on the path’s name in the Paths Panel.

The path will appear in your image, and you'll be able to adjust it as necessary.

How to add additional paths to an existing path using the Pen Tool

In our coffee cup example, there’s a path around the outside of the cup. But to truly isolate the cup from the background, we’ll also need to create a path around the inside of the handle.

With the path selected in the Paths panel, select the Pen Tool from the Toolbar. In the options bar at the top of the screen, click on the icon that looks like two little overlapping squares, and choose Exclude Overlapping Shapes.

While the current path is still visible, begin to draw the area that you want to exclude from your selection with the Pen Tool. Close the path when you’re done.

When we make a selection from our path later, the area created with this new path will be cut out from the rest of the selection.

How to modify existing points and curves along a path

To modify an existing point or handle on a path, find the Path Selection tools in the Toolbar. These tools each look like an arrow, and by default are located beneath the Type Tool in the Toolbar.

When you click on the visible Path Selection Tool, you'll see options. Choose the Direct Selection Tool, which looks like a white arrow.

Clicking directly on a path segment with the Direct Selection Tool will reveal all points as white boxes, along with the handles of the selected segment. You can use the Direct Selection Tool to drag visible handles to adjust segment curves or move existing points.

How to add new points to a path

The Add Anchor Point Tool, accessible by clicking and holding on the Pen Tool in the Toolbar, will add extra points along the path.

With the Add Anchor Point Tool selected, hover over the path and click to create a new point.

Once you've set down the new point, you can use the Direct Selection Tool to modify the point’s location or its handles.

How to remove points from a path

The Delete Anchor Point Tool, also accessible by clicking and holding on the Pen Tool in the Toolbar, removes existing points from the path.

With the Delete Anchor Point Tool selected, hover over an existing point until the tool becomes visible and click. The point will disappear, and the surrounding path segments will conjoin into one segment.

How to use the Convert Point tool

The Convert Point Tool, accessed by clicking and holding on the Pen Tool, allows you to manipulate handles of exiting points the same way you would manipulate handles using the Direct Selection Tool.

Unlike the Direct Selection Tool, however, the Convert Point Tool does not allow you to move existing anchor points, because when you click on a point with the Convert Point Tool, the path segments adjacent to the point convert from straight lines to curved lines, and vice versa.

If you click on a point that has handles with the Convert Point Tool, the handles will disappear and the anchor point will become a corner. If the surrounding anchor points have handles, those handles will still continue to affect the curve of adjacent path segments.

If you use the Convert Point Tool to click on an anchor point that does not have handles, the point will gain handles on either side, which you can then manipulate using the Convert Point Tool or the Direct Selection Tool.

How to create a selection from a path

In your Paths panel, select your path. Then, click on the icon at the bottom of the panel that looks like a circle with a dashed outline. A selection in the shape of your path will appear in your image.

You can also create a selection with the Pen Tool. With the path selected, and with the Pen Tool selected, click on the Selection button next to Make: in the options bar.

A dialog box allowing you to make adjustments to the selection will appear. If you're creating the selection in order to isolate an object from its background, you should keep the Feather Radius at 0 and keep Anti-Aliased checked. If this is the first selection you're creating, the radio button next to New Selection will be selected.

Once you've created your selection, you can use the selection to modify the color of the object or to remove the object from its background.

How to cut out an object from the background

Once you've created your selection from your path, you can remove the portion of the image from its background by either copying it into another layer, or by creating a layer mask. In order to do any of the following methods, you must be in the layer which contains the image you wish to isolate.

Removing a background by copying a selection

You can copy your selection by typing CTRL+C (COMMAND+C on a Mac) and then pasting the selection by typing CTRL+V (COMMAND+V on a Mac). Your selection will automatically appear in a new layer. You can make your original layer invisible in the layers panel to see the isolated object.

Removing a background by creating a layer mask

To create a layer mask, locate the Layer Mask icon. This icon is available in both the Paths panel and the Layers panel at the bottom of the panel and looks like a white rectangle with a circle inside.

Click on the icon to automatically create a Layer Mask.

How to create a shape using the Pen Tool

You can designate a path to be a Shape Path before you create the path by selecting Shape from the menu in the options bar for the Pen Tool.

We mentioned this earlier: Next to the Shape option, you can change the shape’s color by double-clicking on the color rectangle next to Fill. A color menu will appear — the top bar of the color menu allows you to change the color by choosing no fill (transparent), a solid color, a gradient color, a pattern or a custom color. The bottom portion of the menu shows available swatches.

You can also change the shape’s outline color by double clicking on the color rectangle next to Stroke. And to adjust the width of the stroke, change the width in the drop-down menu just to the right of the Stroke’s color.

Once you have your Shape Path’s settings correct, you can draw a shape with the Pen Tool the same way you would draw a regular path.

When you create a shape using the Pen Tool, you automatically create a new Layer containing that shape, as well as a Shape Path in your Paths panel.

How to transform or scale a Shape Path

With the Shape Path selected in your Paths panel, click on the Edit drop-down menu at the top of the screen and choose Transform Path to access any of the transform functions. You can also choose Free Transform Path from the Edit drop-down menu, or type CTRL+T (COMMAND+T on a Mac) to scale or rotate your path.

You can also transform a regular path using the transform functions, but you probably will never need to.

Can you use other Photoshop Pen Tools?

The standard Pen Tool from Photoshop offers the most control over your path as you create it. However, one of the other Pen Tools may be better for your project depending on your needs.

Learn about other tools in Photoshop with this beginner’s guide >

Curvature Pen Tool

The Curvature Pen Tool estimates the curve you want to create between points without needing to click and drag. No handles are apparent as you use the tool.

This tool is very good if you have a very uniform shape to follow, such as an arch or a circle. Once you've created your path using the Curvature Pen Tool, you can modify it the same way you would a path created by the standard Pen Tool.

Freeform Pen Tool

The Freeform Pen Tool creates a path as you draw freely with your mouse. Instead of clicking and placing points, you simply “draw” with the Tool the same way you would draw with the Brush Tool or the Pencil Tool.

Paths created with the Freeform Pen Tool are difficult to control and often require ample modification after creation.

Magnetic Pen Tool

The Magnetic Pen Tool is accessed by choosing the Freeform Pen Tool and then checking the Magnetic checkbox in the options bar.

When you draw with this tool, Photoshop attempts to detect the edges of an object and snap the path to those edges.

Can you use a stylus with Photoshop and the Pen Tool?

The Pen Tool is easy to use with a stylus. When using a mouse with the Pen Tool, you click to form a point, and click and drag to create points with handle curves. With a stylus, you tap to form points and tap and drag to create points with handle curves.

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Becky Kilimnik

Bio: With over 18 years experience as a graphic designer, Becky is passionate about helping people enhance their content by mastering image manipulation software. Becky has worked with a variety of educational publishers in the U.S. and U.K. and has taught design at six universities.