Badge #2 | Pen Tool

With all of the intimidating hype surrounding the pen tool, it’s easy to understand why many users steer clear of it entirely. This often misunderstood tool is branded as a digital fountain pen, but it can be used in numerous other ways to create smooth, crisp lines and selections. It is essential in creating clean silhouettes and sharp outlines of selected material that would never be achievable through something like the lasso tool. Overall, it’s a tricky but incredibly versatile little tool that any Adobe user worth their salt should probably have a functional knowledge of.

A screenshot of a pen tool selection in progress. The white squares are the anchors, and the gray lines between them are the paths, which can be manipulated to be concave or convex.

A screenshot of a pen tool selection in progress. The white squares are the anchors, and the gray lines between them are the paths, which can be manipulated to be concave or convex.

The pen tool is manipulated by placing anchor points on the screen by clicking and connecting them with paths that you can manipulate into straight lines or curved shapes. The more anchor points that are used, the more detailed the overall product will be. It’s also helpful to have many anchor points in your work because they can be manipulated later if you find out that a certain angle or curve needs a slight tweak. The beauty of the pen tool is that as long as you don’t delete the file, you can endlessly edit the anchors and paths you’ve placed to refine or completely re-do the selection you’ve created.

After you have the desired shape you want, you can fill it in with a solid color to create a silhouette, you can cut the selection from the image, or you can find another way to manipulate your paths.

Because this tool is dependent on how precisely you pivot paths around anchor points, video tutorials are the most helpful — especially if you are following along with the tutorial as it explains the tool. Written tutorials can be helpful for things like correct terminology and the different drop down menus that could affect the pen tool, but overall visual (and participatory) learning is vastly superior to written instructions for the pen tool. If you plan to learn this tool for the first time, make sure you find several good video tutorials. Felice’s interactive tutorial was also very helpful.

LEFT: The 'before' image of me prior to the pen tool. RIGHT: The 'after' image of me, superimposed onto the cover of TIME for my achievements in Lorem Ipsumology.

LEFT: The ‘before’ image of me prior to the pen tool. RIGHT: The ‘after’ image of me, superimposed onto the cover of TIME for my achievements in Lorem Ipsumology.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pen tool was relatively simple to use after a few hours’ worth of practice learning the basics. The best part is how crisply it allows you to select and cut images from their source files and paste them into new locations. The final deliverable that used the the pen tool to cut out a personal picture and place myself into a magazine cover took a surprisingly short amount of time for how good it looked. That same result would have taken an enormous amount of trial and error with the lasso tool or just erasing the unwanted edges. The pen tool is an incredible time-saver — I think I spent more time designing the cover of the fake TIME magazine than I did on cutting myself out because it was so simple. The catch, then, is too make sure that you’re not being too sloppy and creating overly angular and unnaturally sharp lines with the pen tool. Balance yourself between working quickly and creating work that still looks crisp and natural.

TOP: The 'before' picture of a woman running on the beach. BOTTOM: The 'after' picture of the same woman's silhouette, as created by the pen tool. Note the clumsily rendered fingers and shoelaces.

TOP: The ‘before’ picture of a woman running on the beach. BOTTOM: The ‘after’ picture of the same woman’s silhouette, as created by the pen tool. Note the clumsily rendered fingers and shoelaces.

The most difficult part of the pen tool was using it for small, grouped objects when drawing silhouettes. Fingers and shoelaces were particularly frustrating. The path would either be at an incorrect angle, or I’d have too many anchor points so that the path became completely warped. The final product on my silhouette deliverable was a rather underwhelming representation of human hands. The pen tool works beautifully and intuitively for larger, sweeping paths, such as the small of a person’s back or the swell of their thigh — but smaller details tend to get lost in the intricacies of the clustered anchor points.

The pen tool may be shrouded in mystery and steeped in hype, but ultimately, it’s a complicated tool that anyone can master with a few hours’ practice.

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