Using the Pen Tool is the most direct way to create vector shapes and paths in Illustrator. Use these 5 essential tips to get the most out of it.
Cover image via Abscent
The Pen Tool is one of the foundational tools of Illustrator. While the program has many ways to create and adjust shapes and paths, when it comes to drawing custom vectors or tracing sketches there’s no better tool.
In this overview we’ll look at the versatility of the Pen Tool and explore some ways to use it at a more advanced level for creating and editing paths.
1. Basic Drawing: Points, Angles, and Straight Lines
Straight-line paths are simple and require nothing more than clicking to set anchor points. This will create angled lines and polygonal shapes.
Select the Pen Tool from the tool bar or hit P on the keyboard. Click on the canvas where you want the path to start, then click again where you want the path to change direction. Continue doing this for a multi-angled path.
To make a shape, click on the starting point to close the path. If you hover the cursor over the starting point, a circle will appear. In a shape with a lot of points this is how you can tell which is the starting point of a path.
Tip: To make straight 90° or 45° angles, hold Shift while positioning the next vector point. This will lock the cursor along one of those angles.
2. Drawing Curves
The Pen Tool also makes the best sweeping curves. You can precisely control the curves with the handles on the vector point.
When drawing a curve, click to add a point and drag in the direction you would like to the curve to extend. This will extend bezier handles to the opposite direction as well, affecting the path behind the vector point. This creates a smooth curve.
To complete a shape, click back to the starting vector point. To curve the path behind it, click and drag the cursor. The original vector will retain its previous position and path.
Tip: By using hot-keys with the Pen Tool active, you can temporarily access other tools. Do this to alter curved paths, change a vector point to a curve vector point, or add/delete points on a path.
3. Direct Selection Tool
To access the Direct Selection Tool (white arrow), hold the Command key. With this tool active you can move points or their bezier handles or change the direction of a path.
- To move a vector point: Click on the shape to see the vector points, then click on a vector point to change it to solo mode. Click and drag to move it around without affecting the rest of the points.
- To change a path: With the shape selected, simply click and drag a path to change it. Just be aware that this will affect how the vectors attached to the path behave, thus changing the paths on the other sides of the one you select.
4. Anchor Point Tool
Use the Anchor Point tool to directly alter and change the behavior of vector points. With the Pen Tool selected, hold Option to activate the Anchor Point tool.
- Change a vector point style: With the path or shape selected, click on a curve vector point to immediately change it to an angle. Click and drag to turn an angled point to a curved point.
- Change direction of a curve and unlock the bezier handles of a single angled point: With a single point selected, click and drag one of the handles on a vector to change the direction of a single path. This also breaks the lock between that handle and its counterpart on the other side of the vector point.
5. More Tips
- To leave a path without committing a shape, hit Escape or Enter/Return to stop contributing to a path and start a new one.
- Click and Move allows you to move a point to a more precise spot by clicking and holding the mouse button, then holding spacebar down as you move the point.
- The blue line that appears and changes as you build and make vector points is called the Rubber Band. To turn it off or back on, hit Command + Comma to enter Preferences, then click Selection & Anchor Display on the left menu and click the boxes next to Enable Rubber Band.
This is just the beginning of the Pen tool in Illustrator. With an understanding of how to affect points, paths, and curves, you’ll be able to create full-scale designs in no time.
Learn more about all the other powerful tools in your design applications with these articles: