How To Use The Pen Tool In Illustrator – Part 1 Straight Paths

I’ve been teaching both Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for several years now, and I can say without doubt, the Pen tool is probably the most feared and avoided tool in both programs. It seems to be one of the tools that people have a go at once or twice, get frustrated and then vow never to touch it. It certainly can be a frustrating tool to use at the beginning if you’re not quite sure how it work, but with a bit of learnin’ and plenty of practice you’ll find that the Pen tool opens up a whole new world for you. I’m focusing on how to use Pen tool in Illustrator here, but the concepts are the same in Photoshop.

The Pen tool produces vectors when you draw with it. We love vectors because they allow us to make our artwork as big, or as small, as we want without losing quality. That’s why graphic designers use vector drawing tools to create logos. A logo may need to appear on a piece of stationery but also on the side of the bus. By drawing the logo in a program such as Illustrator, using a tool such as the Pen tool, we know that we can provide high quality artwork. From my own point of view, I use vector drawing tools for all of my illustration work.

I’m breaking this into three easily digestible parts:

  • Drawing Straight lines
  • Drawing Curves
  • Editing paths

Note: All of the screen grabs you see here are taken from Adobe Illustrator CS5, but everything you read here is applicable to pretty much every version of Illustrator. So let’s get started with using the tool to draw straight lines.

When you are drawing with the pen tool, you are placing anchor points on the art board. The anchor points are joined by a path, forming a line segment, which can be a straight line or a curved line.

Drawing Straight Lines
You can draw straight line open paths, or closed paths.

1. Select the Pen tool from the toolbox or hit P on the keyboard as a shortcut. If you click and hold your mouse over the Pen tool for a second, you will see the other hidden Pen tools. For now, we’re just sticking with the Pen tool.

PenTool1

 

When you first select the pen tool, a small x will appear beside the cursor. The x means that you are about to start drawing a new path. PenTool2

It’s important to pay attention to the small symbols which appear beside the Pen tool cursor because they affect how the Pen behaves.

2. Click once on the art board where you want the straight line segment to begin. Do not drag.

If direction lines appear (they look like extra lines coming out of an anchor point), you’ve accidentally dragged the Pen tool and you will draw a curve rather than a straight line. If that happens choose Ctrl + Z (windows) or Cmd + Z (Mac) to undo, and click again.

3. Click again where you want to add the next anchor point.

PenTool3

To constrain the angle of the segment to a multiple of 45° hold down the Shift Key as you click.

Notice that the first anchor point you created when you clicked on the art board for the first time is now hollow, while the last anchor point is a solid square. A solid anchor point indicates that it is currently selected.

4. To continue creating your straight line segments just keep clicking on the art board where you want to put an anchor point and Illustrator will create the path in between.

PenTool4

The path you see above is called an Open Path. That means the starting point and the end point are different, they do not join. You do not have to create closed paths, open paths are perfect for drawing all types of lines. If you want to fill an area though, it’s a good idea to close the path. To close a path, simply click back to the first point you created. You will see a small circle appears next to the Pen tool pointer  indicating that the path will close correctly.

 

PenTool5

Once you close a path, the cursor will immediately change to indicate that next time you click on the art board you will be starting a brand new path. If you want to leave a path open but then start another new path, Ctrl + click (Windows) or Cmd + Click (Mac) anywhere away from all objects on the art board. Alternatively, you can finish a path by clicking on any other tool in the toolbox.

 

Adding and Deleting Anchor Points
There will, of course, be times when you want to add extra anchor points to your lines, or delete anchor points that you don’t need. Remember, a good rule of thumb is to use as few anchor points as possible to achieve smooth lines. Let’s say we want to get rid of an anchor point, select the Delete Anchor Point tool from the toolbox (hidden under the Pen tool) or press the minus sign (-) on the keyboard. Then click on the point you want to delete.

 

PenTool6

If you want to add an extra anchor point, click anywhere along a line segment using the Add Anchor Point tool. Often the path shape may not look very different after you add a point to a straight segment, but when you edit the point (we’ll come to that in a future post) then you’ll see the difference.

PenTool7

 

Practice!

So that’s how to draw straight line segments, very easy and nothing to be frightened of there! The key to using the Pen tool is practice, practice, practice. Try drawing open paths of Zig Zags. Try drawing closed paths of triangles, rectangles, squares, polygons, stars and other random shapes where the first anchor point becomes the end point. Get a feel for finishing paths and starting new ones.

 

PenTool8

 

In the next post we’ll take a look at how to create curved segments using the Pen tool in Adobe Illustrator.

 

Illustrator Pen Tool Series

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3 


I have illustrated a children’s ABC book which is available for a recession busting 99 cents on the iBooks store.

BookCoverABC

Clear here to read more about the Animal ABC iBook.

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4 Comments

  1. These pen tool tutorials were fantastic! I use Photoshop frequently, but I avoid the pen tool like the plague. I got the Adobe Creative Cloud for Christmas, so I’ve been trying to discover the ins and outs of Illustrator. I realized that for Illustrator, I had no choice but to learn the pen tool. I’ve spent the past three hours doing your tutorials and practicing, and I feel very confident I can get the pen tool down soon. Your tutorials were very easy to understand and are incredibly helpful. Thanks!

  2. Hi Bethany

    I’m really glad you found them useful. The pen tool just requires a bit of practice. It’ll be your best friend soon : ) I plan to add a lot more Illustrator tutorials to the blog this year.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Jen

  3. Thanks Jennifer.. very useful for me…

  4. You’re most welcome Darlene.

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