How To Use The Pen Tool In Illustrator – Part 2 Curved Paths

Hello again. Nice to see you back for some Illustrator Pen tool goodness.

So in the previous post, we looked at how to use the Illustrator Pen tool to draw straight line segments. Continuing on from there, let’s look at how to draw curves with the Pen. This tends to be the part where people get a bit frustrated with the Pen tool and find their paths flying off in (what seems like) random directions. However, with a little bit of understanding, combined with a little bit of practice, you’ll find drawing curves become intuitive and your paths start to go where YOU want them to go.

Drawing curved paths

Unlike straight paths which are created by simply clicking where you want to place an anchor point, curved paths are created by clicking with the mouse (or pen tablet) and dragging. The first time you click, you set a starting point for the curved path. Then as you hold and drag, you determine the direction of the curve. As you continue to drag, a curved path is drawn between the previous point and the current point.

Two things happen when you click and drag with the Pen tool.

1. An anchor point is placed on the art board when you click.

2. Direction lines and direction points are drawn when you drag.

We use the direction lines and points to determine the direction and shape of the curved path we’re drawing. Let’s get going with some curved paths:

1. Select the Pen tool from the toolbox or hit P as a shortcut.

2. Click and immediately drag your mouse downwards.

When you release the mouse button, an anchor point appears where you first clicked and two direction lines extend above and below the anchor point.

3. Continue the curve, by clicking and dragging in the opposite direction to add another point.

Note: If you make a mistake while you’re drawing, choose Edit > Undo New Anchor Point (Ctrl +Z / Cmd + Z) to undo the last point you drew, and try again. In the next post we’ll look at how to edit paths.

4. Do the same again to add another curve.

If you hold down Shift as you click and drag, you constrain the slope of the directional line to 45° increments. Continue creating curves so you have a wave something like the one below.

5. To finish your path, just Ctrl + Click / Cmd + Click or click on another tool in the toolbox.


Drawing a closed circular curved path

So far we’ve created an open curved path. Remember an open path is one where the start and end points are different. If you want to create a closed path, the idea is the same whether it’s a straight or curved path, i.e. the start and end points are the same. .

Here’s how to draw a closed path, in this case a circle, using the Pen. Don’t forget you always want to use as few anchor points as possible to create nice smooth curves.

1. Click and drag downwards (or upwards – the direction you drag is the direction the curve will go).

2. Click to create a new anchor point directly opposite your starting point then drag upwards.

3. Close the path by positioning the pointer over your starting point and clicking and once more dragging downwards until you have the curve you want.


Combining curved and straight path segments

Now that you’ve learned how to draw straight and curved paths individually, you’ll need to be able to put them together. You’ll be combining paths that combine corner points and smooth points. Smooth anchor points have directional lines that are opposite each other, 180° apart. Corner points either have no directional lines, only one directional line, or two directional lines that are at an angle that is not 180°. ( A little bit confusing, I know!)

Probably the most difficult combinations you’ll do is joining up two curves on a corner point. If you can do this, then you can do any type of drawing with the Pen. Let’s say you want to create something that looks like this;

This is a little bit different than drawing the open wave path we created earlier. In the wave, one curve goes up, then goes down. In this example, each curve goes down and to create that we need to convert anchor points as we go. It’s pretty easy once you know how, of course.

1. Select the Pen tool.

2. We’re starting with a straight segment, which is dead easy, so click once for your starting point (don’t drag) and the click again to put down your second anchor.

3. Now we’re going into a curve. When you move the pointer over the last anchor point, the cursor changes to show what looks like an upside down “v”. This indicates that you are going to convert the point from being a straight point to a curved point. Click and drag downwards in one motion to start the curve. Then click to add an anchor point opposite your second anchor point and drag upwards to finish the curve you started.


Now we need another curve. However you will find that if you simply click and drag a new point, it is not going to go where you want. You might get something like this;

Or something like this if you drag both anchor points the same direction.

4. To prevent this happening, we need to start a new curve by holding down Alt / Option + Clicking on the last anchor point. You will again see the little upside down “v” indicating that you are converting the anchor point. Holding down Alt/Option, drag downwards to create a new curve going down. You won’t see any change to your existing curve, but when you click to add your next anchor point and drag up, the curve will go down.

5. Repeat step 4 to create a third “downwards” curve.

6. To finish up, we need to convert from a curved point to a straight point. Once again, hold down Alt / Option and click once on your last anchor point but don’t drag. Release the Alt/Option key and then click again to put down your last anchor point. You should now have made a path that looks like this;

7. Ctrl / Cmd + click anywhere to complete the path.


Ok, so that’s definitely one you need to practice. It might take a little while to get your head around converting from curved to straight points and vice versa but the best way to figure it out is practice in Illustrator.



A really good way to practice combining curves and straight points with the pen tool is to try drawing the outlines of letters. In Illustrator (or Photoshop if you’re using the Pen tool in Photoshop) add some text to your art board and increase the size so the letters fill your document. Lock the layer with letters and trace them with the pen tool on a new layer above. Start with easy letters like I and Z which only have straight segments, then try lowercase T, S, P and so on. This is an exercise I give to my classes and they find it useful.

In the next post in this series I’ll show you how to edit your anchor points and paths and share some tips and tricks to speed up and refine your Pen tool usage. In the meantime keep practicing. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.


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.


Clear here to read more about the Animal ABC iBook.


  1. Pingback: How To Use The Pen Tool In Illustrator: Part 3 – Editing Paths | Laughing Lion Design
  2. Melissa says:

    Not sure if this will be seen, but I am trying to learn the pen tool, and I’m having a lot of difficulty. When trying the Alt/Option step, I get a notice that says “Please the convert anchor point tool on an anchor point of a path”. I use CS6, so I don’t know if it’s any different…but right now I am so confused!

  3. craig says:

    can you please post the link to part 3 of this tutorial, as i have now gone through parts and 2 and would to do part 3 as well!

  4. Socialbizz says:

    Is it truly flexible? or just a fixed curve? if it has a fixed plroife curve like that, then it would be a pocket bulge’ nightmare, IMO. Quite stupid i must correct me if im wrong..

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