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Tips & Tricks

How To Use The Much-Underrated ‘Pen Tool’ In Photoshop

By Kishore Sawh on September 20th 2014


It was, for me, the most daunting Photoshop tool there was. It felt unnatural and the flow was not as organic as other tools like the magic wand. I knew little about it, and thus was a bit afraid of it, so I’d avoid it like I was some immune compromised pensioner, and it had Ebola and was about to sneeze. But the pen tool needn’t be viewed with fear, or avoided, and if you do avoid it, you may be missing out on some of the best Photoshop has to offer.

For some time now, I was considering doing a full on breakdown of it and its uses, but now I needn’t bother because Aaron Nace has provided a welcomed and easy to digest guide to understanding and using the pen tool.

[REWIND: How To Remove Your Ex In Photoshop]

Like anything in Photoshop, putting it into use, and going through the steps and trial and error is necessary for learning and assimilating the information. You can watch videos from now until the cows come home, but if you’re not actually maneuvering through the actions yourself, it won’t be of much use. And you should do these things on a continual basis as Photoshop is a perishable skill. Don’t believe me? Try taking a month off and coming back and see if you can really keep your output level the same and at speed. While following along with this video, I highly recommend you have Photoshop open and sort of play around with the tool as Aaron holds your hand like a small child and guides you through the woods.

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A great thing about learning to use the pen tool is that it is not exclusive to Photoshop, so you may at one point find yourself in front of another illustrative graphic program and recognize your old friend.

The Pen Tool is really all about making selections. You may wonder then, why it isn’t found in the same grouping as the other Photoshop selection tools like the Quick Selection Tool. Well once you try it for the first time, you’ll understand. It follows paths very unlike the rest, and honestly, would be more appropriately named the Path Tool (Probably called a Pen Tool because it was initially developed to assist in the designing of cars). How the paths connect from pixel to pixel is really what makes it such a brilliant tool for making selections whether you want to cut an object out, or move, or simply just separate it to do some other editing. Anyway, without getting really into the boring nitty gritty of it, and without further ado, here’s Aaron to actually show it all to you.

As always, if you are a fan of Aaron’s teachings (and who isn’t?), be sure to check back here for updates, and follow along with Aaron on YouTube and Phlearn. You should also consider becoming quickly adept at Photoshop with the Phlearn Photoshop 101 & 201 sets as they are extremely comprehensive, and will have you quickly doing things with Photoshop you may have otherwise thought too complex, or didn’t even know you could do.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Chuck Eggen

    Lets see, while learning the wacom tablet let’s add the pen tool. Maybe I’ll come back to this tutorial later.

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  2. cherestes janos

    I hate the path tool, but from now on i might use it :)

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  3. Edward Solly

    Another video i will use to explain another tool on photoshop to my students at school! Thanks for making my life slightly easier! :D

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  4. Stan Rogers

    The pen tool is something I use a lot, but I’ll probably never really like. Back in the “do it by hand” days, we used something called a spline (basically a flexible ruler) to create smooth curves, and the first eleventy-seven software drawing packages I used also used spline curves. Incredibly intuitive, they were. Then everything went Bezier, which is incredibly powerful, but just about the exact opposite of intuitive (especially if you don’t know all of the incantations and wand motions to drop and revive handles, etc.). Being new to the idea is probably an advantage; you wouldn’t have twenty-odd years of doing things a different but similar-looking way to unlearn. (That doesn’t keep me from wishing that Adobe would add a spline curve tool at some point. But it’s been like 25 years, and still nuthin’, so my expectations are somewhat diminished.)

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  5. Herm Tjioe

    Because of your past article I pulled out my wacom out of deep storage, and renewed my commitment to learn and practice. . . . damn you, Kishore, another learning curve I had to overcome.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Herm! good to hear from you man. I’m sorry I’m not sorry at all that I’m pushing you to get really good at retouching. When you start doing some good stuff, share with us man. Talk soon. Cheers

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    • John Cavan

      It took me a while to get used to the tablet, but once you do it’s hard to ignore as a power tool for photo editing. So, as a piece of advice, I hightly recommend watching Aaron’s tutorial on Wacom tablets:

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