Illustrator Beginner’s Series 2: Pen Tool Basics

By Cory • Jan 27th, 2009 • Category: Tutorials & Tips

This is the second part in my Adobe Illustrator Beginner’s series. This tutorial is about drawing with the Pen tool. The Pen tool is Illustrator’s workhorse. It takes time to learn how to use, but is one of the key drawing tools in Illustrator. Once you master the pen tool you will be able to use it in projects you send to online printing services. The best way to learn the Pen Tool is to trace over sketches. Before we get to that, this is a basic overview of the pen tool.


Before you start using the Pen tool, you’ll want to set your colors. Illustrator has two color options the Fill color (the color inside a shape) and the Stroke color (or the outline color). I like to draw with a Stroke color and no Fill color. You can change the colors of the Fill and Stroke on the Toolbar using the Swatch palette. To get the Swatch palette, go to Window > Swatches.


After your Swatch palette is open, click on the color you want. I chose black. Notice you are editing either the Stroke or the Fill based on which one is on top on the Toolbar. To edit the other one , click on the one underneath (either the fill or the stroke). It will move to the front, then click on a swatch in the Swatch palette for that one. The white swatch with the red line through it is no color.



Now, on to the Pen tool. This is the pen tool on the Toolbar.


The pen tool works by placing anchor points down and drawing lines in between them. Click on the artboard (the area of the file you draw on) with the pen tool selected. You’ll notice a point appears.


Now click on another place on the artboard. Another point appears and a line is drawn between the two points.


Next, make a third point.


Finally, conect the third point to the first. To do this you’ll need to click on the original point. Hover your tool tip or mouse pointer over the original point. You’ll know you’re over the point when a small circle appears next to your pen tool, then click on the point. Your line or path is closed.
Congratulations, you have just made a shape with the Pen tool. Look out Picasso! You’ve created a lopsided triangle.


Let’s make a curved line now. Make your first point. Then, make your second point, but don’t release the mouse. Instead, drag the mouse downward or upward slowly. You’ll notice the line starts to curve. When you get the curve you want, release the mouse button.


Now make another point. You’ll notice Illustrator makes a recipricol curve.


Let’s say you aren’t happy with that curve. You can go to Edit > Undo Pen to delete the last step. Or maybe you change your mind, go to Edit > Redo Pen and it is back.


That curve still doesn’y look right to you, so let’s manually adjust it. Go to Toolbar and select the Direct Selection tool (it’s the white arrow).


You’ll notice that whenever you make a curved line it has a little blue handle (or other layer color) that comes off of it. You can use this to adjust the curve. Click and grab the point at the end of the handle and move your mouse around to adjust the curve. Once you get the curve right release the mouse button.


After all that, you still hate your curved line, so let’s delete it. Select the Selection tool, the black arrow on the Toolbar and click on your curved line. Then hit Delete on the keyboard. It should be gone. You can always Undo it if you want it back.

To make your life easier, I have a list of keyboard shortcuts for the Toolbar tools here.


Finally, let’s make a line that curves then goes straight. Make a curved line like you did before.


Instead of making another point, click on the Direct Selection or the Selection tool and deselect your line. To deselect your line, just click on a blank spot on the artboard using one of the Selection tools.
A good trick to switching between the Pen tool and your last used Selection tool is to hold down the Command (Apple) key on a Mac or the Control key on a PC. Try it out. Select the Pen tool on the Toolbar. Now hold down the Command/Control key. You’ll notice the tool tip change from the Pen to the Selection tool.


Back to your curved line. To restart drawing on the same line, hover your mouse over the end point like you did when you were closing a shape or path. This time instead of a circle beside the Pen tool tip, you’ll see a slash mark. This means you’re over the point. Click on it and then make your next point and your line will continue. You should have a line that curves then goes straight.


Well, that’s it for my Pen tool basics. There’s more to the Pen tool, but that’s enough to get you started. The next tutorial will be applying all of this to the leaf sketch from the first tutorial in the beginner’s series.

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