Getting Comfortable with the Photoshop Pen Tool: Learn to Trace Line Art & Draw Lines & Curves

Getting Comfortable with the Photoshop Pen Tool: Learn to Trace Line Art & Draw Lines & Curves
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Walkthrough: Using the Photoshop Pen Tool for Line Art

The easiest way to learn how to use the Photoshop pen tool is actually to use it to create line art. You can create line art for artwork, graphics, or even bits of text. This tutorial will walk you through how to use the pen tool to create line art over a sketch, but the rules are easily adapted for several pen tool tasks. Think of this tutorial as walking before you run, or possibly even crawling before you walk. This is a very basic tutorial that Photoshop beginners should be able to pick up with no problem! I wrote this tutorial using Adobe Photoshop CS4, but it will work exactly the same on all versions of Photoshop from 7.0 and up.

Doing the Legwork

First and foremost: If you’re 100% new to the pen tool, I highly recommend tracing an image that either you or someone else has created. It can be as simple as you would like, but should be composed of quite a few lines. This will allow you to get used to manipulating the pen tool paths fairly quick. It’s also kind of important that you do a little bit of legwork before hand and set up the image to make it as easy as possible to do. This is super quick, and these next few steps will show you how.

If you’re doing this for artwork or graphic design, you’re going to want to start with an extremely large image, anywhere from 1000px by 1000px and up is usually good. If you’re just doing this to learn how to create lines with the pen tool, you don’t need to start so big, but pick an image large enough that you can see the details. The image I’m using was used with permission from my friend Delya, over at deviantART. Thanks, Del!

Oz by Delya

Now, before you start anything, make sure you double click on the layer that says “background” until it says “layer 0.” This makes it editable. Now, right click on the words “Layer 0” and go into properties. Rename it “Sketch” as to help with organization.

Make Your Layer Editable

Now, make one more new layer, grab the paintbucket tool, and fill the new layer with a lighter color. I used blue. Now, go up to the box that says “normal” and find the option “Screen.” There! Your lines are now lighter! After you do this, press CTRL+E to merge it into one, simple manageable layer. Your sketch layer should now be light blue (or whatever color you picked). Now, make a new layer and name it “lineart” (make sure it is the active layer/selected) for the next section. Make sure it isn’t filled with any color — you need to be able to see your sketch layer underneath.

Changing the colors of your lines

Learning the Lines

Anatomy of a curved line: Most drawings, logos, and graphics are not of squares or other geometric shapes. You’re going to have to learn how to curve lines in order to give your drawings a sense of flow and movement. Below I’ve highlighted in green the line I’m going to ink with the pen tool. Don’t be afraid to zoom in really far to get a good view of what you’re working with.

The line we’re going to be working with.

Okay, simple enough, right?. Make sure the layer “Lineart” is in order (active layer, not filled with anything) and grab your pen tool, and find the start of a line. Any line will do, just pick your favorite! Click, but do not drag. A small gray box should appear, like so.

First Click

Now, find the next “edge” — usually a corner of some sort, or where a line is intersected by another. Click (but don’t drag) again. Don’t worry about the fact that it doesn’t follow your line art. Don’t worry. It will.

Second click

Now, all you have to do is click (but don’t drag) on your pen line (the thin gray photoshop generated line) near where the line needs to curve. The pen tool should get a little + by it. That’s a good thing. When you see the +, that means you can add an anchor point. Go ahead and click until you create a little gray box.

Third click

You see the gray box in the middle? Good, that’s your anchor point Now, press CTRL. You see how your pen tool has turned into a white arrow? That means you can now move anchor points. Keep CTRL held down, click on the anchor point and drag it to where your line needs to curve. If you have an extreme curve, grab one of the supports (the tiny gray box on the end of the anchor point) and use it to manipulate your line as you need. Also, if your line curves a lot, or in more than one direction, you’ll probably have to add more than one anchor point. I recommend playing around a bit with it, to see what it does. Experience is the best teacher, after all! Below are a few steps I did to make my pen line mimic my curve.

Pulling your anchor to follow the line

Congrats, you just mastered the basic functions of the pen tool! if you’ve managed to make something that follows your line pretty well, give yourself a pat on the back. If not, you can always right click and select “delete path” to get rid of your pen line and start over. Trust me, it gets easier as you go on.

Quick note: If you hold down CTRL and click anywhere off of your pen line, all your anchor points will disappear. This helps to see how closely you followed your sketch line. To get them back, simply hold down CTRL again, and click the pen line again.

Without the anchor points

Inking Your Line

Now select your brush tool, and find a hard brush that is approximately the size of the line you want to create. Now, make sure its a hard brush (one that doesn’t have a blurred edge). The ones with the blurred edges will make it absolutely impossible to fill in your image later. Anyway, as I stated: Pick a hard brush that mimics the size of the line you want to create. I picked a 3px round, hard brush. This step is important because it tells the pen tool what brush to ink with. If you do not do this, who knows what you’ll end up with.

3px Hard Brush

Now select your pen tool again, and right click and select Stroke Path.

Make sure your Tool drop-down menu is set to “Brush” and your “simulate pressure” box is unchecked. Press OK.


Congratulations! Now you have a stroked line. Now, delete the path by right clicking and selecting “Delete Path” and repeat the step with other lines as needed.

A stroked line

Soon enough, it’ll only take you a little while to ink the entire drawing. You’d be surprised at how fast you can actually become. On average, it only takes me five or ten minutes to ink an entire sketch. And if you’re not planning on using this for artwork, think how much easier it will be to create custom shapes, logos, and selections now that you understand how to create and manipulate lines!

A semi-complete lined Oz picture!