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The Pen is Mighty

Of all the ways to make selections, the pen tool may end up being the easiest way to accomplish them. Ironically, it is perhaps the most intimidating tool in Photoshop.

I don’t use it all the time – but for selections not involving hair, I find it is the go-to tool.

I didn’t always feel this way. Like most people, it was a mysterious, frustrating experience. However, after learning the following “secrets,” and, with a little practice, it became a useful tool:

  • the first point establishes behavior for the second. If you don’t drag off the first point, the pen tool assumes you want to create a straight line. This puts the pen tool in “straight line” mode. If you do drag, the direction of the handle that you are dragging is the direction to make the corresponding curve; the size and direction of the drag determines the magnitude (where the curve starts to reverse, forming the curve). This puts the pen tool in “curve mode.” However, even if you are in straight line mode, dragging the handles on the next point can create a curve, so you are not stuck in this mode. You are  stuck in curve mode until you reset everything by clicking on the last point made while holding down the option/alt key, as explained in point 3.
  • drags on corresponding points continue to set up behavior for the next curve. While the handle in the drag controls the shape of the curve you are currently making, it also sets the direction (and magnitude) of the next curve. You pull the handle in the opposite direction of the curve you are creating. In other words, if the curve points up, you pull down. Therefore, the next curve points in the opposite direction. In general, the pen tool wants to create an “s” curve or a sine wave look. That is, unless you …
  • press the option key after you have the curve you want established, but before you release the mouse button. This “releases” the handle, allowing you to change the direction of the curve. You can also click on the point using the option/alt key after you have released it – this is actually more flexible as it returns the pen tool to its default behavior; you can then draw straight lines or position the next curve anywhere that you want
  • the pen tool assumes you want to close the path that you are creating. It wants to complete back to the original point in the path, in the direction of the handle  you are dragging.  If the pen tool is not in “curve” mode, then it assumes that you want to continue to make a linear connection to the next point

That 3rd point is a lifer saver. I often forget to think ahead and just click to make points. Using the option/alt key basically allows you to do anything you want on the subsequent point – you can drag a curve in any subsequent direction you want or create a straight line.

I have left off a lot of detail in using the pen tool, assuming you know the basic mechanics. But understanding its 2 modes of operation, and how it wants to create the connection to the next point, will allow you the control that you need to use the tool effectively. You can use the command/ctrl key to move points, click to add additional points, etc.

With practice, you will be surprised how much control the pen tool allows and the precision with which you can make selections.

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