Learn to use Pen Tool in Illustrator

Pen tool is one tool that is something which got me hooked since the last summers. I don’t think that there is any designer who does not like it. There has to be a reason for such a big fan base. The reason that I can think of is that it allows you to trace out pretty much everything. Vectors, Clip arts, SVGs, Posters and Illustrations are few of the areas where Pen tool is used. But it can be a daunting task to get a hang of it. So let us learn how to unravel the full potential of the holy grail of designers, the fabled pen tool.

First let’s get some inspiration to learn it. Here are some of the illustrations I made using pen tool which I learned in a few weeks (so it doesn’t have to be a time consuming process for you)


This is a sketch of Tesla Model S I made which will later be traced in Illustrator
The final rendering of Tesla Model S in vector format

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Find out more of my Illustrations at my Behance profile by clicking here.

The best way to learn pen tool is to trace out the letter ‘S’ of English language as it has a curve of almost all possible slopes. So let’s start one step at a time:

1. First go to the text tool and select any sans serif font(the ones who do not have that little thingy at the end of the corners) for eg. Calibri, and type in the letter ‘S’.

2. Click on the pen tool icon (yes you guessed it right, it is in the shape of a pen). There are two ways to create a trace point (the point that will define your traced path). First you perform a single click and then move your mouse and then perform one more single click. This will result in a solid straight path with no possibility of changing the curvature.

The left one is the what is commonly refered as the pen tool; the middle and the right most one is used to add the anchor points and remove the anchor points respectively [Source]

3. Secondly, there is one more way that allows you way more freedom, perform the click and drag the mouse. You’ll see two more points appearing on the either side of your tracking point, these are called Anchor Points. These anchor points allows you to manipulate the curvature of your path to fit your desired tracing path.

Every trace point has two anchor point to change the curvature of the curve at that point [Source]
getting anchor points
When you click and drag the two anchor points appear which are really useful to change curvature of the path

4. Now let’s get started by selecting the Type tool and typing the letter ‘S’ on to the Layer 1 as you can see in the image below. Lock this layer so that you don’t accidently move it. Add one more layer by clicking the icon on the left of the ‘trash’ icon.

Type the letter ‘S’ on Layer 1 and lock it


The basic step to efficiently use pen tool is not to overdo it. Use minimum but required trace points, like the second point which is placed after the circular turn


The third point is placed after the inflexion point where the curvature changes. The reason why we do not put the trace point in the middle is because the anchor points are really great at changing and adjusting the curvature to fit whereas putting one more trace point may lead to disruption in smoothness of the curve


To place 4th and 5th point remember that sharp edges and corners always require a point of their own. So we will place them accordingly. To change the curve and make a sharp (almost 90 degree turn) use the left or bottom anchor point of the 4th point (you can select by using the Direct selection tool) and press alt to move it individually without affecting the other anchor point

If you have trouble in memorizing the names of the tools then you can refer to this infographic by Adobe [Source]

Follow the same strategy as explained above to tackle one more curvature change to place 6th and 7th point. And then since the upcoming is a corner so it needs to have a trace point of its own
Look at the third, it seems a bit of pointy and sharp. Use the marquee edit tool and click on the 3rd point. You’ll get a small circle with a dot at the center
Click on that circle and drag it away from the curve. It splits the single point into while smoothening the curve in between

Now go back to all points and edit them individually using Direct Selection either by clicking the anchor point and pressing alt button or by splitting the point into two using that little circle with the dot thingy.

That’s about it, now you know almost everything required to trace out any possible curve in the world using pen tool. Go on! and create awesome vector graphics, clip arts and line drawings and DFTBA!

This blog is inspired from this great YouTube video by Matt Brochert 






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