The Pen tool and the Paths panel

show more The Pen tool and the Paths panel provides you with in-depth training on Design. Taught by Deke McClelland as part of the Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Mastery show less
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The Pen tool and the Paths panel

This chapter is all about the Pen tool and its ability to draw editable vector-based path outlines. This is the Pen tool right there. It's located along with the other vector-based tools inside of Photoshop including tools that we saw back in the Advanced portion of this series, that is, the Type and the Shape tools. We also have this Arrow tool right there which allows you to select path outlines. But we'll start off with the Pen tool and you can get the Pen tool by clicking on it or pressing the P key. Now, the great thing about the Pen tool is it allows you to draw precise outlines, which you can turn into either vector-based masks or selection outlines one point at a time.

So, you draw what are known as anchor points by either clicking or dragging with the tool and then Photoshop connects the points depending on how you create them with either straight or curving segments. Now, it is that Masking tool that we haven't seen so far because it allows you to draw very precise shape outlines. However, unlike the masking functions that we saw in the previous chapter, you are not using the image to select itself. Rather, you are manually selecting the image, again, one point at a time. Now, there is an exception. There is this Freeform Pen tool right here available from the Pen tool fly-out menu and you use it just like the Lasso tool.

You just drag around inside your image and you cross your fingers and hope for the best and Photoshop automatically creates the points and segments for you. I do not recommend it. I consider it to be largely a waste of time and therefore it does not allow you to fully exploit path outlines. Now, in this exercise I'll give you a basic rundown, a preview of what's going on with the Pen tool so you have a sense of what it's all about. Then, starting in the next exercise I'll show you how to actually draw with it. Now, once you've selected the Pen tool. I want you to go up to the Options Bar and make sure that the second icon in is selected.

This is the default setting, but it's important to make sure it's active. Because if the first item is selected, then you'll just go ahead and draw shape layers, which is not what you want. And those Shape layers will cover up the stuff you're trying to select. It's not useful to you at all. Rather, if you're drawing paths and you'll draw these path outlines that will populate here inside the Paths panel. All right, so here I am working inside this file called Two-image comp.psd. It's found inside the 27_pen_tool folder and it features just two photographs. One that's featured on the man layer which comes to us from Jason Stitt, and then we have the leaf player in the background from Victor Burnside, both associated with the Fotolia Image Library about which you can learn more at

Let's say we want to select this man, we want to extract him from his white background. Well, that's not a terribly complicated mask as you might imagine. He is very dark skinned, he has on the dark sweater, he's set against a white background. How much easier could it be? I mean we have all the contrast in the world. Why resort to the Pen tool, which requires us to create a selection outline one point at a time and spend probably, where this image is concerned, once you come to terms with things, about 5-10 minutes, let's say. Well, the reason is because you can draw extremely accurate outlines and they will be absolutely smooth.

So, any time you have smooth contours in an image and you want to extract that image, the Pen tool is a great way to go because you're not going to have to apply any post selection processing. In other words, you are not going to have to visit the Refine Edge command in order to smooth out some of the pixel trash that you get with other masking techniques. The Pen tool is always going to deliver smooth results. So, it's not useful for hair I should say that, filigree details are not the Pen tool's strength, smooth contours are its strength. So, in other words faces, portrait shots are great as long as they don't involve hair.

If they do involve hair you can combine a hair mask along with the path outline and I'll show you what that looks like in a future exercise. But for faces or arms, legs, clothing, the Pen tool work great for product shots as well. So anything that's nice and smooth and that's sharply defined as well. Now, I've already drawn a path outline where this image is concerned. We will be tracing it but we need to develop a few skills first. So, I'll show you what I did in advance. Let's go ahead and switch over to the Paths panel and there you will find a path outline called manline.

If you click on it you'll see it. Now, it's kind of difficult to see it. It's very thin gray line, just slightly on the inside edge of the man's face. So, you can see that it's tracing down along his forehead, over along his ear, down his cheek and into his sweater as well. There are a couple of different ways we could now use this path outline in order to mask the layer. One way is to convert it to a vector mask and that way it remains an editable path outline that we can manipulate using one of the Arrow tools and that affords us an awful lot of control and it keep things nice and smooth.

So let's see that. I'll go over to the Layers panel with this path selected, I'll go over to the Layers panel and I would drop down to the bottom of the panel. You see this Add Layer Mask icon, you Ctrl+Click on it or Cmd+Click on that icon on the Mac and that converts the path outline to a vector mask as we're seeing right here. Then, if I click on that vector mask thumbnail to hide the path outline we can see that we have this very smooth transition right here. So, an incredibly accurate definition of this man's face and shoulder. So that's one way to work.

I'll go ahead and press Ctrl+Z, Cmd+ Z on the Mac so we can see the other way which is to go ahead and convert the path outline to a pixel-based mask. Then, you can combine it with a hair mask, you can add some blur if need be to account for softly focused edges, that kind of thing. So, I'll go back to the Paths panel and I'll just make sure that this path outline is selected, it is. Now, to convert it to a selection outline, because that's what we need to do in order to convert the path outline to pixels, because the selection outline is a pixel-based object inside of Photoshop.

Go ahead and press the Ctrl key or the Cmd key on the Mac and click on it. It's that simple, and that's the way it works when you are converting channels to selection outlines and layers to selection outlines and so on. So it's just a Ctrl+Click, a Cmd+Click on the Mac. Notice that not only gives us the marching ants out here in the Image window but it also deselects the path here in the Paths panel. Now, I'll switch back over to the Layers panel and instead of Ctrl+clicking on this icon or Cmd+Clicking on the Mac, I'll just click on it and we now have a pixel-based layer mask.

Those are your two options when you're working with a path outline. So, that's pretty much everything there is to know about the Pen tool inside of Photoshop except for how to use the darn thing. And I will begin to explain how that works in the next exercise.

The Pen tool and the Paths panel
Video duration: 6m 32s 20h 1m Advanced


The Pen tool and the Paths panel provides you with in-depth training on Design. Taught by Deke McClelland as part of the Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Mastery

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