by Weston Maggio

Getting Started With Photoshop's Pen Tool with a Wacom Tablet

As a Wacom Guy I am often asked about the use of the pen tool. I’m not talking about the stylus that you use with a tablet, I’m talking about the Pen Tool in applications like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

I suppose that I am asked about the Pen Tool because it’s common to refer to the stylus that you use on a tablet as a "pen". But I am quite sure that the other reason that I get the question is because there is a general misunderstanding of what the Pen Tool does and why one would want to use it. Let me shed some clarity on the topic.

The Pen Tool that you find in your favorite creative applications dates back to their earliest versions -- think 1980s and '90s! Prior to that you could even find similar functions in specialty applications—or programs as they were called—designed for CAD and other Mechanical uses. Back then, the Pen tool went by some other names, including the Path Tool and the Bezier Tool. The later named for Pierre Bezier, a French Engineer who patented the mathematical process behind the function of the Pen Tool. But this isn’t a history lesson, this is a How to use the Pen Tool tip, so I digress. 

The Pen Tool is designed to make precision shapes and selections using "paths". Whereas the various selection tools, such as the Lasso and Marquee tools can be used to "draw" loosely around objects, the Pen Tool can be more precisely controlled as you go along. Further, you can manipulate the paths that you draw with a variety of tools.

Although the concept of a "pen" was simple enough, the earliest users of the tool found it to be difficult, and it most certainly can be without little practice! This reputation followed the Pen Tool for years to come, and perhaps even still today. There I go again.

Without an understanding of how the Pen Tool works, some assume that it behaves like a pen. However if you attempt to draw with the Pen Tool in a traditional sense, you are in for quite the surprise. Although you technically "draw" with the pen, it is in a rather utilitarian method. As I said earlier, the Pen Tool employs math to do what it does.

The Pen Tool creates a series of segments to form shapes. These shapes can make up solid objects, selections or even type. (Fonts are made up of shapes drawn with the Pen Tool.) Segments can be either straight or curved, and they can be joined or open.

Is the Pen Tool better with a Pen?

To cut to the chase, you may be reading this in hopes of understanding whether it is better to use the Pen Tool with a pen and tablet? The answer to this question is certainly a subjective one. In my travels, I’ve met people that unequivocally say YES, and some that say, "You could, but I do just as well with a mouse." Personally, I prefer the pen (and tablet) when using the Pen Tool because I view the pair as single drawing tool. 

To draw with the pen tool, you place anchor points or "points" by tapping your pen to the tablet. Each successive point creates a segment. The combination of these segments, whether straight or curved make up a path. The general process of placing points is fairly simple, but getting the resulting segment to go where you want them to takes a little practice. 

Watch the full video below for a Pen Tool primer and get helpful hints on manipulating curves to make accurate paths for better shapes and selections.

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