Pen Tool Feature Image
Design - Photoshop

Pen Tool Mastery with Photoshop

Over the years, many students have told me they hated the Pen tool, or they hated Photoshop’s Pen tool. My answer was and remains: “You don’t have to love the Pen tool. You have to master it.”

Mastery takes practice.

And patience.

The Pen tool is part of Photoshop’s vector toolset. It’s used to create or modify paths and shapes. We can also use it to create raster objects. In addition to creating paths, we’ll manipulate anchors – points along the path – using the Direct Selection tool.

Recommended ReadingA Beginner’s Guide to Creating Vector Art in Photoshop

Photoshop's vector tools include Pen, Path and Direct Selection, Shape, Type and Pen tools.

Photoshop’s vector tools include Pen, Path and Direct Selection, Shape, Type and Pen tools.

Both Selection and Direct Selection tools are accessed by pressing a. The Direct Selection tool is a hollow arrow. If the arrow’s solid black, press shift + a to access Direct Selection. Although we can load the Direct Selection tool at any time, setting it before we start will make it the spring-loaded tool once we start drawing with the Pen tool (p). You can set the Direct Selection tool at any time, of course, but I prefer to take care of it before I start because it streamlines my workflow.

Creating a Vector Guitar

  1. Okay, let’s get started. Open this example guitar image, or an image of your own. I use this image when teaching Adobe Illustrator’s Pen tool. Students get plenty of practice making curves and other closed paths. We’ll use it to make a vector guitar in Photoshop. Using a tool to make a “real” object seems to me more meaningful than exercises or drills to make open and closed paths. (Most of my students abandoned these exercises and worked on other projects rather than completing the drills as instructed, so rather than force them to comply, I made the guitar tracing a term project.)
    Acoustic guitar for Pen tool practice

    Acoustic guitar for Photoshop Pen tool practice.

  2. Lower the Background layer’s Opacity to about 50%.
  3. Create a blank layer above the background.
  4. In the Options bar, located immediately below choose Shape. Set Fill to None and Stroke to 3 points and choose a color that will stand out on your canvas.
  5. Before we start tracing our guitar, let’s choose our objects. Creating vector art differs from digital painting in that we’re building it with shapes instead of brush strokes.
  6. Let’s make four groups:
    • Body
      • Soundboard
      • Sound Hole
      • Bridge Pins
      • Note: as our image shows some of the guitar’s depth, we’ll have three additional shapes for the body’s visible sides.
    • Neck
      • Nut
      • Fingerboard
      • Frets
      • Position Markers
    • Headstock
      • Tuning Pegs
    • Strings
      • Bridge
      • Saddle
      • Note: The bridge and saddle are part of the soundboard, but we’re adding them on top of the Strings group to give the illusion the strings are running through them. Building our guitar this way allows us to use a single path for each string.
  7. We’ll build the body first, followed by its neck, headstock and we’ll finish with the strings. In other words, we’re building our guitar from the bottom up.
    Before we start drawing our guitar, we need to identify the shapes required to assemble it.

    Before we start drawing our guitar, we need to identify the shapes required to assemble it.

  8. Creating layer groups before starting a project such as this expedites finding specific elements, so let’s add Layer Groups for each guitar part.
    Setting up our document before we start drawing makes editing a breeze.

    Setting up our document before we start drawing makes editing a breeze.

  9. Zoom in tight to the body. At 500% zoom you should be able to get a reasonably accurate tracing with the supplied image. Its lines are on the soft side, so you won’t get a “pixel perfect” tracing; but we’re making a drawing here, conveying the idea of an acoustic guitar, not the guitar itself.
  10. Activate Layer 1 by clicking on it.
  11. Press p to select the Pen tool.
  12. For maximum control and more natural looking curves, we want to use just enough points along our paths. If we have too many points, our curves will look ragged. If we have too few, our art may look incomplete, or over-simplified.
    The Freeform Pen tool is a lot faster, but like Illustrator’s Pencil tool, it creates a mess of points. Fewer points on a path tend to give you smoother curves. They’re also easier to edit.
  13. The Freeform Pen tool is a lot faster, but like Illustrator’s Pencil tool, it creates a mess of points. Fewer points on a path tend to give you smoother curves. They’re also easier to edit.
    It’s almost always better to start a shape anywhere but a corner, unless, of course, it’s rectilinear. Corner points can be difficult to edit.

Drawing the Body

  1. Choose a point near the top of the body to start. Click and drag to create a smooth point. Dragging before releasing reveals handles that allow us to manipulate curves. If we don’t add handles to our anchors now, we’ll have to come back and do it later. You only want to drag out handles long enough to see them. Note: the first anchor may have only one handle. Don’t worry about it.
    I chose to start at a relatively straight point to start outlining the soundboard.

    I chose to start at a relatively straight point to start outlining the soundboard.

  2. When drawing curves, add a point near its start and another at the curve’s end point. Positioning your anchors takes practice. If you find it difficult to gauge the start and end points of your subject’s curves, draw out a series of horizontal and vertical guides at the start and end points. This method can be time consuming and, on projects with many curves, such as this one, can add a confusion of intersecting guides to your canvas.
  3. Now we’ll add the sound hole. Press and hold the vector shapes tool to reveal its options, select the oval tool.
  4. Drag out an oval that covers the sound hole. As the guitar was photographed at an angle, our sound hole is going to be elongated.
    You can tweak your shape by pressing a to load the Direct Select tool (➱), or shift + a if Path Selection (➡︎) is active. Click on an anchor to reveal its handles and gently pull your oval into shape.
  5. You can repeat the previous step to create the inlay ring around the sound hole.
  6. We’ll add the saddle and bridge when we create our guitar strings because we want the bridge to be over the bridge.
  7. We’ll draw two small ovals to make the bridge pins. Start with the base. We could apply a gradient to give the illusion of depth to the pins, but this is a vector tool exercise, so we’ll draw a second oval to represent the top of the bridge pin. (Alternatively, you could option + drag your base oval and then mould it into shape with the Direct Select tool (a), but it’s a lot faster and far less frustrating to simply trace one.)
  8. Once you’re happy with your first pin, hold command/ctrl and click on the layer below, activating both of its parts.
  9. Press the Link layers button located in the Layers button panel at the bottom of the Layers panel. (It’s the first button on the left. It will only be available when two or more layers are selected. Linking layers allows you to operate on them as though they were a single layer, but retains their individual options. If we merge our layers (command/ctrl + e) they’ll become raster objects. We don’t want to work with raster objects just yet.
  10. Ensure your linked layers are active. Option/alt + drag to duplicate your first pin and put it into place.
  11. Now option/alt + drag out the four remaining pins. Once all six bridge pins are in place, tweak their shapes as necessary.
  12. Are you having fun yet? It’s a bit repetitious, I know, but you end up with a pretty cool looking vector guitar.
  13. Now we’ll make the sides of the body. We’ll trace three separate shapes.
    Side Shapes These are the three shapes we're adding to represent the body's sides.

    Side Shapes These are the three shapes we’re adding to represent the body’s sides.

  14. Click on the soundboard layer, which should be at the bottom of the Body Group layer stack. Hold command/ctrl and press the Create a New Layer button, located second from right, in the Layers button panel at the bottom of the Layers panel. Note: Holding command/ctrl + Create a New Layer adds the new layer below the active layer. It’s usually faster to create the layer where you need it, rather than dragging it into place afterwards.
  15. Click p to select the Pen tool. Trace the left side of the body.
  16. Repeat for the top right side and back of the neck.
  17. Hide the image layer by pressing its eyeball. Your guitar’s starting to come together.
    Your guitar is starting to take shape.

    Your guitar is starting to take shape.

Drawing the Neck

Note: Alternatively, we can use the Rectangle tool to create our frets and nut. Adjust the width by changing stroke width in the Options Bar.

  1. Activate the neck layer group. Ensure the guitar image layer is visible.
  2. Click p to activate the Pen tool.
  3. As the neck is rectangular, click a corner and then click the remaining corners, until you have a closed neck shape. This is almost too easy now.
  4. Select the Rectangle tool from the Vector Shapes tool options.
  5. Trace the nut at the top of the neck. Use the Direct Select tool (a or shift + a) to adjust your rectangle.
  6. Select the Rectangle tool again and trace out the first fret.
  7. Now option/alt + drag out copies for each of the remaining frets.
  8. The frets get wider as they get closer to the body. We’ll fix that now. Select the Direct Select tool and drag each corner point into place. You may also adjust the width of your frets by changing Stroke width in the Options Bar.
  9. Let’s create an oval for the first position marker. (Select the oval from under the Vector Shapes tool).
  10. Option drag an oval for each position marker and then tweak them as necessary (Direct Select (a or shift + a)).
  11. Hide the image layer and admire your handiwork.

Draw the Headstock

  1. Select the pen tool (p) and trace the headstock.
  2. We’ll create the tuning pegs the same way we made the bridge pins. Start with a larger oval for the base and a smaller one for the top of the peg.
  3. Link the two ovals by command/ctrl + clicking each layer. And then press the Link Layers button (leftmost button on the Layer buttons panel.)
  4. Next, let’s trace the tuning keys. Use the Pen tool (p) and trace them.
  5. Lastly, we’ll trace the cover plate near the nut.
  6. Before proceeding to the next step, have a look at your handiwork. You’ve drawn a guitar.
    Our Guitar is taking shape. It’s still a sketch, but we’re well on our way to creating a piece of vector art in Photoshop.

    Our guitar is taking shape. It’s still a sketch, but we’re well on our way to creating a piece of vector art in Photoshop.

  7. Now let’s string it.

Stringing Your Guitar

  1. Activate the Strings Group and select the Line tool from under the Vector Tools.
  2. Let’s trace the bridge and saddle. Click p to activate the pen tool. Pick a start point and trace. Remember, you can edit points as you go by using spring loaded keys (hold command/ctrl, with the pen tool active, to load the Direct Select tool, or option/alt to load the Convert Point tool).
  3. Create a new layer below the bridge and above the saddle.
  4. We’ll start at the tuning peg. Draw a section to the nut. Note: We have more control over our final shape by adding points where our strings change position.
  5. Add a point at the top of the bridge and another at the bottom.
    Adding these points allows us to change direction of our string and retain the illusion of realism.

    Adding these points allows us to change direction of our string and retain the illusion of realism.

  6. End your string at its bridge pin.
  7. Repeat for each remaining string.
  8. Hide the source image and have a look at your tracing.
    Our outlined guitar image.

    Our outlined guitar image.

  9. For a more realistic look, you can adjust the width strings’ widths in the Options bar or Strokes panel. Activate the layer and choose your width.
    Using the Stroke settings in the Options Bar is one way to adjust a string’s width to give it a more realistic dimension. Here, I switched the string layer Blend mode to Difference and dropped the opacity to 50% so I could see the string on the guitar image. I resized the string’s width until I was happy with the width.

    Using the Stroke settings in the Options Bar is one way to adjust a string’s width to give it a more realistic dimension. Here, I switched the string layer Blend mode to Difference and dropped the opacity to 50% so I could see the string on the guitar image. I resized the string’s width until I was happy with the width.

Conclusion

The main purpose of this project is to become comfortable using Photoshop’s Pen and vector drawing tools. You learned how to make shapes with both Pen and Vector drawing tools. You learned how to plan and execute a vector drawing project in Photoshop.

Now that you’ve outlined your guitar, how would you finish it?

About the author

Gord taught the graphic design program at a private college for six years. He also wrote nineteen of the program's courses. After six years leading classes, he felt it was time to learn how to be a graphic designer again. In addition to graphic design, Gord's an accomplished writer. Digital painting and photography are two of his hobbies.

Share this post

Leave a Comment

Subscribe To Our Newsletter