Adobe Illustrator Pen Tool Tutorial

Software designer
Klaus Vedfelt / Taxi / Getty Images

The pen tool is perhaps the most powerful tool in Illustrator. It can be used to create countless lines, curves, and shapes, and serves as the building block for illustration and design. The tool is used by creating “anchor points,” and then by connecting those points with lines, which can be connected further to create shapes. Use of the pen tool is perfected through practice. Unlike many ​graphics software tools that have clear use and limitations, the pen tool is extremely flexible and encourages creativity.

Create a New File and Select the Pen Tool

Select the pen tool

Eric Miller

To practice using the pen tool, create a new Illustrator file. To create a new document, select File > New in the Illustrator menus or hit Apple-n (Mac) or Control-n (PC). In the “New Document” dialog box that will pop up, click ok. Any size and document type will do. Select the pen tool in the toolbar, which resembles the tip of an ink pen. You can also use the keyboard shortcut “p” to select the tool quickly.

Create Anchor Points and Lines

Create a shape using anchor points

Eric Miller

Let's start by creating lines, and a shape with no curves. Start by selecting a stroke and fill color, which will be the outline and color of the shape created. To do this, select the fill box at the bottom of the toolbar, and choose a color from the color palette. Then select the stroke box at the bottom of the toolbar, and select another color from the color palette.

To create an anchor point, the beginning of a line or shape, click anywhere on the stage. A small blue box will note the location of the point. Click on another location of the stage to create a second point and a connection line between the two. A third point will turn your line into a shape, and the fill color will now fill the shape area. These anchor points are considered “corner” points because they are connected to straight lines that form corners. Hold down the shift key to create a line at a 90-degree angle. Continuing clicking on the stage to creating a shape of any number of sides and angles. Experiment with crossing lines, to see how the pen tool operates. To finish a shape (for now), return to the first point you created. Notice a small circle will appear next to the cursor, which notes the shape will be complete. Click on the point to “close” the shape.

Add, Remove and Adjust Points in a Shape

Remove anchor points to adjust shapes and lines

Eric Miller

One of the reasons the pen tool is so powerful is because shapes are fully editable during and after their creation. Start creating a shape on the stage by clicking any number of points. Return to one of the existing points and place the cursor over it; notice the “minus” sign that appears under the cursor. Click the point to remove it. Illustrator automatically connects the remaining points, allowing you to adjust the shape as needed.

To add to a shape, you must first create new points on the shape lines and then adjust the angles that lead up to that point. Create a shape on the stage. To add a point, select the add anchor point tool, which is in the pen tool set (keyboard shortcut “+”). Click on any line or path of your shape, and a blue box will show you have added a point. Next, select the direct selection tool which is the white arrow on the toolbar (keyboard shortcut “a”). Click and hold on one of the points you have created and drag the mouse to adjust the shape.

To delete an anchor point in an existing shape, select the delete anchor point tool, which is part of the pen tool set. Click on any point of a shape, and it will remove as it was when we removed points earlier.

Create Curves With the Pen Tool

Creating curves

Eric Miller 

Now that we have created basic shapes with the pen tool, and added, removed, and adjusted anchor points, it’s time to create more complex shapes with curves. To create a curve, click anywhere on the stage to set a first anchor point. Click elsewhere to create a second point, but this time hold down the mouse button and drag in any direction. This creates a curve and dragging sets the slope of that curve. Continue to create more points by clicking and dragging, each time creating a new curve in a shape. These are considered “smooth” points because they are parts of curves.

You can also set the initial slope of a curve by clicking and dragging the first anchor point. The second point and the curve between the two will follow that slope.

Adjust Curves and Curved Shapes

Curved line

Eric Miller

Any of the tools we have already looked at for adjusting straight lines apply to curved lines and shapes. You can add and remove anchor points, and adjust points (and the resulting lines) using the direct selection tool. Create a shape with curves and practice making adjustments with these tools.

In addition, you can adjust the slope and angle of curves by changing the “direction lines,” which are the straight lines extending from anchor points. To adjust the curve, select the direct selection tool. Click an anchor point to show the direction line for that point and adjacent points. Then, click and hold on a blue square at the end of a direction line, and drag to adjust the curve. You can also click an anchor point and drag to move the point, which will also extend all curves connected to that point.

Convert Points

Converting points

Eric Miller

Now that we have created both straight and angled lines and anchor points that connect them, you can take advantage of the convert anchor point tool (keyboard shortcut “shift-c”). Click on any anchor point to switch it between a smooth and a corner point. Clicking a smooth point (on a curve) will automatically change it to a corner point and adjust the adjoining lines. To convert a corner point to a smooth point, click and drag from the point.

Continue to practice by creating and adjusting shapes on the stage. Make use of all of the available tools to create countless forms and illustrations. As you become more comfortable with the pen tool, it is likely to become an integral part of your work.