How to Use Photoshop’s Pen Tool

By Melissa Evans


You might already be cutting out images in Photoshop but if you’re not using the pen tool, then you are probably doing it wrong! “Why?”, you may ask.

1. Accuracy. There is no way you are going to get the same level of control using the lasso tool or other selection methods. Using the pen tool enables you select partial pixels. This means that the edges of your selection will always be smooth (no jagged pixel edges). The pen tool literally puts transparency on the bit of the pixel that exists outside of the selection.

2. Options. By using the pen tool there are numerous post options available. You can save the shape, or maybe fill or stroke it.

So open your image in Photoshop and using your pen tool trace around the outside. There are two ways to do this. You could click and drag on each anchor point to get the right curves but I find this process too slow. I prefer to click around the object (essentially cutting it out with straight lines) and then go back and adjust the curves/anchor points.

Make sure your pen tool is set to Create Path and that the path option is “add to path area”. See image below.

Pen Tool Tutorial 2a

I’ve chosen a picture of Gary Hoff, doing a standard orangutan impersonation, as the image I want to cut out. The image below shows the rough work path I lay down first. If the image you are cutting is quite detailed, like mine, zoom in (Ctrl +) and out (Ctrl – ) as you work.

Gary Hoff

It is EXTREMELY important to close the work path so that it can be made into a selection. This means that your last anchor point must meet up to the first anchor point. Once you have made your way around the object you must click once more on the starting point. When you get to the starting anchor point it will be marked with a small circle. See image below.

Pen Tool isolating an object

The image below shows a close up of the work path once the curves were created and the anchor points adjusted.

Pen Tool Tutorial Gaz 3

Pen Tool Tutorial Gaz 4

The trick is to know where to put anchor points, and this is something that comes with a little practice. The pen tool does become very easy, but initially it will be slow, so try not to get put off.

Pen Tool Tutorial Gaz 5

Now right click on the work path and select Make Selection.

Copy the selection (Ctrl + c) and paste it on to another image (Ctrl + v). I’ve chosen a nice jungle path for Gary.

Due to the partial pixel selection the image blends smoothly on the new background. With only a few more minor adjustments this will be a nice composite.


To create a shape within a shape, such as a donut, it is a simple matter of making sure your path is active and selecting the right option from the top (for a donut it would be “subtract from shape area”). The images below explain it better than text.

1. Create a circle Shape Layer using your Elipse Tool. See image below…

2. Select “subtract from” on the top options (see 1. below) and notice how the cursor shows a subtract symbol when you mouse-over the shape (see 2. below).

3. The result is a donut.

4. Use your Path Selection Tool to move the paths and alter the donut shape.

This same technique also works with paths. The important part is to remember that the first path must be active before you create the second path.


If we go to Paths Palette you will see our path is still there. Click once on the path layer to reveal our work path again.

Paths Palette

Now with Edit >> Define Custom Shape…

Define Custom Shape

Name your shape and click OK. Select your Custom Shape Tool from the Toolbar.

Custom Shape Tool

You will now see your new shape in the Custom Shape picker.

Available Custom Shapes

Now check your foreground colour before you make the shape. You can see in the image below my foreground color is black. The shape you create will be the foreground color.

Black as Foreground Colour

Until now we have been making WORK PATHS but now we want to make a SHAPE. See image below.

Tool Shape Layers

Click and drag on your canvas to create your shape.

Hold down Shft while you drag, to re-create the shape with the same proportions (it won’t distort).

Now if you select Shape Layers and then create the shape you will see it creates a vector shape. Creating vector shapes is best.

Because the shape is a vector you can scale it up and down and it will never pixelate! (To apply effects to the layer you will need to rasterize the layer…simply right click on the layer and choose rasterize from the options).

If you create the shape using Fill Pixel (see image below) you must make sure the anti-alias box is checked.

Fill Pixels

Custom Shape Creation with Photoshop

Feel free to contact me via my contact page if you have any questions.

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