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Pen Tool and Navigational Essentials in Adobe Illustrator

February 10th, 2009

This tutorial article by Zoltan Gyalog focuses on the Pen tool of Adobe Illustrator. It includes an explanation of different kinds of anchor points, refinement by adding and removing anchor points, and changing anchor point types. Additional topics addressed include basic navigation in Adobe Illustrator, the fundamental of Fill and Stroke attributes, and an explanation of vital differences between Selection Types. Meanwhile, if you would like to buy the latest version of Adobe Illustrator (currently CS4), just click on the image to the left to visit the correct page from the ever-popular Amazon.com.


Adobe Illustrator is a sophisticated vector based application, yet there is nothing to prevent new users from learning their way around with one of the most versatile tools the software offers: the Pen tool. Vector drawing is based on the creation of intricate line segments. These are the underlying elements you either use to create customized Strokes out of, or to Fill an area that the segments are bordering. This tutorial will show you how to create line art efficiently, using curves and straight lines you have infinite control over. This infinite control of the individual components lets you create what you have in mind with ease and mathematical accuracy.

Start a new document using the File >> New selection from the upper Main Menu bar. Illustrator offers a wide selection of consensus templates. Select the A4 paper format which will be quite fine for these examples. The easiest way to access the Pen tool is to rely on the default hotkey “p”, but at first it is a good idea to take note of the tool’s location in the toolbox. At default, Illustrator will give you instant interface access to the toolbox, but in case you cannot see it, you can invoke it using the Window >> Tools path.

Illustrator comes with two toolbox layouts. You can change between these configurations by pressing the small arrows at the upper left corner of the toolbox palette. Regardless of which configuration is currently activated, you will find the Pen tool in the second group of tools in the toolbox. It is the first component of both of these subgroups. Before you start the examples with the Pen tool though, let’s see the most essential navigational commands of Illustrator: panning and zooming the camera.

Basic Navigation

The Hand tool is used to pan the camera around, and it can be accessed by the hotkey “Space”. If you keep the Spacebar pressed, clicking and dragging on the canvas lets you define your focus region on the workspace. You also need to know how to zoom in or out. This command happens the same way as in Adobe Photoshop. There are two main options available when using the Zoom tool. While they are very different, both are very useful.

You could pick up the Zoom tool via clicking on its icon in the toolbox, or you could rely on the hotkey “z” to get a hold of it. The Zoom tool is area sensitive, meaning you are free to define a region of any size with it on the canvas, simply by making a rectangular selection. The Zoom tool will automatically zoom to that particular region. This is one method. The other one is to rely on the keyboard shortcut Ctrl, combined with the “–”, and “+” keys on the Numeric Keyboard. This technique gives you manual zooming, which is especially efficient when used together with the Hand tool.

A final tip for basic navigation: no matter how far or how close your zoom is on the canvas, double clicking on the Hand icon in the toolbox will always snap your view back to 100% view, which lets you observe the current state of the document in its original size. Now is the time to grab the Pen tool. Remember the “p” hotkey? Once you have the Pen tool selected, let’s see what can be done with it.

Anchor Points

The Pen tool uses different kinds of Anchor Points to define straight or curved segments. As user, it is your call to tell Illustrator what kind of Anchor Point you need at a given position, and/or what kind of curvature (if any) is desired at the moment. This sounds more difficult than it actually is. To illustrate this, let’s see what happens if you simply click on the canvas using the Pen tool. A simple click will create your first Anchor Point, which in this case will be a Corner Point. Click again in the vicinity two more times, as you would construct a triangle. Notice that Illustrator will automatically draw a straight segment between the first and second Corner Points. Depending on your current Fill and Stroke settings of the tool, Illustrator may or may not start to apply the current Fill value to the ensuing shape, once you placed a third Anchor Point. The same is true concerning the Stroke characteristics. Since these two attributes – Fill and Stroke - are of essential importance, let’s address their fundamentals.

Notice the Control bar immediately below the Main Menu bar. You can activate and deactivate this interface element by the Window >> Control toggle. This interface element is context sensitive to your picks, always informing you of the attributes of the current selection. Once you have the initial, simple shape constructed, go to Select >> Deselect in the main menu bar. This will leave the initial shape inactive for a second. Select it again, using the Selection tool – hotkey “v”. Click on the shape with this tool. Notice that the Control bar will pick up the attributes of the selected shape, including its Fill and Stroke values. Notice the tiny rectangles on the Control bar with the arrows beside them. These are very important. The first, left rectangle informs you of the Fill value, while the right one registers the Stroke value of the selected element. These rectangles represent an efficient method to define the Fill and Stroke values.

Using the small arrows beside the rectangles, assign a custom color as a Fill, then do the same to the Stroke value. Notice how the Fill and Stroke colors are changing on the shape. Before moving on, set the Fill attribute to “None” and keep a random color of your choosing as the Stroke value. The third attribute you see on the Control bar is the Stroke weight. This is the width of the Stroke. Now that you know how to control the basic Fill and Stroke characteristics of the simple shape you just created with the Pen tool, let’s focus attention on the types of Anchor Points you could create with it.

As you have seen, a simple click on the canvas with the Pen tool will create a Corner Point. Corner Points always will generate the shortest possible distance between each other. On the main menu bar, choose Select >> Deselect if you have an active selection. Pressing Enter should do the trick as well. Construct a new path now, by placing another Corner point to start it. Now, as you did earlier, move the pointer to a different location in the vicinity, but instead of a single click and release, click the mouse and keep it pressed. While still pressing, adjust the mouse left and right, or even up and down. Notice the resultant curvature of the segment. You have just created a Curve point. When creating a path or a shape with the Pen tool, your agenda is either to “rough in” the shape you are looking for and refine it until you are happy with it, or you could always go for rigorous precision right from the very start, as Illustrator knows no upper limit to the complexity of a single segment, let alone a network of intricate curves.

Curve points will have Control Handles to them. These are the tiny rectangles you see on both sides of the selected Curve point. After selecting them using the Direct Selection tool – hotkey ”a” - these Handles can be manipulated separately, and doing so will have a dramatic effect on how the curvature of the segment flows. Now that you are aware of how to define Corner points and Curve points, let’s see how you can refine a segment or a shape.

Selections and Refinement

Adobe Illustrator knows two types of selection tools. The Selection tool - hotkey “v” – and the Direct Selection tool, which you can invoke by the hotkey “a”. The difference between the two Selection tools is crucial. The first one will pick up an entire object, while the second one is suited for component-based editing. If you have a relatively complex path segment defined by seven Anchor Points, the Selection tool will select the whole segment, so you could transform it around the canvas in its entirety, while the Direct Selection tool will recognize individual components of the segment. It will let you select and manipulate Anchor Points on a point-by-point basis.

The first habit you want to get used to though is a simple shortcut to deselect the current selection. Whenever you are happy with the momentary state of an edited object, you could always rely on the Ctrl + click shortcut, making sure you click on empty canvas space. This technique releases your active selection, letting you make another. The method gives you an efficient way of moving between simple or even more complex selections, saving you the time of doing this essential maneuver via the interface.

To refine an existing segment or shape, you need to be able to incorporate additional Anchor Points into them, and you need to know how to remove existing Anchor Points from them as well. First of all, you need to tell Illustrator which path or shape you want to edit – your safest bet would be to rely on the Selection Tool. Select the object you want to refine using the Selection tool. Now that the shape or path is active, Illustrator becomes context sensitive. To take advantage of this, let’s take the Pen tool once again. Position the Pen tool pointer over an existing Anchor Point. Notice the tiny minus sign displayed automatically beside the cursor. This tells you that a click would remove that particular Anchor Point. Now position the Pen tool pointer over any region of the path that has no Anchor Point on it. Notice that the Pen tool automatically displays a persistent plus sign along these regions, ready to implement a new Anchor Point into the path by a single click. Now you can construct a simple path or shape by creating a sequence of Anchor Points, and you also know how to maintain infinite flexibility by removing and adding Anchor Points.

Converting Anchor Points

To ensure this limitless flexibility, you also need to be aware of how to convert Anchor Points. Illustrator won’t carve anything into stone at all. In case you have a Curve point, but decide that you want a Corner point instead, then you could convert that point. To accomplish this, select the Pen tool, position it over the point you want to convert, then use the Alt + click and Alt + click and drag shortcuts to confirm these conversions. Alt + click is sufficient to convert Curve points to Corner points, while you would need an Alt + click and drag maneuver to convert a Control point to a Curve point. You would need to define a curvature value to the new segment – hence the need to drag.

Additional types of Anchor Points

When you will get deeper into Illustrator, you will see that there are times when you create two additional types of Anchor Points: these are the Combination Corner Points and the Curved Corner Points. A Curved Corner Point will form whenever two different – essentially separate - Curve points intersect. To illustrate this, create a curve using two Curve points, then press Alt plus click and drag over the last Curve point you created. The consecutive click with the Pen tool will create a new Anchor Point, but will leave behind a Curved Corner Point to attach the new segment to the existing segment.

A Combination Corner Point, on the other hand, forms when you need to come out from a curvature with a straight line, or vice versa. To create such an intersection, you want to convert Anchor Points according to the specific need, either to a Corner point or to a Curve point. By doing so, you tell the consecutive Anchor Point you create to behave accordingly. Using this method, you could construct a curvature coming out of a straight line, or you could come out straight from the steepest curvature. Either way, the resultant Anchor Points of such intersections would be Combination Corner Points.

On a final note: be aware that you can turn the visibility of the Grid on or off using the View >> Show Grid / Hide Grid toggle, and you could activate or deactivate the Snap to Grid functionality from the very same menu group. A nice trait of Illustrator is that it remembers the Snap to Grid settings regardless of whether or not the Grid itself is displayed. If you need to customize the layout of the Grid, use the Edit >> Preferences >> Guides & Grid dialog. Happy and efficient drawing!



One Response to “Pen Tool and Navigational Essentials in Adobe Illustrator”

  1. comment number 1 by: BayAreaRed

    Hi. I just wanted to say that this would have been a whole lot more understandable if you had included some examples or screenshots. But the information was good once I understood it. :)

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