Deke’s Techniques 082: Tracing an Image with Path Outlines

Today’s free movie examines a masking technique. And for once, we won’t be using the image to select itself. After all, this is a light bulb, with fragile, translucent edges and very little in the way of color or luminance to set it apart from its background. Happily, it’s man-made (gender-neutral, could be woman-made, don’t give a crap), so its edges are entirely geometric, as if created with a French curve, protractor, and abacus. By candlelight.

In such situations, your ally is the Paths panel. Most folks associate paths with the Pen tool. Which makes sense. You can draw paths with the Pen tool, but let’s be honest: Even if you love the Pen, it has a sharp point that will, on a regular and unfailing basis, poke you in the butt. (Meaning that it’s not always that fun to use.) The better solution: Trace your object with a few dozen ellipses, circles, and rectangles. After all, whether you’re tracing an old-school light bulb or a new-school smart phone, ellipses, circles, and rectangles are what our wonderful world of glamorous gadgets are made from.

Here’s the official description from (which includes many more colons):

In this week’s free episode of Deke’s Techniques, Deke demonstrates how to trace a complex object in Photoshop without relying heavily on the often unintuitive Pen tool. Being able to select a complex object—like this week’s light bulb—without relying on the Byzantine manipulation of anchor points and control handles is a very handy way to trace stuff in Photoshop. For those of you who, like me, find the Pen tool somewhat daunting, this week’s technique is an early holiday gift from Master Deke.

Deke starts with this unassuming image from the Fotolia image library:

The original light bulb

Then, by deftly adding and subtracting “primitive shapes” (namely circles and rectangles), Deke ultimately creates an accurate vector-based path outline around the entire object. Here’s a diagram of all the shapes that go into creating this combined path:

Vector-based shape outlines in Photoshop

After you ingeniously apply the Combine button to your primitives, you magically arrive at this single, meticulous path:

The many shapes combined into one path outline

Of course, aside from merely selecting the light bulb, having it designated by a vector-based path outline means that you can easily (once Deke shares his secret handshake) create a vector mask from it. And by doing so, you can apply effects that remain constrained to the light bulb.

In this week’s exclusive members-only movie in the Online Training Library, “Turing Path Outlines into a Vector Mask,” Deke shows you how to create that mask and then apply some cool effects to create the following layered composition:

The final masked bulb, with layer effects

If you’d like a deeper dive on this light bulb project, check out Chapter 27, “Everything About the Pen Tool,” of Deke’s Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Mastery course. If you tend to create your vectors in Illustrator instead, Mordy Golding walks you through a similar philosophy in this movie, “Drawing artwork vs. building artwork,” from his course Illustrator Insider Training: Drawing Without the Pen Tool.

And we’ll see you back next week with more Deke’s Techniques.

Speaking of which, in next week’s free movie, we’ll do something even better: Draw rays of vector-based light in Photoshop. Here’s a preview:

Creating vector-based light rays in Photoshop

Honestly, when’s the last time you read a blog post with 10 colons in it? Light bulbs, colons, light where once there was darkness. There must be a clever joke here!

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