Friday Fundamentals: Illustrator Pen Tool Mysteries Decoded

For today’s Friday Fundamentals adventure, we’ll be deciphering some of the mysteries of the Pen tool in Adobe Illustrator. I used to think the real mystery was figuring out how to draw efficiently with bezier curves. When to click and when to drag. And what to drag. And where to drag. And where to click…

However, a recent review of a free movie from Deke’s Illustrator CC One-on-One: Fundamentals course reminds me that there’s an even more basic and ancient Illustrator mystery: what on earth do the various stages of the Pen tool cursor actually mean? Ancient Illustrator spirits, what are you trying to tell me?

Decoding the Pen Tool Cursors in Adobe Illustrator

Ostensibly, the following movie—a free sample from Deke’s course—is about one of the more basic Illustrator maneuvers: connecting two open paths. But as you’ll soon see, during the course of simply connecting two line segments, the cursor changes to indicate what’s going to happen next. (What’s going to happen next is my true Illustrator mystery; please tell me I’m not the only one who’s ever inadvertently drawn a giant gash across my artwork by misconnecting endpoints.)

The chart that Deke uses to explain the various Pen tool states might look familiar to those of you who follow Deke’s Techniques (where Deke once explained how to draw this very chart in, uh, Illustrator, but, uh, without the freaking pen tool.)

Think of this movie as the decoding of that chart. And now, for those of you whose heads are aching, read on as I additionally decode the video, using Deke’s sample file for, uh, Illustrator illustration:

So the task here is to trace along the ridge of the dragon (dinosaur?) in the image below—part of what Deke touts as an ancient Aztec calendar, but I find suspiciously adorned with modern symbols:

And speaking of modern symbols, here’s the chart Deke references for, uh, reference:

The Pen tool cursor states in Illustrator

As an experienced dekeEologist, let me interpret those states we see in the context of the project Deke demonstrates. Here are the the states we encounter:

Inactive (pen cursor with asterisk)

This is your starting state with the pen. If you start clicking or dragging with the pen in this condition, you will start a new path.

Illustrator pen tool with asterisk-laden cursor

Awaken (activate an existing path)

As I move the cursor toward the endpoint of the existing path, it takes on this form, which indicates it’s going to wake up said point when I click. The next click will extend the existing path to wherever that click happens.

Illustrator cursor in wake-up path mode

Connect (attach this path to that one)

Hover this blue-state (heh) cursor over the endpoint of another existing path and you’ll see this new version: standard pen icon with an itinerant endpoint adorned with two extending paths. Click and they’re connected.

Connect two paths in Adobe Illustrator

Active (keep going)

The active state, the one that’s just the pen nib with no accoutrements, indicates that you’re just going to keep drawing the path from the last active point. I’m pretty sure this is the one that gets me in trouble, causing me to inadvertently continue a path against my will. In other words, if I were to click where indicated below, I’d continue the line from that solid blue point to that inappropriate location. Good to know.

The active Pen tool cursor in Illustrator.

By the way, this video is just one step in a project from the course in which Deke helps you create a certificate that proves you’ve mastered the pen tool.

Could we get any more meta around here?

While I don’t think I’ll ever master the pen, I admit that this video clears up some major mysteries and definitely gets me one step closer to unraveling the secrets.

Meanwhile, if you’re craving more Deke Illustrator One-on-One goodness but you’re not a member of, you have some options. First you can get a free week’s subscription to the library here. Also, don’t forget, always makes around 10% of any course free for all. So check out the course page and search for videos with blue links. Meta mysteries and Friday freebies! Have a great weekend, my dekeThropologists!

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 264: Turning Yourself into a Zombie in Photoshop

Previous entry:(De)Shaking It Up with Photoshop CC One-on-One: Mastery


  • Pen tool


    I PROMISE you’re “not the only one who’s ever inadvertently drawn a giant gash across [your] artwork by misconnecting endpoints.”

    Thank you for the entertaining refresher on the pen tool!

    Ione Skaggs

  • Thank *You*, Ione

    ...for the moral support!

  • Pen tool using Wacom tablet


    Can you please make a video for people who are new to using tablet for drawing? I had a tight budget, so i bought a bais tablet but I am not able to get a hang of it. Do you have any tricks to help me with hand and eye coordination?

    Thank you