The Mating Habits of the Pen Tool

dekePod Episode 013: With this episode, we resume our regularly scheduled programming. Beginning with one of the most powerful but convoluted features in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign: the pen tool. Some artists take to it right away, others just don’t get it.

My thinking: Y’all can get it!! It’s not hard once someone (me) provides the proper introduction.

You start by clicking to lay down points. At first, it all makes sense. The line goes this way and that through the points. But then you accidentally drag and make a control handle. And you go, whoa, hold on. What the hell’s that thing? Count me out!

Which is where this week’s dekePod comes in. The points, they’re the boys: comically, transparently, often tediously obvious. The control handles, they’re the girls: mysterious. But once you know them, predictable. And wicked kung-fu mind-bendingly powerful. Just like girls.

Here’s the official marketing copy:

Adobe’s landmark pen tool defined an industry. But to the uninitiated, its reliance on anchor points and control handles makes it as approachable as first-year algebra. Until you see it’s nothing more than a mating ritual: The points are boys and the handles are girls. Once you get that, it all falls into place.

If it’s all too much to handle (get it?), I understand. Why not save it for later by consuming one of these intriguing links:

  • For a high-quality QuickTime movie, right-click here and choose Save Target or Download Link or the equivalent.
  • For an M4V file that you can play on an iPod, right-click here and choose one of those same commands.
  • Or you can subscribe to dekePod via RSS or iTunes.

You can also check out the page at my book publisher O’Reilly Media.

Parting note: The pen tool, it’s the oldest and most powerful tool in the Adobe Application Arsenal. Adobe keeps trying to improve upon it, but they never will. It was just too damn good. So seriously, check out my various videos on the pen tool at! I predict you’ll enjoy, regardless of your mating habits. (About which, the less I know, the better.)

Next entry:Martini Hour 009, In Which Colleen Breaks the Gin Protocol for Adobe’s John Nack

Previous entry:Channels & Masks Video Lesson 9: “Five Ways to Gray”


  • Awesome stuff. Thankyou.

    Awesome stuff.


  • Classic Deke

    Deke, you are like fine wine, you only get better year after year…..

    or maybe I’m just drunk wink

  • Very cool

    One of the more informative Dekepods ever!  I’ve been meaning to get my hands on that there pen tool.  Though it doesn’t have the rapid “blipvert” ( pace of some of the earlier ones, I really enjoyed it.


  • Great!!

    What a great article. One of best read articles of the year. The simplicity of article is amazing.


    photoshop masking

  • What the heck am I doing wrong? PS CS4

    I’m sorry if this is a blatantly obvious mistake I am making.. but it has me completely stumped and more than a little frustrated…

    When I select an area w/the quick select tool, in this case the iris of an eyeball, then go to the channels palette, click the save selection as channel, it reverses the alpha, meaning the selected area turns black and the rest of the image turns white. This behavior only happens on my pc… I just conducted this procedure on my laptop with the expected/correct results.

    My current work around is to just invert my selection and move on… but when following along with tutorials it becomes a bit of a hassle…

    I apologize if this is a petty issue… but… it’s just one of those things that is driving me nuts!

    Thanks in advance for ANY and all feedback!



    My toys! My toys! I can’t do this job without my toys!

  • I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong

    At first I thought your keyboard Alt key got stuck like puppies on a bumper, but then that’d give you a dialog box allowing you to create an inverted mask when you click on the button. So you’d have an indication something’s wrong. It sounds like a glitch as there is no deliberate way to cause Photoshop to get diarrhea like that (I just tried).

    What I recommend doing is to first right-click on your tool icon in the options bar (bar at the top of the screen) and choose “Reset all tools”. Then close Photoshop.

    Then hit Alt a few times just in case it was stuck – it doesn’t hurt to try (sometimes the key gets stuck in software, in which case you may have to restart your computer). Heck, try all the modifier keys a few times (Space, Alt and Ctrl).

    Then restart Photoshop.

    If the problem persists, you have other options:

    First option; if you’re using Wacom tablet, try using a regular mouse instead. Wacom is known to cause weird stuff in some apps (I found 2 glitches in ‘shop and one in Illustrator with various Wacoms over the years).

    If using a rodent improves the situation – it’s your Wacom. In this case, you better update the driver, as the old one has likely been drinking.

    Another is wireless keyboard. If your keyboard is wireless (HP’s in particular are known t do voodoo), try using a wired one. Not weird – wired; although, that’s arguable these days. But those who claim that - are just plain wired. ‘Cause they’re weird.

    Third one: I’d say trash the ‘shop pref’s file if nothing helped so far. That ought to do it.

    Or not.

    In which case you have two remaining options. Religion is one. Joining your Wacom driver in a heavy drinking binge is another.

    Hope this helps. Seriously!



    Happy, happy, joy, joy!

  • Thanks for the rapid

    Thanks for the rapid response iVan…

    I should have mentioned that I had reset all tools right after I noticed this anomaly (well that is right after I “reset” my beverage”

    Alas, no sticky keys either!  BUT… in terms of the peripherals that you mentioned… I have the trifecta… 1st Place: Wacom Tablet, 2nd Place: Wireless Keyboard, 3rd Place: It’s an HP… and just to round out the field, I’m using a Logitech Trackball (which they will eventually have to pry from my cold dead hand… well you know what I mean)...

    I’ll eventually go ahead and trash the prefs as you suggested… but… I’m more inclined to side with your conjecture that it’s some type of Weird unWired Wackiness.

    So rather then stress about it too much.. I think I’ll up my medication, and start drinking more religiously… (right now I keep it to only days ending in “y”)

    Thanks again for the feedback!!


    My toys! My toys! I can’t do this job without my toys!

  • You’re welcome

    I’m all about rapid and premature… make that immature too.

    BTW, Shift+Ctrl+Alt+O when in bridge to trash the ‘shop prefs, and Bob’s Colleen’s uncle (two tips I wouldn’t have known were it not for this blog)



    Happy, happy, joy, joy!

  • Just curious

    does the Pen Tool in CS4 know if it is in Perspective mode?  Not that it matters, as it’s so easy to use, but that would be neat; especially in Illistrator.

  • Another thing to try

    Double-click on the alpha channel thumbnail in the Channels palette and check that Color Indicates is set to Masked Areas. If it’s set to Selected Areas, that explains your problem—change it to Masked Areas for a more predictable experience.

  • D’ oh!

    That was it iVan… “Color indicates” was set incorrectly… Thank you!

    I am however going to take absolutely Zero responsibility for this and blame Deke… were it not for his slave driving taskmasterish approach to these tutorials I wouldn’t be so stressed out, thus making these rudimentary errors… blah blah blah….

    Ok MAYBE it was partially my fault…

    I now have my hockey helmet securely fastened, my drool cup in hand, Ghost Busters lunch box in other hand and am at the bus stop anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Short Bus…..

    (Maybe my 2 yr old Niece will show me how to use her crayons…)


    I’m not sure what my problem is, but I’ll bet it’s hard to pronounce!

  • Uh…

    ... that wasn’t me… (whisper) you vere talking vith the maaster. Say sorry before he steetches your hand to your face too.

    So sorry, maaster. I promees to never again make matter-of-fact staatments about Photoshop.

    I promees to never again make matter-of-fact staatments about Photoshop.

    I promees to never again make matter-of-fact staatments about Photoshop…

    (veesh I had copy/paste bak ven I voz in hunchback school)

    Maaster, I bow to thee. I looked everyver. Including that very dialog box. But as I saw the red square I dared to think: “no, det ain’t it eeder; dis is ver you set color overlay for mask”...

    Ya gets used to one command in the dialog box and ya never notces dee udder.

    Thanks Deke, I learned something new again. Ya’ll never get reed of me now (bwa-mwa-ha-ha).

    Yer faithful servant



    Yes master!

  • Did I mention I ride the Short Bus?

    Thanks for the info Deke…


  • Awesome dekepod, as always

    Awesome dekepod, as always smile

    Since we are at pen tool and vectors, let me ask you…

    Is there a way to import a barcode into illustrator without additional plugins? If not, which one would you recommend?

    (if im not mistaken in corel draw, there is a plugin that ships with it)

    Thanks in advance, and keep those dekepods rollin smile

  • Cannot believe in my naked eyes

    This video is amazing . This is the first time that I’ve seen a tutorial video with so much fun and easy to remember. Thanks a lot , Deke.

  • Add the Curves Later

    I like to just lay in the anchor points first, and pull out the curves later.

    You can go a long way with two points and a curve in between - even S-curves don’t always need a middle point.

    (I made a joe-pod)


  • Missed Opportunity

    You missed out on a perfect opportunity for inserting a calculus lesson in this video! The straight line handle is the derivative of the curve made by the segment from the last control point at the location where it touches the segment. It’s so obvious! smile

    Love the video by the way. When are you going to come down to visit Vanelli so I can bug the hell out of you for an autograph? raspberry


  • Changing the color of paths


    Is there a way to change the color of the paths themselves? Mine appear light gray and its really hard to see them as I am drawing. I know on your Channels and Masks videos your paths are light blue.


  • No, you can’t change the display color of paths

    I made them blue in the book so they’d show up in print.

    Unfortunately, in real life, gray is your only option.

  • I get it….....

    So essentially, paths are like my hair as I age….. Gray is my only option.  Frightening…...

  • Illustrator does it…

    I work on a lot of b&w images so I have this problem a lot. I’m not a designer so don’t want illustrator but I tried it and you can do this there, then bring the path back in. My sort of work around just in photoshop is to put a layer above the b&w image I’m working on, fill it with red, change the blending mode to color and reduce the opacity, so I get cyan and magenta opposites on the path rather than just black and white contrasts on the grey. The pen tool imho is the best selection tool, especially if there is not a great tonal difference between areas, especially true on b&w images which don’t have the color channels to help out on all the localised variations on the select colour range tool; the defunkt extraction tool, the tragic wand etc. It’s pretty mean of adobe not to develop it, but give it it’s own application as illustrator and then put all this movie cr*p in photoshop which should be in premier or after effects, imho. They should integrate illustrator and fireworks and throw a few crumbs to the pen tool in ps.

  • hey my path too used to be

    hey my path too used to be light grey. got help from here on the issue. I will surely check out those pen tool works as I myself have many questions on it.

  • Rubber band

    Hi folks,

    I’m not trying to be a wise guy but something that really helped me getting familiar with the pen tool is the rubber band.

    It gives you a visual indication on how your curve is going to become.
    You can enable it by clicking the little down pointing arrow next to the custom shapes in the pen toolbar.

    Just thought I’d mention it, it helped opening my eyes regarding the pen tool.

  • Don’t apologize

    This is a great example of me forgetting more than most people wanna know about the program. I would’ve sworn Rubber Band was an Illustrator option, but there it is in Photoshop. Doh!

    Great tip, HTech!

  • Background Music

    Um, just a random comment here, but I noticed that in the beginning and end of this video, “The Mating Habits of the Pen Tool” the background music is the beginning of the song “Detonation” off the soundtrack for the Nintendo DS game The World Ends With You.

    Just thought you’d like to know….

  • would like to find more material on the pen tool

    I have an account with Lynda and watched your photoshop CS4 fundementals videos and thought they were great.
    Do you have a video on there that walks you through the Pen tool like you did with some of the other tools?

    Thanks in advance

  • Worse in CS5?

    It seems like the grey line for paths is even harder to keep track of in CS5. Any workarounds?

  • i agree with you..

    this video is a really amazing…

  • I consider this post as one

    I consider this post as one of the best post ever. It is one f a kind. I really admire the important ideas that you I admit I have not been on this blog in a long time however was joy to find it again. It is this important topic and ignored by so many even professionals ! I thank you for leaving people more aware of these issues. Just great stuff per usual!

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