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Nov 13

Illustrator Pen tool exercises

2007 at 01.05 pm posted by Veerle Pieters

People really seem to like my Illustrator tutorials, but I do receive a lot of e-mail with one common question “How did you create those curvy lines used in motion trails?” The first thing that you need to master and become proficient in is the Pen tool.

Illustrator Pen tool exercises

The pen tool

The problem with the pen tool is that is isn't easily explained, because you need to feel and see how it works. Also when you are using Illustrator's Pen tool as long as I do you tend to forget how difficult and confusing it can be for beginners. Making a screencast out of it isn't the best solution so I got inspired by a PDF document by the University of Massachusetts. In that document you see how it all works, from stroke and fills to anchor points and so on. On page 7 you see an exercise and that's were I got the idea from to create my own.

Pen tool practice

So I started creating my own practice .ai document. This document contains a few basic examples in how to create shapes like a star, circle, waves, whoosh, etc. using only the Pen tool. You'll also find the instructions on what you exactly need to do with the pen tool and where to do it. Once you have done these several times I hope you'll understand the Pen tool and its quirks a little better. To be honest if you want to become proficient in Illustrator you can't live without it. It can be used for many purposes like re-tracing a bad logo that you got from a client or creating your own art of virtually anything.

Photoshop's pen tool

When you become good at it you can use it in Photoshop too for example to remove a image from its background. You draw a path around it. However ,the pen tool doesn't work in exactly the same way. For example, you need to hold down the option/alt key for combining curves with straight lines instead of just clicking in the anchor point. Adobe should make the Pen behavior the same in all their apps, that would make things easier.

Download the AI file

Download the Illustrator (compatible with version CS, CS2 and CS3) Pen tool exercise file here.

Update André Dion discovered a few errors on my part. So I have updated the Illustrator file to fix this. Please, download it again. I'm sorry for the inconvenience.

Want to learn more?

VECTORTUTS+ Vector Tutorials and More A good and not expensive source to learn more about Illustrator, Photoshop, or web design is by joining the Tuts+ sites. You get access to the source files for just $9 a month. So your ONE membership gives you access to members-only content for ALL the Plus sites. I've written a tutorial for the Vector Tuts section.




permalink this comment Andrew Ingram Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 03.26 pm

This is an excellent idea, I’ll have a go when I get home. Some fluency with the Pen tool would be a nice skill to have :)



permalink this comment Ben Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 03.42 pm

Adobe should make the Pen behavior the same in all their apps, that would make things easier.

I’ve often thought this - and it’s not just the Pen tool. Another thing I think should be the same across Adobe apps is the way you select the secondary tool - in Photoshop you right click to bring up the list, in Illustrator you have to click and hold for a bit. Why the inconsistencies?



permalink this comment Kordump Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 05.00 pm

I miss the way the bezier works in freehand. I wish adobe would incorporate that into illustrator. that and “live” round corners on rectangles.

btw: cheers for another tutorial. I made this exact exercise in school a couple years ago.



permalink this comment Randa Clay Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 05.13 pm

Thank you so much for this helpful guide. I’ve been using Illustrator for a couple of years now, but the pen tool always gives me fits, so I appreciate the document you’ve provided.



permalink this comment Jonathan Andrew Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 05.19 pm

Another fine example of why your blog is the best around :-). Thanks Veerle.



permalink this comment Marty Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 05.58 pm

I agree with the guy above me. This is the most beautiful blog i’ve ever visited and the information you provide in each and every post is very helpful. You’ll see me around here alot from now on *bookmarks and grins* hehe =D i’m not a stalker don’t worry =p.



permalink this comment Fre Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 06.21 pm

Thanks so much for this little tutorial Veerle. I’ve been trying to get the hang of this tool for ages but I just don’t seem to be cut out for it. Hopefully this tutorial will improve my pen tool skills.



permalink this comment Jehad Assaf Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 06.58 pm

Kudos Veerle! Extremely useful for the “illustrator challenged” people out there. It’s always nice and a good practice to play around with the pen tool, because even if you’ve already mastered it, there’s always a nice shape or maybe a logo that comes out just by letting the hand control the pen, and not the brain. Keep’em coming!



permalink this comment André Dion Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 07.53 pm

Just wanted to note that you forgot the two steps required to convert to a corner anchor in “Curves with corner points” between steps 8 and 9.

Back to lurking.



permalink this comment Sean Johnson Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 08.40 pm

One of our juniors has been keen to learn Illustrator and I’ve been pointing him to your site. He’s getting much more out of your tutorials than any of the manuals we have! Thanks Veerle.



permalink this comment Veerle Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 09.18 pm

André Dion said:

Just wanted to note that you forgot the two steps required to convert to a corner anchor in “Curves with corner points” between steps 8 and 9.

Thank you for spotting this. I’ve updated the document.



permalink this comment Hamish M Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 09.49 pm

Great job, Veerle. The pen tool is one of my favorites. Everyone should at least know how to use it at a basic level.

Also, the inconsistencies between Illustrator and Photoshop bug me too. But I wonder if they did make it consistent, would it just bug people who are already accustomed to it? (It bothers me most when I’m jumping between PS and AI)



permalink this comment n0s0ap Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 11.15 pm

Hey Veerle,
This is a great post.  I get so rusty with the pen tool sometimes.  I can’t wait to check out the practice file but so far I can’t seem to get it.  I just get a 0k zip file that won’t open with anything. 




permalink this comment Cathal O'Riordan Tue Nov 13, 2007 at 11.22 pm

Thanks for taking the time to do this. I’m always having to re-learn the pen tool each time I use it. Great work.

I’m having trouble opening the zip. Just wondering if anyone else is having problems.



permalink this comment Timothy Krell Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 12.04 am

When I downloaded the new file, it appeared to be empty. I tried several times, but each time I got a file that was 0kb large.



permalink this comment Von Glitschka Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 12.08 am

A really good resource that goes into the art and science of bezier curves is the book called “Logo Font & Lettering Bible” by Leslie Carbaga. Filled with a ton of visual step by steps with exhaustive notes to help you become a Jedi Master vector builder.

I also cover many of these issues too at my site

Another great plugin for .ai is one by a company called “C Valley Software” they make a set of tools called “Xtream Path” that not only works better then Adobe’s own tools but also makes editing nearly as easy as FreeHand did.

Being a 17 year user of FreeHand this plugin has been a lifesaver in terms of switching my primary app over to CS2 and now CS3.




permalink this comment Jackie Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 01.59 am

Hi Veerle,

  This is really great information.  The pen tool has always been the hardest thing to learn, but I am getting better at it.  I had to retrace and recreate a logo recently at work, and I just attempted your Coat of Arms tutorial, but used a couple of medieval family crest flags from a photo I had, one which had a pair of symmetrical lions.  I didn’t use the reflect tool, but just traced them individually because they weren’t exactly alike, and that turned out pretty well. I think that creating things freehand, like you did with the banner that has the curved ends on it, is really a talent and you have to be able to visualize where the pen should go next in order to make it look good.  That was a really good tutorial - people do get a lot out of these - thanks!



permalink this comment Rubén Rojas Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 04.54 am

It´s a excelent idea. cool, but the exercise don´t open, it´s damage. Thanks.



permalink this comment jayhan Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 07.44 am

This is very useful and handy for person like me who really needs polishing on pen tool!

Thanks a lot Veerle!



permalink this comment gyurisc Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 07.45 am

Thanks for the great tutorial. It is really nice to see something targeted at us, beginners!

I tried to download the zipped ai files and it seems to be corrupted. nothing in the zip file.



permalink this comment Harry Bissett Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 08.58 am

I’m having trouble expanding this file. How am I meant to open it?



permalink this comment Veerle Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 09.32 am

My apologies, apparently there was something wrong with my file. I’ve re-uploaded the ZIP file. It should be fine now.



permalink this comment André Dion Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 03.01 pm

Thanks for the updates, Veerle. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was crapping all over your exercise - they work perfectly now.

For those of us unfamiliar with Freehand, can anyone elaborate on the differences between its Pen/curve tools and Illustrator’s?



permalink this comment Heather Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 03.55 pm

Time for a practice session! I love the pen tool, but I always wonder if there’s better tecniques. I’m excited to do the tutorial. You always do great work, Veerle!



permalink this comment Mad Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 04.01 pm

Thank you for re-uploaded the ZIP file. Now there is no problem any more.



permalink this comment Kelly Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 04.08 pm

Thank you for this. This is very useful as I tend to struggled with the pen tool.



permalink this comment Car; Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 04.18 pm

Thanks so much for this! I’m going to be taking an Illustrator class in January; this will be most helpful to get me started.

Nice work!



permalink this comment Andre Wed Nov 14, 2007 at 11.50 pm

Nice little Tutorial. Excellent for starting Illustrator.



permalink this comment Kordump Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 02.03 am

Another great plugin for .ai is one by a company called “C Valley Software” they make a set of tools called “Xtream Path” that not only works better then Adobe’s own tools but also makes editing nearly as easy as FreeHand did.

Don’t care for that perticular plugin there was another one i liked better but cant really remember the name right now. but, in the end it’s better to learn the way of the illustrator (lol)

Your site looks interesting, will add it to my daily blog/webcomic fix. do not fail me :P

To the unfamilliar with freehand: lines can be edited directly from the line itself by dragging it without using the handles at all. this makes tracing stuff easier.



permalink this comment Von Glitschka Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 09.34 am

Yeah you can edit directly from the line itself in AI but it’s not a very precise tool at all it’s at best wonky. Xtream Path’s tool smokes it big time.

The primary difference between FreeHand and Illustrator is AI needs 4 tools to do what you can do in FreeHand with 1. Hence it’s non-intuitive, bloated and sluggish. FreeHand allowed you to work the way you wanted to work, Illustrator is fundamentally different in that it tells you how you should work rather then letting you work the way you want to.

I have a FreeHand file with nearly 150 complex vector patch designs I did and the file size is only 2.3 mb. Now compare that with an Illustrator file I have with only 2 small 1x1 inch 2 flat color icons and the file size is 1.7 mb. That is just inanely bloated.

Don’t get me wrong I like Illustrator but it’s the worst of all Adobe apps in terms of it’s intuitive short comings and is bloated with useless feature like ‘Pucker’ and ironically enough ‘Bloat’.

Only noobs lacking skill and craft rely on such prefab fx. Sadly AI as it progresses becomes more of a marketing persons wet dream where they revel in the fact they get to push the newest feature bloat at the expense of ignoring older functionality and tools that need to be overhauled and refined.



permalink this comment firewalker Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 12.07 pm

I don’t like being skeptical but I think the Pen Tool in Illustrator is much more difficult to learn rather than in Photoshop. Well, maybe because I learn Photoshop first, then Illustrator.

But most of my friends said so, Illustrator is much more harder.



permalink this comment Dustin Brewer Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 04.28 pm

Great article on the basics of the Pen tool. I liked the straight forward article about the glowing and sparkling lines as well but comments were turned off on that post.

Von, I do wish freehand would be put back into development on some level. Illustrator is much less intuitive (see: functional) and annoying at times.



permalink this comment André Dion Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 07.27 pm

I guess I’m a little biased as I’m used to the way Illustrator’s pen tool works, but what you’re describing, Von, sounds a lot like how Inkscape’s bezier curve tool works.

Remember, intuitive is subjective so be careful when using that description.

There’s always some degree of learning involved given your skill level and how new you are to a particular piece of software. It’s all in how a particular person approaches a problem. Obviously, from the comments here, a lot of people like to approach paths by manipulating the edges. I like to approach them by manipulating the vertices (anchors) which is how Adobe has built Illustrator’s pen tools. Thus, I find Illustrator very intuitive.



permalink this comment Big Thu Nov 15, 2007 at 09.16 pm

Curves with corner points = best tutorial ever! This simple thing has frustrated me more than anything when I try to work with illustrator and now I can laugh in it’s face! Thank you Veerle!



permalink this comment Clark Fri Nov 16, 2007 at 09.06 pm

So this is the blog of the creator of the netvibes theme Im using. Everything seems to look wonderful in here.. nice theme, excellent tutorials!




permalink this comment Tomasz Fri Nov 16, 2007 at 11.29 pm

Great tutorial, thanks.



permalink this comment Albeezee Sat Nov 17, 2007 at 03.25 am

I always come this site, but now I am finally a member.  :) This post is awesome.  I always end up tracing an object, then spend more time going back and moving and aligning my points afterwards. Thanks!



permalink this comment Mathias Maul Sat Nov 17, 2007 at 12.53 pm

Reminds me of those penmanship [sic!] exercise sheets we had in primary school … This is a BRILLIANT idea, thank you!



permalink this comment Merles Büro Sat Nov 17, 2007 at 05.55 pm

really nice veerle! i work mostly with corel draw (supports many dataformats) but your tips work similar in corel too, so i can use it pretty good in corel, thank you very much.



permalink this comment Ugur Eskici Sun Nov 18, 2007 at 06.00 pm

Thanks for this pen tool.



permalink this comment Veerle Mon Nov 19, 2007 at 01.53 pm

About Freehand versus Illustrator. I believe it is a bit subjective. I’m so used to Illustrator that a lot of the handling feels like a routine that when I would switch to Freehand it’ll probably annoy me because it works differently. I must say I don’t know Freehand, it’s been years since I opened this application. I’m not saying that Illustrator is perfect though. No application is 100% perfect.

Von Glitschka said:

Another great plugin for .ai is one by a company called “C Valley Software” they make a set of tools called “Xtream Path” that not only works better then Adobe’s own tools but also makes editing nearly as easy as FreeHand did.

That’s a cool plugin indeed. It can save you time in a lot of situations. Although I’m so used to Illustrator for years now that it would take time for me to get to accustomed to it. At first I would get things done faster without it I think :)



permalink this comment Øyvind Robertsen Mon Nov 19, 2007 at 07.02 pm

Awesome exercise.. learned a trick or two.. :) Great work.. :) Would love to know what font you’ve used for the headers though.. :D



permalink this comment Jane Wed Nov 21, 2007 at 02.01 am

Thanks so much Veerle!
I’m new at Illustrator and your tutorial on the pen tool has helped so much!



permalink this comment Lynne Wed Nov 21, 2007 at 03.19 am

Another fine tutorial Veerle. Thanks!



permalink this comment Aelizia Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 05.16 am

Its a very good tutorial.This pen tool is really helpful for people those who are illustrator.Thank you very much for this great tutorial!



permalink this comment Jeannie Tue Nov 27, 2007 at 04.32 pm

Wonderful tutorial! Thank you!

Here’s my addition: After doing them with the instructions a couple times, I decided to separate the instructions onto another layer so I could practice without seeing the answers. I’d still have the lines, but not the detailed instructions. If I needed help, I could turn on the instruction layer.



permalink this comment Dave Mon Dec 3, 2007 at 02.45 am

I highly recommend learning the pen tool in Illustrator.

I began using Illustrator in the 80’s, and the Pen Tool is a core component for me now, as it was then. When you can create a vector-based shape that is organic, it allows you to control a world of other software based features. For me, this kind of artwork ends up in all kinds of end products now… flash media, motion graphics, photography, 3D extrusions, architectural designs and, just like in the old days, sticky vinyl lettering for signs.

Pen Tool Rocks!



permalink this comment Keith Tue Dec 4, 2007 at 04.50 pm

This is a question no one can answer for me, can you…

How do I MOVE an anchor point in AI? I want to be able to pick up and of those points and move them around, but can’t seem to figure out how! They remain stationary, I can contort them, distort then and so on, but not move them without moving the whole thing. Ideas? Thanks!



permalink this comment Veerle Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 11.00 am

Keith said:

How do I MOVE an anchor point in AI? I want to be able to pick up and of those points and move them around, but can’t seem to figure out how!

Unless I misunderstand you (this is rather basic AI stuff), you have to select the Direct Selection tool in the toolbox (white arrow), click in the point and hold down mouse to move the point to whatever position you want.

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