Advanced Pen Tool – Illustrator

Illustrator Pen Tool Shortcuts

 

Get the Pen tool = P

Get the black arrow = V

Get the white arrow = A

Pen tool best practices:

  1. Work in one direction (i.e clockwise OR anti-clockwise) don’t change directions mid-drawing.
  2. Keep the handles of your curves pointing in the direction you are drawing. If they point backwards, you will get nasty (or perhaps useful) bumps and squiggles.
  3. Always work with closed paths. No matter how skinny the line. * note that lines created with the line tool should also be converted to paths/outlines before artwork is handed off to anyone. This is because lines tend to scale (get thicker or thinner) when artwork is scaled. Check the scaling preferences in Edit > Preferences.
  4. A single click will make a corner point. This has no handles.
  5. A click’n’drag will make a curve point. This has handles.
  6. When tracing artwork, always put the artwork on a locked layer.
  7. It is usually best to use a semi-transparent colour to trace with, rather than a line. The thickness of the line can obscure the actual path.
  8. Aim to create as few points as necessary.
  9. Make extrema points to start with. They are a good place to start, before you get a feel for where the “next point” should go. Extrema points are those points situated on the horizontal or vertical flatness of a curve. Use the Shift key to ensure accurate 90° lines.
  10. Once you have made a path, you will probably want to go back and fix it in places.
    1. Use the black arrow to move whole paths (V) (Also, usually not much use if you have drawn accurately over the source image  😛 ).
    2. Use the white arrow (A) to move points.
    3. Hold Alt and click’n’drag on an existing point to give it new handles. Great if you want to add or adjust a curve.
    4. Hold Alt and single click on an existing point to remove handles. Good if you want to remove a curve.
    5. When you have the Pen tool (P) in use, you may want to quickly jump back to the black arrow to select a path, or deselect a path. Instead of using (V), while the pen tool is in use, just hold down Ctrl and click. Same as black arrow tool, quick and useful. J
    6. Sometimes it’s useful to adjust both handles of a point at once (i.e., adjust the curve on both sides of the point). Use the white arrow (A) to do this.
    7. Other times you only want to adjust the handle on one side of a point (i.e., adjust the curve on one side of a point). Use the chevron tool to do this. To access the chevron tool (don’t ask me the “proper name”!) you need to have the pen tool in use (P). Hold down the Alt key and a little > shape will appear, tilted, next to your cursor. Use that to grab the handle you want to change. * Note: if the point you want to change is an extrema point, remember to also hold the Shift key to retain perfect 90° lines.

Pathfinder Tool

*Note:  To cut a shape out of another shape, you need to be working only with closed paths. Open paths, text and lines will NOT work.

The bottom left icon (Divide) will cut or punch a shape out of another shape, much like a cookie cutter cuts out a shape from dough. The dough should preferably be at the bottom.

  1. Stack two closed-path-objects over top of each other. They can overlap completely, or partially.
  2. With both paths selected, click the Divide icon. Your shapes will now be cut, but they will be grouped.
  3. Ungroup the shapes. Ctrl + Shift + G to ungroup.
  4. Using the black arrow (V) select the piece you want to remove, and either move it or delete it. Voila, one hole. J

The top left icon (Unite) will join two closed paths together. Same step one as above, then click Unit icon. That’s it, you now have a single path from what used to be two or more separate paths.

Align Tool

You should be able to work out the basic “align-left” “align centre, and “align top” tools easily enough.

*Note: Before aligning or distributing anything, always check what you are aligning stuff to. See the icon in the bottom left. Usually you want to align to selection (things you have selected on the page), but sometimes you may want to align stuff to the page.

You have two choices with the Distribute tools, you can either distribute centres, or distribute spaces.

Distribute centres is great when all your objects are the same dimension (i.e. same width if you plan to distribute horizontally). It is a pain if you have objects of different dimensions though; then it just makes a mess.

That is where distribute spaces comes in handy. It makes the space between all the objects you have selected even. A good example is text (turned to outlines), which are often varied widths.

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    • K
    • September 2nd, 2012

    Thanks so much for this – I’m new to Illustrator and the directions to move only one side of a curve have been eluding me!

    I have Illustrator CS6, and the directions seem to be a bit different – selecting Alt while the pen tool is active duplicates the curve – the direct selection tool (white arrow/ “A” key) needs to be the active tool when you hit alt – but it was your post that helped me figure that out!

    • Hi K, thanks for your comment, but actually the Pen Tool works identically between AI CS1 — > AI CS6…..your comment made me curious so I’ve tested it 😀

      I suspect that what is happening for you when you are selecting Alt is that you don’t have the Pen Tool active, rather you have the black arrow (selection) tool active. When you hold Alt and click’n’drag with the black arrow tool, you get a copy of the object. Very handy.

      Of course, this can also be very confusing if it’s not what you were expecting. Hope that helps! 🙂

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