Illustrator Pen tool basics


Learning the nuances of the Illustrator pen tool takes time and practice. I found an exercise created by Belgian-based web/graphic designer Veerle many years ago. I’ve often used her exercise as an in-class project for my beginner design students.

Practice with the Pen Tool in Adobe Illustrator

Veerle created this three-page Illustrator pen tool exercise in 2007; she writes about it on her design blog. She also provides a download link for this exercise from DropBox:

In the videos below, I’m sharing tips for beginner design students working on completing the assignment. Good luck!

Remember: Practice. Practice. Repeat. Practice. As Veerle writes, “Once you have done these exercises several times, I hope you’ll understand the Pen tool and its quirks a little better.”

Videos of How-Tos for Using the Illustrator Pen Tool – Practice Exercises

Combine curves with straight lines
Make curves with corner points with the pen tool
Make curved lines with corners in Adobe Illustrator.
Practice using the Adobe Illustrator Pen tool: Make curved lines and straight lines

00:00:00.000 –> 00:00:05.200
This is a demo of combining curves
with straight lines in Illustrator. So,

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we’re using our pen tool. We’re following, the
BLUE is where we’re actually clicking our points

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of our pen tool. The RED is where we’re dragging
our handles. So, I’m going to click and press,

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hold down the Shift key. So, holding
Shift on my keyboard, before I click,

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I click in the #1 and now I drag up and you’ll
see that I am dragging handles vertically.

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I’m dragging that top handle to stop in the
middle of the #2. I let go with my mouse and then

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of my keyboard. So, mouse first, then keyboard.
You can see a curve is already starting

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and I’m going to click right in the middle of the #3. And it says click and press hold down Shift

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key. So, I’m going to hold down Shift, before I
click. I’m going to click in the middle of the #3.

00:00:58.720 –> 00:01:03.040
Now, when I drag, the handle is going straight
down vertically to the middle of the #4.

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And you can see if I put that right in the center
of my #4, it makes my arching line match exactly

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with the template. I let go with my mouse and then
my keyboard. Now it says click hold down Shift, so

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this is a #3/#5 split. So, I’m going to hold down
Shift and click on the exact same point that’s

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already there. Not a new point, but right so
I’m over it. And you can see, I know that I’m

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over it because I get a little caret, that little
arrow, that’s to the bottom right of my Pen tool.

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So I hold down Shift. What that does, is it
changes the Pen. It was set up to be a curve,

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now it’s set up to be a straight
line. So if I hold down Shift,

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it’s going to make sure that this line is
straight, that these two points that I’m making

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are vertically aligned with each other. Otherwise,
it would not be a straight line, it would kind of

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be slanted. So I’m holding down Shift. It moves my
mouse to the alignment and the #6, and I click once.

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Let go with my mouse and then my keyboard. Okay,
so now I’m following these instructions right here

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that says, “click release and press hold down
Shift key.” So, I’m going to click again, right

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on the point. You know that you’re on the point
because the square gets larger, right, it expands

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and I get the arrow or the caret to the bottom of
my Pen tool. So, I’m going to click on it and now

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I’m going to Shift. So, it’s selected, right,
so now it’s selected I hold Shift and pull up.

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So, now I have just the handle and
what this has done is it has created

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that point. It was a straight point
because I just did a straight line.

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Now, I’ve switched it to a curve. I’ve set the
beginning of the curve by drawing the handle up

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and now I’m going to continue the curve like I
just did by clicking in the middle of the #8. Here,

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so now I’m following #8. Click, so I click.
Now, I’m going to press, hold down Shift,

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and drag my handle to the middle of the #9. So I’ve now followed my template.

00:03:07.920 –> 00:03:11.600
Now I need to change this from being
a curve because you can see right now

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everything that I’m doing the yellow, it’s
trying to stay a curve. So if I Shift-click

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the point now it’s a straight line, right,
and you can see it’s pulling out straight.

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If I hold down Shift, now my line is perfectly
straight, and I can click to the middle of the #11.

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All right, now I need it to be curved again.
So, I’m going to Shift-click on this point.

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Drag up my handle to the middle
of the #12. Now, I’m making curves.

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I’m going to click to the middle of the #13.
Hold down Shift. Drag my handle down to the #14.

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Let go. Now, I need to change to a straight line
again, so I’m going to Shift-click on my point.

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Hold down Shift to be straight to the middle of
the 16. Now, I’m going to click again. Hold Shift,

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drag up. Now, I have one last curve to the middle
of my 18. Hold down Shift, drag my handle down.

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All right, now you see, how do I end this,
right? It keeps wanting to curve. So, you’re

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going to switch to your arrow, your selection,
and now you can grab just your path that you made.

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If you had white, by accident in your fill here,
then you might see that you were building a shape

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in these arches. So you can select with your black
arrow, your selection arrow, your whole shape.

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Go to the Fill, click None, and
now you would have just your path.

Adobe Illustrator Pen Tool Tips

These are frequently asked questions that students pose while working on this assignment.

If I’m not making a closed shape, how do I end a path or line in Illustrator using the pen tool?

When you’re finished with your path, then you can end or stop making points in your pen tool’s path by doing one of the following in Illustrator :
1) Click ESC on the keyboard
2) Switch away from the pen tool. Choosing any other tool will deselect and stop the pen tool from continuing to make points.
3) Choose Select > Deselect from the top menu
4) Push Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac) and click anywhere else on your artboard

Happy Designing!

About the author

Kelly Barkhurst

Designer to Fullstack is my place to geek out and share tech solutions from my day-to-day as a graphic designer, programmer, and business owner (portfolio). I also write on Arts and Bricks, a parenting blog and decal shop that embraces my family’s love of Art and LEGO bricks!

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