Part 3: Mastering the Pen Tool and Layers

In this third part of our Illustrator guide, we show you some advanced techniques of the Pen Tool. We also show you how to use layers.

In the previous part of our guide, we showed you some simple basics with stroke and fill. We even showed you a little about the pen tool. In this part of our guide, we go more in-depth into how to use the pen tool. We also show you how layers work in Illustrator.

Advanced Pen Tool Techniques

Previously, we used the pen tool to create a simple little triangle. This is very easily accomplished with simple left clicking on three different parts of our canvas and then clicking on the first point to complete the object.

While that is a good basic introduction, it doesn’t show you some of the better ways you can use this tool. First, let’s open up a new project and select the pen tool:

Next, we are going to select a point and left click on it to begin drawing out picture:

Now, on the second click, we are actually going to click and drag instead of a normal left click. This is going to create a curved line which is exactly what we are after:

Don’t worry about perfection. We are, after all, just practising. We are going to be trying to make a simple little circular object. Yes, there are ellipses tools we could use, but we want practice with the pen tool right now. I recommend trying to make three points to complete the circle. When you let go, it will complete the curve. On the next click, it will continue your curve. This is the weird blob I came up with:

The point of this is that if you click and drag, you’ll make a curve. If you keep clicking and dragging for other points, you’ll continue to make curved lines.

The question is, what happens if you don’t want the program to continue the curve. That’s what the next object is for. First, let’s pick a point on the upper part and simply use a left click. We’re going to try and draw a freehand cloud:

Now, we’re going to click and drag on the second point to create our curve:

Now, you might think that the next point is another click and drag, right? Not really. Remember, the program is going to want to continue drawing a curve. We want to prevent it from doing that. To accomplish this, simply left click on that point and it will cancel one of the handles. You should have something like this after the left click:

Now, let’s try left clicking and dragging on our third point. You should see it behave as if the first curve doesn’t exist. I’m going to keep going until my cloud has been drawn:

There, we have a pretty bad looking cloud and a blob thing. The results may not be spectacular, but you have already learned some pretty important pen tool techniques with this.


Of course, the next thing we’ll want to add is something in the foreground and background. Some people might immediately go to ordering the objects using bring to front, push back, bring to front, or push to back, but there is a much easier method to use in this scenario: layers. Moving things forwards and backwards has it’s place, but layers will give you much better control over what is on your canvas.

The layers are located on the bottom right hand side of the window:

The first thing we want to do is create a layer. For that, we click on the create new layer button:

Now, the thing with layers is that illustrator reads them as the top being at the foreground. Everything after going down the list is simply going underneath. What do we want to do with this layer? Well, we want to create ground so our blob isn’t randomly floating around in space. That means it has to be behind that layer.

So, we have to move that layer down. At the moment, those layers are in the wrong order. So, as the picture above suggests, we need to click and drag layer two down to below layer one.

Now, with layer 2 selected, we are going to click on the line tool as highlighted above. After that, we are going to draw our line.

A quick tip on drawing a straight line: hold down shift while clicking and dragging. It will lock your drawing down to very specific angles (180 being one of them).

One thing you’ll notice is that the selected object you’ve drawn has gone from the usual blue to red. What does this mean? Well, if you look at your layers, you’ll notice that layer 2 is red. As such, anything you select will be colour coded to the layer it is on. This is a great visual cue when you are creating more complex objects. Naturally, you’ll quickly notice that all that blue selected objects this whole time is just telling you that that object is on layer one. Now, let’s deselect our line to see what it looks like:

As you can see, the line travels nicely behind our blob. This is thanks to the default white fill of our blob object.

Now, let’s say we want to continue adding in more scenery. A problem you’ll likely run into sooner or later is accidentally editing something on a different layer. What if we don’t want to make any more changes to our layer? That is very easy: we just lock down that layer. To do that, we click on the empty box in layer 2 to activate the lock:

Now, when I’m editing, selecting, and moving things around, no matter what, whatever is on that layer will stay in place. If I want to go back and edit that layer, all I have to do is click on that lock again to unlock that layer. If you are designing something very specific and detailed, this can be extremely useful.

Another thing you might wonder is whether or not we can hide a layer. If you want to remove that layer and just see what is going on underneath all those crazy lines, we can do that with the eye button. In the below example, I am going to make layer 1 invisible:

Like the locking, if I want to bring that layer back, we can unhide it by clickin on the eye icon again next to layer 1. This will make that layer visible once again.

That is a quick rundown of how layers work in illustrator.

Mastering the Pen Tool

You might be thinking, “Drew, it’s nice to know these things, but I’m not sure I can produce anything good with this.” That is where you’d be wrong on that. Like many other things in life, all it takes is practice.

If you are growing up, how did you learn to be a good artist? Well, some budding artists did it by tracing something. If you are good at hand drawing things, you can simply draw out with pencil what you want to make into a vector, scan it in, and trace over it using the pen tool.

Of course, whole objects is an extremely complex thing. We want to start small and build our way up to more complex things. So, we can start off by making simple squiggles. Spirals, curvy lines, etc. are all great starting points. Since we already know how to draw straight lines, curved lines, and cancel curving, a lot of objects can be drawn. Just remember, you have a zoom tool to zoom into the finer details:

With the zoom tool, you can left click to zoom in and hold down “Alt” and left click to zoom back out.

Now, practising. You have two options of what to trace at this point: you can draw some simple squiggle lines, scan it in, and place it onto a new project or download squiggles from a simple Google image search. Regardless, you need to place your reference photo on a second layer (you can click and drag it from your browser onto the canvas), lock it down, select the first layer, and start drawing:

In my case, my reference photo is low resolution. To avoid stretching, I simply held down shift, then clicked and stretched it until it filled the canvas. After that, I held down shift and shrunk it down slightly so it didn’t touch any of the edges. If the image in question is selected, you can use your arrow keys to centre the image as well. The arrow keys really do make that convenient.

When we are ready, select the pen tool, remove the fill so the fill doesn’t get in the way, and start tracing. Remember, if the points you select don’t seem to work, you can always use “CTRL+Z” to undo and try again. This is about getting a better feel for the pen tool after all.

Since I am drawing multiple object here, when I am done drawing one, I simple click on the selector tool and deselect the first object. After that, I can re-click the pen tool and start drawing on the second object. In order to select both like the above, I simply used the selector tool, selected the first object, then held down shift and selected the second object. As you can see, since we are working with thick lines, I tried to stay as close to the middle as possible. You’ll probably be like me and won’t be 100% successful, but you get a general approximation of what you want.

Now, I’m going to increase the stroke width to more closely match my reference photo:

Next, I’m going to change the style to 15 point round so that the ends are rounded like the reference photo:

Finally, I’m going to hide my reference photo to see how well I did:

OK, so not bad. I have a few odd angles here and there, but the end result is that it looks like a hand-drawn set of squiggly lines. I can always spend time cleaning up some of the bad angles if I want, but this is just a practice exercise.

Definitely feel free to practice on multiple different squiggly lines. After some practice, you will get better with it.

With this technique, you can actually find actual photographs of objects and create really sleek clip art versions of that image. This involves using multiple layers and careful use of the pen tool. Still, you can actually create some interesting objects with the pen tool with a reference photo. As you get better, you can simply eye-ball and object and draw it in illustrator instead of tracing it.

Either way, you should already start to see how useful Illustrator already is just with this knowledge alone – and you haven’t even scratched the surface of what the program can do as well!

< Stroke, Fill, and an Intro to the Pen Tool | Index | Text and Gradients >

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