We’ve all seen it. That little quill pen tip that puts little dots all over your workspace, connecting them with a single line and allowing you to fill or stroke the final result. But what does it do??
If you’re like me, you’ve found the wonders of the lasso tool. Select areas, and if you’re handy with a ball mouse and the OPT key, can make your way around just about any shape. The tighter and more numerous the clicks, the softer the curve. But have you ever tried to lasso a circle? Magic wand works to a point, but what if you have a complicated background? Screwed? Hardly.
Time to click on that nifty little quill pen tip and start working on your curves. Yes, you can work out if you want, but I’m talking about the mathematics and magic of the bezier pen tool.
First of all, what the heck is it? You love the lasso, but are finding it hard to get those smooth curves you long for when cutting out a hi-res head. You love the magic wand, but hate the pixelated, dirty edge of the moon you’re trying to cut out of the image you just downloaded from MyCheapStockPhotos.com. Either way, you need some smooth curve action and you need it fast. The bezier pen tool was named after Yeyelnitz Bezier, the famous curve maker of Amsterdam who found that using the quill tip of a pen produced better curves than his chalk counterpart. OK, I totally made that up. If you quote the above because you failed to read the rest of this paragraph, I get PWNT rights for the remainder of your miserable, ADD existence. (Do you really want to know what the Bezier pen tool is named after? Google Pierre Bezier. This isn’t a friggin’ history lesson.)
If you’re wanting to draw complex curves, the Bezier pen tool is the tool of choice. By placing points on your workspace and dragging out the handles that come with the point, you can affect a curve based on that point.
Like with other tools, holding the SHIFT key down will allow a constrained “pull” vertically, horizontally, or even at 45 degree angles. Pulling the handles further out will essentially broaden the curve of the line you’re creating. You can also opt out of pulling the handles. In this example, the first point has no curvature. The 2nd point, however, creates the curve of the line. Notice also how the ANGLE of the curve is changed based on the angle of my pull. You know what they say about the angle of the dangle!
You can experiment with pulling the curve short and long. Know this: the curves you see are affected between the points created. In the next example, you can see how the curve is affecte by the 3rd point.
Hence, adding additional pulls to points on the line will affect all curves and lines attached to it. So you’ve messed around with it and found that you can actually close the shape by clicking on your original point. Now what? I can change the position of points with the Direct Selection Tool. I can grab the handles and adjust curves. But how do I USE this newly created path? Took me a minute, too. But the keyword here is “path.” Click on the window labeled “PATH.” This shows the newly created path with your awesome curves. For me, I usually use the path to cut out or create complex objects. When I want to select the final path, I go to the PATH panel and COMMAND+CLICK the layer of the path. This will essentially select the entire path area and allow me to use that shape however I want. Whether I delete the area within the shape, inverse the selection area and delete everything else, fill the shape, create a mask…whatever!
Time for a real-world example. Let’s say, ohhhhh, I wanted to cut a building with some curves out of a photo. Not too creative, but it was the first image I came across on Google. Your first inclination may be to jump into the curvy parts. I say, NEE. Think of the end point. What do you want coming INTO your final destination. Do you want to end on a curve? Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s a pain. Either way, these are things to think about as you begin. As for this one, I like to start on a point that’s on a straight edge. That way, I know right off the bat, I won’t be needing to create any curves. And preferably, none going into the end point.
Note: My screencapture tool shortcut is Shift+Command+3. Shift+Command is also the Photoshop shortcut for the Direct Selection Tool. That’s why you see the white arrow instead of my Bezier pen. Friggin’ Photoshop. Read my mind!
From here I, can simply drop another point at the corner of the straight edge and the start of the curve.
As you can see, or not, the Bezier pen tool automatically connects the two points. If you switch tools by accident and want to pick up where you left off (Yes, coming BACK to the Bezier pen tool will allow you to start dropping a whole new set of points), just make sure you click on the one of the open ends of your path with the tool. You’ll a little “/” symbol appear next to the pen. Click on the point and then continue dropping points on your screen. OK, now it’s time for the first curve. My general rule of thumb is to try and find the center point of the curve and drag from there. It doesn’t always work that way. But as you get more experienced with how the tool works, you’ll find what works best for you. Sometimes a curve requires multiple points. Sometimes it requires one point, but one of the handles has to be pulled in a little tighter than the other. I’ll show you how to do this later.
Note: Why does my image look so pixelated? For smaller, more accurate curves, enlarge your image by 200% or more. It will help you drag across those minute curves for a more accurate cut. You’ll understand pretty quickly how to drop points and click/drag points to create curves. Now look at what happens at the top of the building. There is an odd curvature to the roof. Here’s where finding the center point doesn’t always work.
See? Where my final point is to the right of the building? I can drag all I want, but I can’t get the curve to line up with the building. I also know that if make this curve match the roof, my angle will be off for the next point! What to do? What to do??
Here’s where we jump to the Convert Point Tool. One of the subtool sets of the Bezier Pen tool! Yay. Click on the Bezier Pen tool and wait for the submenu to pop out. Then click on the big sideways V. This allows you to change the direction/length of just ONE of the handles. Be careful, if you should select the point with the Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) FIRST so that both handles appear. THEN, use the Convert Point Tool to drag ONE of the handles. Clicking on the point with the Convert Point Tool will allow you to change the overall curve, making both handles equal in length and angle.
Again, due to my screencapture shortcut, the Convert Point Tool looks like the Direct Selection Tool. The point here is that my handle is not only shortened, but pointing at a different angle than its counterpart handle. If I were to use the Bezier Pen Tool to continue my path, the 2ndary handle (the one pointing down) would cause a new curve. So I’ll use the Convert Point Tool to shove that bottom handle back into the point. This is like telling my next point that there is no curve to calculate.
With these basic concepts, I can continue around the house til I have clean path created.
You can see by the white/grey outline, that I’ve selected the entire area around the house, following the curves of the house itself. Now, I do a COMMAND+CLICK on the layer in the PATHS tab to select the path.
From there, I can inverse my selection using COMMAND+i, delete the area, and I’m left with a clean cutout.
Note: This is still at 200%. At 100%, the curves are much cleaner:
And that’s how you’ve just graduated from newbie to Bezier Pen Tool user! Happy curving.