Tag Archives: design

Using the Bezier Pen Tool – For Newbies

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.

Bezier pen tool in actionFirst 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.)

Dragging a point with the Bezier pen tool.

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.

Bezier pen tool - 3rd point
Selecting the Bezier pen tool shapeHence, 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.

Bezier pen tool - start on a straight edge

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.

Bezier pen tool - next selection

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. 🙂

Bezier pen tool - first drag

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.

Convert Point Tool

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.


Tight Deadlines

We’ve all been there. Clients need something by the next day. Your boss wants something by the end of the day…and it’s 4:30PM. A friend calls up with an emergency and it was due an hour ago. I actually got called 10 minutes before a deadline for something that, on a normal day, would take about an hour to complete. Luckily, I honed in on that supersonic plane that we all have worked on and got it done in 40 minutes (I EXPECTED a 30 minute extension because I was uninformed that a-I was UNDER a deadline and b-that I NEVER promised ANYONE I’d be done at that particular time.)

What do you do? There’s ALWAYS options. Seriously? You need it by the end of the day? Why? So you can look at it for 30 minutes and turn my files into your vendor the next morning?? Here’s a couple questions you should ask yourself when faced with unrealistic or unknown deadlines that have been imposed upon you:

1. Will anyone DIE if this doesn’t make the deadline? Usually, the answer is no. But by all means, if that answer is YES, move your ass.

2. How important is the client? Have they not paid their bill? Screw it. I’ll get to it when I see the check you owe me. Have they paid their bill but are just big pains in your carpal tunnels? Ask for an extension. What’re they gonna say, No? Fine. Drop some rush fees on them. When THAT happens, they’re usually more than happy to accommodate your hectic schedule. Are they friends and family? How good of friends and family? This scale, however you see it, should relate directly to whether or not you do the work.

3. How important is the project? Does this project reflect directly on you? Or is this one of those anonymous, Alan Smithee projects that you reluctantly accepted a fee for listening to your client dictate why their logo should overshadow the message…you know…for branding? If it’s an important project. Get it done. No? Ask for an extension.

4. Is this simply for review? What a fun term. Anyone that wants a project by the end of the day is simply going to take it home and look at it on their own time. Leisurely…several hours later. Ask for an extension. Does the client need to review it with several team members? Ask for everyone’s email address. You can copy the entire team. Do they need to meet and talk in person? Get it done.

5. For fulltime employees, unfortunately, you have more than just yourself facing clients. So often times, REGARDLESS of whose fault it is, the project still needs to get done. And in the end, the more miracles you can pull off, the better you are. Think of it as job security.

For future reference, can this type of experience be mitigated? What kind of processes is your team putting in place to avoid last minute issues. Is your team communicating? Are you laying down CLEAR guidelines for your client as to what their impact is on the schedule and how you are NOT responsible if they take their sweet ass time.

More importantly, remember this: EXTREME DEADLINES HEIGHTEN STRESS. Try to take a step back and dissect the project. What is the client TRULY needing to see. Where can you ask for extensions of time? Can you work directly with the vendor? Is the client willing to stay up a little later to do reviews via email? Hell, they’re asking YOU to stay up late. (I know, I know…every situation is different.)

In the end, it really comes down to a simple needs analysis. Do you need to get this done? If the answer is Yes, stop thinking about how pissed you are and who’s to blame and take the higher road. If not, don’t fret, put out the dreaded email and work on it in the morning.

Divorcing Your Ideas

I’ve heard the term a few times, especially in writing: Don’t be married to your ideas. But so many times, I see the artist or creator confuse that sentiment with giving up your creative morals or principles. I was even confused by the term for a couple years. But as I grew to understand the creative process for myself and others, I began to realize the many levels of accomplishing a goal. And as I always tell my clients, design is ALWAYS subjective. There is never just ONE way to do something. Granted, some may be massively more successful than others…but I guarantee, no one EVER knows if their idea is going to be “the one.” You simply throw what you’d like to see, read or hear out there. And if you’re working with others, you try to find that synergy and reach a solution that everyone can be happy with.

Your idea is the baby of your creative world. You are the mommy and daddy, with delusions of knowing you have all the right answers for your baby. But if you ever work with anyone other than yourself, you may find yourself dealing with, what seems to you, a homewrecker. That insolent being that wants to come in, sleep with your wife and break apart the family that is your project. OK, maybe he’s the guy that just wants to convince you to have dinner with your wife. Either way, your ideal family is no longer yours. What to do?

Unless you’re paying for the project and get final say over the end result, remember one thing: The client is king…or queen as it were. You say, “But what about this?? What about that??” Yes. There’s exceptions to every rule. You have to use your best judgment on when and why to push back. The ideal situation? They absolutely trust you to do what you do best. Yay for you! But more likely, your client wants to hire you for your insight and skill set and then explain to you the vision they want you to bring to life. Because in the end…it’s their project. You may want this cool new opportunity to be the platform that propels you into the awards hall of fame. I’ve been there. And I’ve seen my vision changed into some of the worst choices in design simply because the client has a different vision in mind. So you have a choice. Abandon ship or help your client get to the destination they’re trying to get to, regardless of the end result. Here’s a great example:

Even better are those projects that are run by committee. I see these often with larger corporations. No way around that. You just need to make sure you set down guidelines before you start working so that you’re not trapped in that endless cycle of changes. Like this poor guy:

Haha! “…and our partner logos.” Both of these videos encompass the best of the worst experiences that every designer has gone through at some point in their career. And if you wallow in sorrow that is your vision gone awry, you will never be happy as a designer. Instead, follow that motto: Don’t be married to your ideas.

What does it mean? It means be open enough to understand that design is subjective. What may appeal to you may NOT appeal to someone else. And vice versa. I have a great interview with comedian/actor Robert Kelly that talks about that very same thing. He loves bold contrast and the basic color palette. I love other things.

Divorcing yourself from your ideas means to bridge the gap between what you see for your client and what they want. (And what they’re willing to pay for.)