Adobe Illustrator Tutorial: Mastering the Pen Tool

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” When it comes to being a graphic artist and using a program like Adobe Illustrator, that statement could not be any more truer. A lot designers seem intimidated by Illustrator: it’s definitely the most artistic and creative of the Adobe Creative Suite programs. It’s also the one that many designers shy away from as they flock in droves to Photoshop.

Why would you use Illustrator or even be concerned with learning this program? If you’re looking to create vector graphics, this is your go-to program. Logos, illustrations, icons – the list of design tasks you’ll accomplish with Illustrator is too long and wide to cover and not knowing how to maneuver around this program can really lessen your value as a designer. What’s the secret to being a master and expert in Adobe Illustrator? Really, it’s all about the pen tool. Sure, you can do a lot more with this program but many of your design tasks can be taken care of just by being familiar and comfortable with the pen tool. So, this tutorial is a crash course in how to use it.

What You Will Need:
1. Adobe Illustrator (Any version, even as early as CS2, is fine)
2. A photo
3. Time (this isn’t a tutorial you can wrap in five minutes. Depending on how far you want to take it, it could take a while but the end results will be worth it).

Your Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It): To take a real photograph and turn it into a vector illustration using Adobe Illustrator and the pen tool and nothing more.

First, choose your photo. For this tutorial I used one of my usual creative muses, Madonna. You can use whatever you want. The purpose of this tutorial is to show you how to use a real photo reference to create a vector art in Illustrator for whatever your design purposes may be, so choose whatever strikes your fancy.

After you’ve chosen your photo, import into Illustrator by going to the menu bar and choosing File > Place and selecting the location of your photo. It should appear on your page/stage like below:

You will need to have color, layers, stroke and transparency palettes open and off to the side. If any of these aren’t visible, simply go to “Window” in the menu bar and select them from the pull down menu to make them visible.

In Illustrator, click on the photo that’s on the page. Make it slightly opaque/transparency by bringing it down to about 60 or 70% transparent. This will help when using the pen tool to trace around the image. After the image has been made a bit opaque (lighter), go over and lock the layer. Locking the layer means you won’t be able to draw or do anything on this layer which is fine; you want this layer as your tracing/reference and don’t want it moving or being editable. Create a new layer and it should appear above the first layer that contains your photo. In the layers pallet, simply click ‘new layer’ (the red box) and it should appear. You can also go through the main menu to do so. You should see something similar to the image below:

Now is where the hard work begins. Choose the pen tool. In the the tool bar it’s the icon that has a triangular head with a point to it and it looks like an old school fountainhead pen. You are going to use the pen tool to basically trace the image. Some may gawk at this time consuming task and argue that you can create a decent vector in Photoshop. Here’s why you’d want to do a vector illustration the hard way in Illustrator:

The pen tool is a very powerful tool. It can create curves; it can create crisper, cleaner lines than Live Trace or any Photoshop command could ever execute. The pen tool will give you something called anchor points with are where you start and stop a line segment: you can add anchor points to further manipulate a line or you can delete them if you’ve got too many and want to re-add or simply change a line. If you want to create crisp, clean vector graphics and illustrations with tons of detail and extra lines and give them a flair of personality and real artistry, bunker down and do it with Illustrator’s pen rather than looking for a Photoshop shortcut.

So, choose the basic tool from the toolbar. Choose a color; at the start of any illustration, the color isn’t really a huge issue. Basically, consider this first color nothing but a base paint or primer; the closer to the end of the illustration you get, you’ll just click on this layer or color and will change it to match what you really want. Right now, choose a color and start using the pen tool to go around the perimeter of the overall shape. I’ve found it’s best to get the overall shape down first and then go back and get in all the other shapes, details and features later.

After I start tracing anything with the pen tool, I like to make the color slightly opaque. The more anchor points you add and the larger the surface area you cover, the harder it will be to see where you need to trace or go. Making the color you’re tracing with a bit transparent will definitely help you come up with a better illustration in the end.

You’ll want to try to create smother lines. If there is a curve such as with the arms of the photo, create one anchor point and then spread the other out a bit and before letting go of the mouse (which will set the anchor point) slightly pull in or out and you’ll see that a curved line is created. The more curves you have rather than blocky straight lines between the anchor points, the better and more realistic your image will be.

After you get the overall outline down, now it’s time to start detailing the image. Notice that your image probably has varying degrees or shades of color. You’ll want to try to mimic this. Choose a darker color for the eyebrows and eyes; choose a lighter shade for the different shadows of the hair. The best vector illustrations are those packed with details. The more time you spend on “filling in” and recreating the image, the more impressive the end result will be. You can also choose a color and use different levels of opaqueness for the shadows. Consider this an old artsy trick of watering down a paint to make it either more of a wash or a bolder color.

As you detail and complete any vector illustration, it’s a good idea to stop and see the vector illustration itself without the real image being in the background. By creating two layers at the start, this is rather simple. Make the layer with the photo invisible by clicking on the “eye”. You can always make it reappear so that you can finish your work later on by re-clicking that eye space.

From here, the tutorial is all about how detailed you want to get. For some design tasks, all you may need is a good silhouette; in that case, you’ve now learned now to create a curvy, detailed silhouette using a real photo that would normally cost you a few dollars to purchase on one of the stock photo sites. Congratulations! If you want to take the illustration further, start filling in the spaces. Use the transparency feature to make the base/silhouette opaque and begin to fill in the different features of your image. The more details you include, from the shows or spaces in between the hands, glimmer in the eye, the better. Here’s a simple progression of how I did this illustration:

Whenever you’re done, it’s time to take out the reference and see the final product of all your hard work. Either make the photo layer invisible or delete it all together. You will have your very own vector illustration. The great thing about a vector illustration is that you can enlarge it or make it small and not lose quality; you can use Illustrator to color it in to make it look more realistic or come up with your own interesting color palette. Here’s what the final image looked liked as well as a comparison of the original photo and vector illustration:

You will not become a true master of the pen tool in one tutorial. It takes practice and learning how to create curves, where to set anchor points and how to create complex shapes with the pen tool. Trust me though; taking the time to learn the pen tool is worth it. If you want better results, really impressive finished illustrations that could earn you not only compliments and pats on the back but top dollar, learn and become comfortable with the pen tool!

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About Antoine

Antoine is a graphic designer and artist currently residing in North Carolina. He has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a concentration in Visual Communication and specializes in graphic design and illustration. He has spent the past six years as a graphic artist for several publications based in North Carolina. He invites you to visit his design and social media blog at
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2 Responses to Adobe Illustrator Tutorial: Mastering the Pen Tool

  1. melissam says:

    Great tute, thanks!

  2. bevouliin says:

    Hello, Great Post! I was a Corel Draw user, and now already moved to Adobe Illustrator.
    I am still learning and making Vector art for my WebSite using adobe illustrator.
    This guide help me to understand more about Pen Tool in adobe illustrator. Thank you very much 🙂

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