I recently wrote a post on this website that dealt with a few selection tools. In that post, I promised that I would start writing more about the Pen Tool and how it works. Well, just as luck would have it, I decided to write this post as the second in this series. In it, I’ll describe the attributes that make up a path in a variety of different Adobe programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. After all, each of these applications uses the Pen Tool and paths pretty much the same way.
In my last post, I discussed the Path Selection Tool and the Direct Selection Tool. That post was a good start at learning what exactly paths and selections are. In today’s post, I’m going to move somewhat further on the same topic and will discuss the anatomy of a path itself. Once you get a firm grasp of this concept, you’ll begin to complete drawing projects and projects that include vector graphics in them with much more ease. It’ll take a while, but eventually, muscle memory will take over and you’ll be a pro at this type of stuff.
What is a Path?
The idea behind a path is fairly simple. A path is a line with anchor points at either end of it. It can be a straight line or it can be a curved line. Whether it’s straight or curved depends on how you created it or how you manipulated it. For the example below and for the one I’ll use for the rest of this post, I quickly put a path together with the Line Tool. I added some anchor points and bent some things. Here, take a look:
I’m sure you’ve seen something like this before. For the remainder of this post, I’ll cover the various aspects of what make a path a path and what items are contained therein.
Anchor Points & Segments
Along any path, there will be two items called Anchor Points and Segments. The anchor points are the things that the segments travel between. Think of it this way. If you have two large rocks and place each rock on a big lawn twenty feet away from each other, you can consider them anchor points. If you took a rope and placed it on the ground from one rock to the other rock, that rope would be considered a segment. If you kept the rope straight, that’s fine. You would have a straight segment. If you stretched the rope and made it curved, that’s fine too. It would merely be a curved segment.
In the next screenshot, I’ve placed some blue squares along the path that represent the anchor points. All of the anchor points, except for one, have a white center. All this means is that the solid blue anchor point has been selected and is therefore active. If I were to click on the path with the black arrow tool, or otherwise known as the Path Selection Tool, all anchor points would be solid and active. If I were to use the white arrow tool, or otherwise known as the Direct Selection Tool, only one anchor point would be solid and manipulatable. Remember, the Path Selection Tool moves the entire path while the Direct Selection Tool moves only that one anchor point. Or as many anchor points you’ve selected with the tool.
To be clear, all of the blue squares are anchor points. To be even clearer, the two anchor points at either end of a path are more precisely called End Points. So if someone asks you to click on an end point one day, click on one that’s at the end of a path.
I want to talk about the path I made as an example for this post. Since I used the Line Tool, it became a shape after manipulation. If I has simply drawn a line with the Pen Tool, my example would have remained a path.
Moving An Anchor Point
If I were to click on an anchor point with the Direct Selection Tool, I could drag that point anywhere I want. In the screenshot below, I clicked and dragged the third point in upward a bit so the anchor point was moved.
You can definitely see the result of that. What’s neat is that I can also move a segment. If I were to click the third segment (the lower dip) and drag it upward so it sits above the center line, I could change the entire shape. Take a look.
If I did this, the curved segments would be opposite of what the originally were.
What’s a Control Handle?
Control Handles are little things that will make you scratch your head for hours. Before you get the hang of them, they’ll drive you nuts. However, once you master them, you’ll think they’re just the coolest things ever.
So, what is a control handle? Well, they’re lines with little round ends that stick out of anchor points. They are used to warp and bend segments. In the example I’m using in this post, I already used some control handles to make the shapes I made. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some examples of what I’m referring to below. First though, let me offer an exaggerated view of what a control handle looks like.
As you can see from the example above, the control handle I just created emerges from the anchor point when I click on it. Now, the tricky part is understanding how these things work. If you consider a path as made of bendy metal and the round end of a control handle as a magnet, life will be much better. As a control handle stretches, the magnet pulls the segments that’s attached to it. You can twist and turn control handles and they’ll make the related segments do all sorts of weird things. To understand this thoroughly, you’ll really need to open up one of the applications I mentioned earlier and play around for a while. You’ll quickly get used to how things work.
To access the proper control handles, you’ll need to pay attention to where it is you’re selecting. If I were to use the Direct Selection Tool to select an anchor point, both of that anchor point’s control handles would be activated. In this next example, I did just that.
I could click and drag either of this anchor point’s control handles to warp the segment.
If I were to select a segment as opposed to an anchor point, different control handles would be activated.
I can now click and drag either of these control handles to manipulate the segment I selected.
While both examples show different control handles when I select different things, the control handles will always perform the same functions. Basically, by pulling and pushing them and moving them side to side, you will have the ability to add curves to the related segments.
If you practice enough with paths, segments and control handles, you’ll eventually learn how to master each of these features. And really, they aren’t too challenging. All you need to do is sit for a while and play. Reread this post though, because it provides the basics for what each part of a path is. When I first began, I discovered the functions of these things, but I never knew if I was doing anything correctly. I also never knew if I was just scratching the surface or not. These days, I know the limits of the tools I use, which reduces the wonder. I can now effectively complete projects with the tools I know and understand.
I really like the Pen Tool, shapes and paths in Adobe Photoshop. It’s a topic that’s just deep enough for me to spend the rest of my life thinking about. As you read this post, please comment down below if you have any questions or concerns. Thanks for reading!