Updated: May 24
Adobe Illustrator is a powerful tool in the Adobe Creative Suite. I personally started out on Photoshop, and I was intimidated by Illustrator when I was first starting out (though I didn’t want to admit it). The scariest part of it for me was illustrating with the pen tool.
With this tool, you can create vector illustrations, trace things, you name it. It’s like a magic wand.
I had seen other people in person and in videos use the pen tool, and while they did amazing things, it certainly seemed out of my league. I will be the first to admit that it’s not intuitive, at first.
But as with any skill, you can build it with time and hard work. I was awful with the pen tool at first, but I was able to master it! Now, I can create illustrations from scratch and almost mindlessly.
Read on to learn how to master the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator.
Step 1: Get comfortable in a low-pressure setting
We all learn to crawl before we learn to walk, and the same applies to building a new skill. I started out trying to draw basic shapes like a square, a circle, a heart, et cetera. I actually got a lot of practice out of The Bézier Game, a free browser game that guides you through the basics of the pen tool.
I pushed myself to start learning how the tool works with this game and with low-effort shapes. It was with this that I started to pick it up a little, after some frustration. Trying it out outside of the program itself really helped take the pressure off of me.
Step 2: Start tracing shapes in Adobe Illustrator
After I graduated from The Bézier Game, I decided to start taking my practice rounds into Illustrator. I would copy and paste flat images or simple logos into a layer, lock it, and trace over it in a bright color in another logo. With that and a lot of Googling, I was finally getting the hang of making basic shapes with the pen tool.
Some designers might argue that tracing is cheating, or something of the sort. I disagree. For one thing, in this context it’s only being used for practice. But even if you were to trace an image to get you started, it often leads to other creative ideas or personal modifications. Even if you were to try and replicate an image by tracing it completely, it would never be precisely like the original.
From this step, you should start learning basic shortcuts to streamline your process, like Enter to end a segment, or holding Alt and dragging a shape to duplicate it. Looking up these shortcuts will make your life a lot easier down the line.
Step 3: Practice with more complicated shapes and try making your own illustrations
Now that the pen tool feels less foreign, it’s time to up your game. At this stage, I looked up photos of basic objects and tried to make simple illustrations of them in Illustrator with the pen tool. It can be as simple or complex as you’re willing to attempt. I used everyday household appliances like a blender or a toaster, and I started creating icons. From there, I tried one-color flat illustrations and kept upping the complexity in each iteration.
Step 3 (Continued): Alternatively, try vectorizing some well-known logos
In addition to the above exercise, I also tried tracing complicated logos and remaking them in vector form. This was fun because I could veer off from the original and try to make spoofs. For example, I traced the Coca Cola logo and then tried to make other words in the same style. Logos also allow you to experiment with typography and the pen tool.
Step 4: Try illustrating people and scenes
Finally, I decided to try my hand at creating the kinds of pretty illustrations I was initially intimidated by. This stage required the most Googling and watching tutorials on YouTube. I learned about applying gradients, cutting shapes out of other shapes, and more.
Creating an entire environment or scene requires a lot of smaller steps. But this stage should actually be the most fun - it’s a larger version of Step 3, but you get to weave a bigger picture with a lot of smaller objects.
With time and practice, you should be able to use the pen tool intuitively for a variety of uses, from simple and complex illustration to creating vector graphics.
Where are you in your journey with the pen tool? Did you feel the same or different when you first learned about it? Let me know in the comments below!