Illustrator Intro Course: Drawing Curves

Learn to Draw Curves with Adobe Illustrator Video Tutorial

In this video, we'll explain how the Pen tool works and how you can use it to draw just about anything you can imagine in Adobe Illustrator.

Video Transcription

So I'd like to explain how the Pen Tool works and how you can use it to draw just about anything that you can imagine. The Pen Tool is not an intuitive, easy to use tool to get started with, especially for people that have not worked with vector drawing tools before. I always say that nothing in real life has prepared you for Illustrator's Pen Tool - it's just unlike anything that you've ever seen in real life. It is not like something like the Pencil Tool which is more intuitive in the sense you just drag the line and it looks like what you did - the Pen Tool will not work nothing like that, and that's what I think a lot of people expect it to do.

The Pen Tool can create three kinds of points and once you understand that it can create these three kinds of points, you can draw anything with these three kinds of points. The first of which are straight lines - click, click, click goes the straight line, you're creating a point, you're going to another point and clicking and it is anchoring one point to the next, connecting those points for you. What you do not do is drag - to create straight lines, that's what we're going to get into next.

To create a curved line, you have to click and drag and let go - one motion, so you're holding the mouse down, dragging and releasing. You're not drawing the line like the Pencil Tool does - you're still mentally thinking from point A to point B. So, what Illustrator is going to do is it's going to create a curve between those two points. We're clicking and clicking to create a straight line - what if we want to create a curved line from point A to point B? We have to hold the mouse down and give it a direction to go - it's still going from the point, but it's going in that direction first before it heads to the next point. Now, when it comes to the next point, how do you want to go into that next point?

If you hold the mouse down and drag, you can control how it goes into that point so you can have it loop around or go down and then come up into that point. We're still going from one point to another, but we're taking a detour along the way. The Direct Selection Tool lets you come back in and edit these handles that are here, and the Regular Selection Tool lets you move the entire path. So your editing tool is not the Pen - that's not your editing tool, that's your drawing tool. When you want to come back and edit and make changes, your editing tool is the Direct Selection Tool. You're going to click on that path to see the handles, and then you can dictate how you're going from one point to the other - are you backtracking before you move on?

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So you can create all different interesting shapes, but you're really going from point A to point B - which direction are you kind of giving it a shove in? You're like pushing it off in that direction, but it's still going to go to the next point. But you're giving it a shove up or pushing it down - think of it as like a little kid in a tricycle: they're going to go where they want to go, but you give them a push in the right direction and they start steering towards the final place they want to go. The size of the handle controls how far it goes in that direction, so it's kind of like how hard you push the tricycle. When it comes into the final point, the same idea - the bigger the handle, the farther away it kind of moves before it comes in. So it's leaving that point and then entering this point, and really by playing with these handles, you're starting to figure out how these curves interact.

What you don't want to really do typically is have those handles cross each other - when those handles cross each other, your lines can kind of bind up and not get very nice. In most situations, you're going to want to keep these lines separate from each other - if you're a Ghostbuster's fan, when they shoot the streams, they're like, "Don't cross the streams!" You don't want things to explode and blow up and do weird things when you cross the stream. So don't cross the handles. Let's switch over here to this little drawing template where we can focus on this a little bit more.

All right, so our terminology our anatomy of a line or whatever you want to call it, bezier curves, vector paths, etc., is a curved line that we're creating. The anchor points are the points that you make, that's the start and end. The direction point gives you the direction of how it's leaving or entering a point. If you think about it, they kind of have like a little arrow in your mind (they don't actually have an arrow). It is pointing a direction of which way it's heading. The part of the path between two points is called a segment of the line. So there's this segment and then another segment, and your segments are separated by an anchor point. When the anchor points are solid, they're selected; when they're hollow, they are not selected.

If I was going to draw that line, I would actually draw it by going like this, then I come over to the middle point, right, and I'm creating that exact same thing, dragging down and then coming over here and dragging up. If I go to my direct selection tool and click on my point, I can move that handle around, so I can make it go further in that direction or less. So that's the selected point that I can move around; this is a selected point that I can move around. The solid one is the selected and the hollow are deselected points.

I'm going to delete that and move on. Now, the point of this little exercise here is not to create the perfect smooth line. That's not the point of this. The point of this is kind of to get the motion of drawing, to kind of get the hand muscle memory built. This is very counter-intuitive for what a lot of people want to do. And as much as it may make sense when I'm showing it on screen, when you try to do it yourself, don't be surprised if you feel like, "Wow, he made it look so easy," and it's hard when you do it. You have to build the muscle memory.

I'm going to try to explain it as best as I can, so you can know what to do. But you need to build the muscle memory yourself. It's just like learning how to draw in real life. You're learning how to do vector drawing, you have to get the feeling for this, and it takes a little bit of time. Don't be discouraged if in the beginning it feels unintuitive and it doesn't really make sense.

The way I describe this learning curve is things that are easy to learn have a normal learning curve. And the idea of this curve is like on the bottom you don't know anything and on the top you know a lot. As you're starting to learn, as you progress through the learning process, it's like, here you start and here you end. As you're learning, an easy learning curve is, as you learn, you get better and better and better and better. You feel encouraged because you're starting to learn, you're learning things, it's making sense, you're getting better, and the more time you put in, the more it makes sense, and it's nice when you put in a little bit of time and immediately you're starting to learn things and it's feeling good.

But drawing with the pen tool is kind of like this to some extent. You just, as you're learning, you're like, "I'm not getting it, I'm not getting it," and then all of a sudden, like, "I'm starting to get it," and like all of a sudden it just kind of clicks, and they're a lot better than they were just a moment ago. I literally saw this one time in class with a gentleman who was learning and he just, he was frustrated. He was doing it, he was doing it, and he's like, "I'm just not getting it," and he just kept pushing and he kept pushing, and he's like, "Wait, wait, like," and something clicked in his mind. He's like, "I finally get it," and all of a sudden he was drawing, and he's like, "Yay!"

He was so happy because one moment he kind of wasn't getting it. It just something hadn't mentally clicked and made sense to him yet, but once it did, all of a sudden it was much easier. So everybody's got different learning styles, different learning curves, but just want to say that if it doesn't feel normal in the beginning, don't give up on that initial learning part. Just keep moving, keep going, keep trying, keep experimenting, and hopefully what I show you will make it easier so that you can get there.

But don't give up because it's so worth learning and so worth mastering. But it's going to take a little bit of practice to get used to it. So what you don't want to do is you don't want to just click these things. You're going to need to do drags, and it's not a click and release and then do a drag. No, it's press, hold, and drag the mouse. That's the idea. Okay, so think of this as like the dotted line is the line that we want to create, and here is the way that you're thinking about it. So think of this as eventually you have to think about this in your mind.

You just have to have it in your mind or you have to have something to trace over, but they're not going to tell you how far to drag in what direction. But these are like the training wheels, if you will, where we kind of told you what has to happen in here. And the idea is that we're going to create a line that goes from here to here, but we want it to curve between that. So for this segment we want to curve, so I'm going to drag from here to here. So that was press and hold and drag and release.

Move away from the point like a moth to a flame; people are attracted to that point, but it is not the line. That is a direction point pointing the right way that the line is going to start heading. Move away from that point, go to the end where the segment is going to finish. Press and hold and drag down. So let's do this a couple times; I'm dragging from here up. That's one motion; release, press and hold, drag down and release.

So why are we doing this? When you are thinking from Point A to Point B, how do you even know where to make the points and how far do you drag? If we only drag a little bit, you're going to get a small little bit of curve. You want to drag a bigger distance to create a bigger curve. The bigger you drag, the farther you push in that direction, but make sure your fill is none so you only have a stroke.

As a rough rule of thumb, if you're going from one point to another, this handle should roughly be one third of that distance. If you think about it, it's kind of broken down into three parts and if those three lines are about equal length, then it should be a third. The bigger you drag, the bigger the curve; the smaller you drag, the smaller the curve.

When you're first getting started, think of it kind of like a box and if you want to delete one portion, use the direct selection tool to click on that one side and hit delete. When you're going from one point to another, this handle should roughly be one third of that distance. That's just a rough rule of thumb, not a hard figure that you have to be precise about.

When you're dragging, you're always dragging in the direction the line is currently heading. So if it's starting to head up, you drag up; if it's heading down, you drag down. The last thing is where to put your points. You want to put your points where one line segments ends and the next one starts. If you were driving on this road in a car and turning the wheel to the right, and then you're going to turn to the left, the midpoint between that is when one segment ends and the next segment starts. That's where you put a point when the direction changes. That's where you put a point when the direction changes so here i'm going around and now I want to bend it a different way.

So here I'm turning to the left in the car and then here I'm turning to the right. So where I straighten out my wheel, that's the transition from one curve to the next. So you drag in the direction the line is currently heading: the way it's starting to go, you drag about a third of the way to the end of that segment, and you end the segment when it's changing from one direction and going to another.

When I'm done, I can hit Escape or Command/Control + click off of that to deselect. Now I'm going to do the same exact number of points but I'm going to drag just a little bit in, so instead of dragging straight up, I'm just going to drag in a little bit here just to show you how different the shape can be by just putting a little bit of a tilt on that. So, instead of dragging up, I'm just dragging over, dragging in generally the same direction - I'm still going down or up, I'm just instead of going straight up and down, I'm putting a little bit of a diagonal on that. Look at the difference in the shape. This is what I want you to experiment with when you're drawing your own paths - play with the only two things you can change, which is distance and angle.

Technically speaking, you can also change where the point is, but when you're playing with the handle itself, the only thing you can do is change the distance and the angle - that's all you can do. So, do you want to push it more in that direction or not push it so much in that direction, and which direction do you want to push it? If you've never seen Bezier curves or these direction handles before, you need to play with these to get a feel for how they work, and just experiment and try to push and pull and just see how these shapes are created. This is how you're going to start to get to be familiar and comfortable with the Pen Tool.

Now, those are just lines. To finish out, I can create an egg shape which really is just two segments - I have the segment on the top and the segment on the bottom. The segment on the top is slanted in a little bit, and so we can create these with just two points. Could we use more than that? We could, but we can simplify this down to just two points. I can use my Pen Tool here and my line is going to start here and it's not heading straight up because there's a little bit of a slant, so I'm tilting in a little bit. Now this is a bit of more of a curve, so I'm going to drag a bit more than that rule of thirds that I gave, which was just a rough rule of thumb, so I'm dragging a bit more than the third because I want it to be a more extreme curve. And I'm going to let go, I'm going to come here and I'm going to click and drag, and now the line is heading down, not straight down - it's got that same kind of angle, so I'm mirroring the angle there.

When I'm done, if you want to finish your last point, don't just click on the point because that'll create a straight line - anytime you want curves, drag. So I dragged for all of those, and I'm going to drag to finish this as well, so I'm dragging. I went to the point, I clicked on the point, and I'm dragging through that point to let go. Let me move this off of this tracing kind of tracing idea here and just go back to my Direct Selection Tool, so I can click on either of these points. This is not about symmetry and perfect perfection right now - it's it's more about the feeling for this.

If I was making a perfect egg, I would draw half of it and reflect it, and that would be a different kind of process, but we're going for the feeling here. So, by giving it that tilt, look at the difference here - so it's not a tilt, and it is a tilt. All right, and the more that I pull this out, the further it goes in that direction. Same thing up here - the more extreme those handles, the more extreme the curve, and the closer those get, the more pointy it also gets. Now, could I put another point there? I could have put another point there - let me delete that and recreate this. I could have done this with let's say, a point on the bottom.

So let's say I create a point down here - I'm going to go a little bit off of my tracing here and maybe I want to flatten the bottom out a little bit - I can flatten that out and by putting a point there, I get more control because every place you put a point, that's a place where you can adjust the position of that and also the handles. So if I want to flatten that out, by all means, I could put another point there, and the further out I go, the flatter that bottom gets. But if you want smooth, really smooth curves, fewer points yields smoother curves because every place you put a point, you have that potential to either flatten or twist the line.

If you want to do that great, but if you want it smooth then you want to go towards as few points as possible - a few points means nice smooth curves. So that is how a curve works. We have two types of points - clicking is straight and curving is dragging. How do we create the third and final kind of point? That is a corner point; a corner point is going to be a curve in and a curve out, but they're not going to be a smooth connected handle.

Right now this handle here is a smooth connected curve; it's not a corner point. If I want to break those two handles apart, I can do that a couple of ways - one is to use the Anchor Point tool. This will convert between the three types of anchor points and I can split those two handles apart, so now they're disconnected. Because they're disconnected, I can make any kind of corner that I want and I can twirl this around and it's not coming into a smooth point, it's coming in with curves but it comes into a corner point. So that's one of the ways that I can do that. But when I'm doing it originally when I'm drawing it using the Pen tool, normally clicking creates straight points and dragging creates curves.

What's the third and last one? I can use my Option key (or on Windows Alt) and point this in a different direction - that's going to create a corner. So normally when you drag, those handles are going to be connected, but if you hold Option (or Alt) and drag that that point to a different direction, now you've broken off those two handles and you've created a corner point. With those three kinds of points, you can create anything that you can imagine - clicking for straight points, dragging for smooth connected curves, and Option (or Alt) dragging of a point (the direction point, so the handle itself) it'll break those handles apart.

All right, if you've already drawn those points, the Anchor Point tool can change the kind of point. So let's say you've already created points - maybe you have done point, point, point, point - and you want to change them. The Anchor Point tool lets you come in and you can drag out new handles, so now they are curves. They were straight points, but now they're curves. If you click, they become straight points. So it's actually like when we drew originally - clicking creates straight points and dragging creates curves. In here, you don't have to hold anything - if you grab one side of the handle and you move it separately, you break that handle off from the other one, so now your two handles are not connected anymore - no keystrokes are needed.

Using the Anchor Point tool only, using the Pen tool originally when we're drawing - also when we're drawing with this if we're drawing a curve like this, while you're drawing, while you're still drawing, if I hold that Option (or Alt) key, I can break that handle off right away, so I don't have to go back in later to do that. So I can do it in either two ways - I can drag, drag, drag and once I let go I can come back and move that handle, or while I'm dragging, when I get it the way I like, before I even let go, I can hold Option (or Alt) and break off that handle - either way.

Let's see this in kind of a real life example. So, for a smooth curve, again breaking things down into segments - like here I'm turning to the right, here I'm turning to the left. So we're dragging about a third of the way to the next point, it's heading up a little bit but not a lot, just heading up a little bit, now it's heading back down a little bit, and now it's heading back up - in this case heading back up a little bit more. Oh, once again, I have that fill color. This is a different file, so I cleared off my fill color in the other file, but not in this one. So I'm going to say no fill for that, and I'm going to hit Escape to drop that, and um, all right - so here, let's draw this stem. So this is the line that I want to create, the dot, the dashed line here.

So I'm going to drag, and the line hits up a little bit, but mostly it's heading over to the right. So I'm heading up a little bit, but mostly to the right, then I'm heading down and I'm heading in a little bit because it is heading a little bit to the left, and it's a pretty big curve, so I'm pushing up quite a bit.

Now here's really where if you drag just a little bit you get a small curve but the more you push it in that direction, you can go back in with your Direct Selection tool and at any point click on those points and change it. So if I push it up more, see how that shape changes? And that's what you want to do; you just want to play around with this and get a feel for how those shapes work.

Like there goes straight over, but it doesn't come up here; it really comes up a lot. Yeah, so that's how you play around with it. All right, um, all right, so now let's do this. So we got some corners here but the rest of it's smooth curves, so I'm going to start here, and the line is heading not just straight down, but actually down and over; it's kind of down and in. Now the line is heading not straight to the right; it's not heading straight down; it's heading over and down. The more that I pull this, you see how it pushes that curve further back.

So somewhere around like so. Now here, because I want this to be a perfectly horizontal line, uh, while I'm dragging here, I'm going to hold Shift and that Shift is going to snap that handle to a 45 or 90-degree angle after I'm starting to drag, so I'm modifying the drag, not the click - you don't want to Shift-click, because that would create a straight line from one point to the next. You want to modify the drag, so you start dragging, and then you hold Shift. We wanted that point because it's so flat on the bottom; this line is not heading up, it's not heading over; it's doing a little bit of both, heading up and over. Now my line is heading up - don't worry about where you're going to be going later, but right now, what's the direction the line is currently heading? The line is currently heading up and over a little bit, but now this handle right here is pointing out of the shape, so that's the way the line would go.

Look at how that preview of that line is looking right now; it would go in a smooth curve away from the vase, but I don't want it to go in a smooth curve; I want it to be a sharp corner. So I need to point this back down. I need to hold the Option or Alt key and move that handle to say I don't want to go that direction; I want to go over but down a little bit, and let go. Now I'm heading in the right direction, because that line - that, it's not the line itself, but it's the handle - I know it looks kind of like a line, but there's no stroke there, so that's your handle; that's your direction handle. It is pointing the direction that you will head before going to the next point. So now it's heading down and over to the next point. When I come to the final point, I want it to curve into that point, so I can't just click because clicking will create a straight line; there won't be a handle there. So I'm going to drag through that point. Oh, but look - because I didn't hold anything, it rounded it over, because normally dragging creates smooth connected handles.

That's okay; I made a mistake; that's okay. I'm going to undo it; I wanted you to see that, so I'll undo that. So now I need to hold Option or Alt when doing that, because when I hold Option or Alt, that's what gives me the disconnected handles. I'm still dragging through the point, because the point is the direction the line is going - is this way. That's the direction the line is going; it's going away from the base, and that finishes out my shape. I know it's a different way to think about things. Uh, looking over at the shape here, I know there's this kind of tracing idea here, but let me just make a copy there by Option dragging or Alt dragging on Windows.

I want you to see this over here without the complication of that tracing guide. This point right here - these are disconnected handles, so that's a corner. This right here has connected handles, so that's a smooth curve. What if I want to convert those to something different? I can select it with my Direct Selection tool so that I can see where those points are. I can go underneath the Pen tool, click and hold on that, choose my Anchor Point tool. If I were to click on that, it would convert it into a straight point with no handles, but I can drag handles out to pull a nice, smooth curve. If I go to this point right here, I can grab one of those handles and disconnect it from the other handle to make a corner point. So you can convert the points you have to make them what you want. All right. So, in that case, like here with our little training things, um, that's basically what we're doing.

We're using the Direct Selection tool here, and in this case, I'm just dragging over these right to connect those, like so, and then I can grab this handle and disconnect that from the other handle so I have a corner point. All right, final thing here - this is going to be a bunch of corners and some curves, but a bunch of corners.

Again, not necessarily the way that I would draw this—I'd probably do some symmetry and draw half of it and reflect it—but it's good practice to learn this. So, we can go through the motions and create curves initially. I'm going to start here and the line heads over and down, then it heads up and that way. I'm always dragging the direction the line is currently heading. But now here I have hit the end, so I don't want to go out of the flower. I want to go that direction, so I need to hold the Option/Alt key and point in the right direction. That's the direction that I want to go. Then I can come in here, finish out that segment, take one segment at a time.

Now, my handle is pointing the wrong direction, so again I hold Option/Alt and drag it in the right direction. That's the direction I want to go, finish out that segment. But now again I'm pointing the wrong direction, so I point it in the right direction by holding Option/Alt and finish out that segment. Once again heading the wrong direction, I hold Option/Alt and point in the right direction. In the end, I want to end on a corner, so I need to hold Option/Alt and drag through the corner in the direction the line is currently going, which is that way. It's a little bit of a weird thing of like focusing on the future with keeping a little bit of an eye on the past, which is a little bit of a life lesson as well as a Pen Tool lesson.

In the end, I've got my different shapes which I can copy and paste. So, I'm going to drag a selection over all of this stuff—all the other things are on a different layer that we've locked, so I don't worry about selecting any of those things. I could also do a Select All just to get everything. I'm going to copy that and let me just throw it into a new document over here.

Let's delete that and paste it into here and I'm going to assemble these things into position like so. There we go, and then I'm going to color them. So, I'm going to get rid of the stroke and they fill. I want to make this a green, so I can just choose a green if I want to. If I want to be specific, I could dial in an amount here if I want to. And then I can use that same green there, so that's let's do 50 cyan and 100 yellow. So, we'll go here to the stroke and this time we're going to make that a nice thick stroke. Click on the color mixer, 50 cyan, 100 yellow and the rest being zero. So, I match that same color and I'll select the flower.

I'll say no stroke for that and a fill of let's say I do like a pink, make that a bright pink, there like a magenta and throw in a little bit of cyan. Finally, for the vase, I'm going to get rid of the stroke on that and choose a fill that is uh like an orange. So, I'll put some yellow, no black, a little bit of magenta in there. You can also use the color ramp there as well. Then I'm going to select these and just slide them down underneath into the vase, so the vase covers over because the vase was drawn later. So, it covers over. Actually this also covers over, but if it was in the wrong order I could use the Arrange and bring things front or back in my order. And there I have the final illustration that I have created. So, I hope these thinking points that I've given you and this guidance will help you to understand how to use this Pen Tool better. Practice makes perfect.

The more that you play with it and draw with it and see how it reacts, you're starting to form a basis of understanding of how these curves work. But the best thing I can do to encourage you is to say experiment with the distance and the angle. Make sure you put your points far enough away from each other that they're not covering over each other, and just play with these handles. You know, play with the distance, play with the angle, and you can experiment with the Option/Alt drag to create the corners.

With those three kinds of points—click is the straight lines, drag is the curved line, and Option/Alt drag creates the curves—with those three kinds of points, you can create anything that you can imagine using the Pen Tool.

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