This tutorial demonstrates some of the fundamentals of using the pen tool to draw curves. In it, we will trace an egg (yes, that very same egg that has become the most popular Instagram post ever) and will consider best practices for drawing curves as well as strategies you can use in determining how to trace curves for your own projects.
1. We’ll start the tutorial by discussing the pen tool and how curves are represented – you can work in open area of an Illustrator document to explore the tool.
– Take the pen tool and click to create a point on the screen, at this stage you have created an anchor point (a 1-dimensional point), this defines a position on the page.
If you click another point a line segment will appear between the two points.
Deselect what you have made by taking the Black Arrow and clicking in a blank area of the screen or by using the keyboard shortcut CMD+SHIFT+A (mac) or CTRL+SHIFT+A (pc.)
– To draw a curve, take the pen tool and again click a point on the page and without releasing the mouse or
We’ll pause here to define what anchor handles do. The anchor handles determine the shape and direction of the line coming into and going out of an anchor point.
A curved line segment is defined by its steepness – meaning the further the anchor handles are dragged away from the anchor point the steeper your curve will be, the closer they are the flatter the curve. A curved line segment is also defined by its direction – meaning the orientation of the anchor handles.
A metaphor I like to use is to consider the ends of the anchor handle as a magnet and the line segment is made of metal – the metal will always want to follow the magnet. Be mindful that the end of the line itself is the anchor point in between the anchor handles. Illustrator will provide a preview of what the curve will look like leaving the anchor point.
– To practice, start on the left-hand side of the page and click and drag a curved anchor point towards the right, then move up slightly and to the right and draw another curve point towards the right, then move back down and to the right and repeat the steps from above. Refer to the illustration below.
What you will notice as you draw this curved line segment is that the anchor handles on either side – the anchor point it left from and the anchor point it is entering – determine the overall shape of the curve.
2. The next area to explore is using curves to define rounded objects. The same principles apply here as they did above – but this time the anchor handles will be at right angles to one another. Practice this by drawing a curve point by clicking on the screen and with the mouse or trackpad button still held down drag anchor handles out to the right, let go of the button and move over to the right and up and then click and drag the anchor handles towards the top of the page.
By having just two points to define the rounded area it makes editing the curve significantly easy and intuitive. To reshape the curve take the White Arrow and click on one of the anchor points, this will bring up the anchor handles which you can now manipulate by dragging them closer or further away from the anchor point. Note: If you drag an anchor handle beyond the location of anchor point the curve will have a bump in it because the one anchor handle is pulling the line segment a far distance and then has to comply with the other anchor point.
To ensure that your anchor handles are at true right angles use the following keyboard shortcuts: Click to establish the point and Hold the mouse or trackpad button down while at the same time holding the SHIFT key down, this will lock the movement of the dragging into horizontal, vertical or 45-degree directions. Make sure to release the SHIFT key when moving to a new point (if you don’t you will only be able to place a point horizontally, vertically or at 45-degree position away from the original point.) Take some time to practice drawing curves – make sure to refer back to the steps and illustrations above.
3. Download this image. Create a blank document in Illustrator and then go to the FILE menu > PLACE and scale the image to about a half of the page.
4. Go to the Layers Panel (WINDOW menu > LAYERS) and with Layer 1 selected go to the Layer Panel Menu and select Template. This locks Layer 1 and screens it out to make tracing easier. Go to the bottom of the Layers Panel and click the New Layer Icon to create Layer 2 – this is where all tracing will take place. Note the icons in the Layers Panel on the left side of each Layer – the eyeball indicates visibility and the rectangle indicates the layer is a template layer. Layer 1 is also accompanied by a lock icon indicating the Layer is locked – you cannot manipulate the contents on the layer at all.
5. Before you begin tracing the left-hand egg take note of the following:
A. Zoom into what you are tracing.
B. Make sure your fill color is set to None. This way you can see what it is you are drawing especially when you get to more complex shapes. You can change fills and strokes later.
C. Use as few points as possible. For the egg we will use a total of 4 points at the top, bottom, left and right-hand sides of the egg.
D. Define rounded areas with the anchor handles at right angles. As we saw above this provides easy and intuitive editing for adjusting the curves. (This may not be possible all of the time)
E. Do all of your editing and corrections last. If you mess up while you are drawing just proceed to the next point. When you have finished the shape you will use the White Arrow to make your corrections.
6. Before starting to trace, imagine the egg fit within a snug rectangle and note where the egg would touch the edges of the rectangle – these will be the areas you will place your points.
7. Starting at the top of the egg, with the pen tool click and drag to the right to establish a curve anchor point, hold SHIFT down to move horizontally.
Release the mouse or trackpad button as well as SHIFT and then move to the right-hand side of the egg and CLICK, DRAG and hold SHIFT down and drag down towards the bottom of the page.
Move to the bottom of the egg and CLICK, DRAG and hold SHIFT down and drag towards the left.
Move to the right-hand side and CLICK, DRAG and hold SHIFT down and drag up towards the top of the page.
Finally, go to the first point and click on it while dragging horizontally and holding SHIFT down – this will make a closed path.
8. Next, take the White Arrow and use it to adjust the curves, you can click on an anchor point to move the location of where the curve begins or you can click on an anchor handle to change the shape of the curve. Make sure to hold SHIFT down while adjusting the anchor handles to keep them at right angles to the other handles.
9. When tracing the egg on the right the same rules apply for keeping the anchor handles at right angles but they do not need to be perfectly horizontal or vertical. Again, imagine a snug rectangle surrounding the box and then identify the points on the edges of the egg that will touch the rectangle, this is where you will place your curve points.
As you draw the points for the tilted egg do not hold SHIFT down (as this will constrain the movement to perfectly horizontal or vertical) instead, attempt to make the anchor handles at right angles.
Like we did above, use as few points as possible (4) and make your edits when you are finished using the White Arrow.
10. To see your results, turn off the visibility of the Template layer by clicking on the eyeball icon of Layer 1.