Using Vectors in Photoshop

I have a very unsteady hand with both the mouse and my tablet and sometimes I need precise flowing lines.  The best way to do this is to use “Vectors” ie the “Pen tool”.  These are not so bad when you get the hang of them but I needed a lot of tutorial help to get my head round how Photoshop works with these.


The Pen tool uses Bezier Curves to make any complex shape you like.

You can place the shape approximately and edit once the curve is complete.  Start with the fewest anchor points you can get away with.  Note: You need one for each change in direction of the shape you are bounding.  To make smooth curve then the direction lines need to be at a tangent to the curve you are making.  The length of the direction line determines how much influence the associated action point has on the curve.

Pull out the handles and make the direction lines as tangential as you can then modify the length to roughly describe the curve you want.

Then locate the next Anchor Point.  If the curve bounds a closed shape then to complete hover the starting point till a little circle appears then left click to confirm.

  • Left click to locate an “Anchor Point”.
  • Release without dragging for Straight lines.  (I tend to drag anyway as I find them difficult to add later – I’m sure there is a better way than making a new anchor and deleting the old one.)
  • Hold and drag you will get the “Handles” for “Bezier Curves”. Handles consist of “Direction Lines” with “Control Points” at the end.
  • Use the “Path Selection” tool to move the vector curves you have made
  • Use the “Direction Selection” Tool (White Arrow button) to edit the “Handles”. You need to click the button then click anywhere on the curve outline except the action points to activate the Path.
  • Once highlighted, click on an Anchor Point to show its handles or on the curve between to see the two Direction lines/control points affecting that curve.  Click and drag the control points to edit the curve.  Keep the direction lines tangential to the curve at the anchor point to keep a smooth transition.
  • If a corner is wanted Alt-Left click the Control point in question and it will allow the two direction lines round that anchor point to move independently.
  • To remove an anchor point right click on the anchor point and choose “Delete Anchor Point”
  • To add an anchor point right click roughly where you want it and “Add Anchor Point”

There are two modes: “Shape layers” or “Paths”.  Paths are temporary things to help you draw the outline of something.  Shape layers are permanent smart objects of a single colour. You must select the mode before you start making your curves.

PATHS –  I use paths like this to make boundary shapes for textures I need to trim in conjunction with the magic wand fence.

  • Make your shape using the pen tool (Pen Button)
  • The pen menu will appear.  Mine is at the top of my window.  Choose the Path button.
  • Modify using the shape to get it just how you want using the “Direction Selection” Tool.
  • Create a new layer & make it active
  • Choose an appropriate pen or brush for your outline
  • Right click and choose Stroke Path & the tool you want to make the outline with (Note: if you want a good boundary to use the magic wand on then make the pencil or brush thickness at least 2px).  Also check you have chosen a contrasting colour to the background for your outline otherwise like me you wont know its worked.
  • Delete the path you made by Rick clicking and choosing “Delete Path” (Sadly you have to as you can’t hide it and you cant get out of vector  path mode till you do.  Let me know if you have found a way to store your vector paths.)

SHAPE LAYERS – I use shape layers to make graphic images using plain colours (Rather like making collages).  In this mode the paths are put on their own layer so you can keep them and modify them when you want.  Sadly so far I can’t see how to use them to make complex fences or how I can add an image rather than a plain colour.  The shape is used to create a mask.

  • Make your shape using the pen tool (Pen Button)
  • The pen menu will appear.  Mine is at the top of my window.  Choose the Shape Layer button.
  • Modify using the shape to get it just how you want using the “Direction Selection” Tool.
  • Double-click on the colour square in the layers panel to change the colour
  • Highlight the mask square in the layers panel to change the shape
  • You can use the “blending options” in the layers panel to add a gradient or emboss drop shadow, stroke etc.
  • You can also make groups called smart objects – I haven’t tried that yet but the videos below show you how.

Good Video Tutorials:

  • Raster/Vector/Bezier Curves –
  • Paths –
  • Shape layers – Part 1 – and Part 2 –

About Faith

This is a country blog from an ex-city girl who is delighting in country pursuits as only someone with the huge rose-tinted spectacles of ignorance can. View all posts by Faith

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