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by Wendi Elizabeth Martha Scarth


The Pen Tool
Adobe Photoshop


Utilise The Pen Tool To Extract An Image’s Background
Suitable for Adobe Photoshop CS, CS2, CS3, CS4, CS5, CS6 & CC
Skill Level - Intermediate (Comprehensive Pen Tool Tutorial)

Extracted  Utilising The Pen Tool
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This tutorial demonstrates how to extract a tulip from its background utilising the Pen Tool. I then demonstrate how to Copy and Paste the tulip onto a Studio Background.  To work along, you are welcome to download the Start Images HereUnzip the file and open the image onto Photoshop’s workspace.

The Pen Tool is often the tool that Photoshop students struggle with the most: however, mastering the Pen Tool is the same as learning any other acquired technique; in that once you have mastered the basics, and have accumulated a few hours of practise and repetition, you won’t need to think twice; and sooner or later, you will be utilising the Pen Tool without giving it a second thought!

Practise, Practise, Practise!
If you’re prepared to practise, and to take the time to familiarise yourself with the Pen Tool’s basic settings, in no time at all you will be surrounding a simple object (such as the tulip in this tutorial) with a path, and cleanly extracting it from its background. Once you are comfortable with first isolating, then extracting uncomplicated objects from their backgrounds, you will then be able to produce more sophisticated Pen Tool creations.

My vector illustration of Sacha, that is made up of over 800 layers, can be viewed here: the illustration has since been enlarged to poster size (20” X 30”), framed, and now lives on our lounge wall).

Understanding Layers

Understand The Workspace And Palettes

Undo and Navigation Steps
Two ways of undoing steps are from the top menu, Edit then Step Backwards. Alternatively, click a previous snapshot in the History Palette.

Navigate (zoom in and pan) your image using the Navigator Palette,

or the Zoom Tool.

Activate The Hand Tool by tapping the Spacebar, keeping the Spacebar pressed, pan your image in the usual way.

Extract A Tulip Utilising The Pen Tool - Proceed Here!

Pen Tool Notes
Photoshop has numerous tools that facilitate the removal of objects from their backgrounds. However, when extracting intricate objects from backgrounds, for precision and complete control - the Pen Tool is the best tool to implement. There is a learning curve; however, with a little time, patience and practise, you will be creating intricate paths in no time.

When drawing with the Pen Tool, you build a path by left-clicking to apply individual Anchor Points - (tiny rectangles), around an object. Photoshop then automatically connects the Anchor Points with Segments, which are simply straight, or curved lines. Unless you are using the Freehand Pen Tool, it will be hard not to drag; therefore, when learning to use the Pen Tool, in order to create perfect paths, be prepared to reapply your Path several times. Adobe uses the term Anchor Points, rather than Points because the Points Anchor the Path into place. However, most students prefer to call then Points. (I prefer to call them Nodes).
Anchor Points anchor (fix) the path into place, and all Paths are named Bezier
(Bay-zee-ay) paths; meaning, they reply on the same Mathematical Curve Definitions that make up the core of the
PostScript Printer Language

Bezier Curves are named after their inventor
Pierre Bezier.
The Bezier curve model allows for zero, one or two Levers to be associated with each Anchor Point within a path. These levers are known as Bezier Control Handles; and you can move each handle in relation to an Anchor Point, enabling you to bend and tug at the curved segment, as if it were a piece of soft wire.

Adding Segments: to build a path, you left-click to create one point, then left-click to apply a second, and third.... and Photoshop automatically applies a segment (Path) between each Anchor Point - a bit like joining up dots in children’s books.

Closing The Path: if you are looking to convert the Path to a Selection Marquee Outline, you need to complete the path in a circuit by clicking the very first Anchor Point you applied. Every Anchor Point will then have one segment entering it and a second segment exiting it. Such a Path is called a Closed Path because it isolates the desired area, or an object - for example, the Tulip.

Leaving The Path Open: if you plan to apply the Stroke Path command, you may not want to close your Path. To leave the Path open, so it has a specific beginning and ending, deactivate the path by Saving it - from the menu within the Paths palette.

Extending An Open Path: to reactivate an Open Path; click, or drag one of its End Points, (last Anchor Point), Photoshop then draws a segment between the End Point and the next Anchor Point you create.

Joining Two Open Sub Paths: to join one open Sub Path with another, click, or drag, an End Point in the first Sub Path, then click, or drag, an End Point in the second.

Deactivate And Retrieve Paths: to deactivate a Path (at any time), press Enter (Return), and the Path will be hidden. To retrieve the Path, click it’s name (Work Path), in the Paths palette. Alternatively, press Ctrl then H to hide the Path, then click the Path Tool (in the toolbar) to reactivate the path.

To Edit Paths After They Have Been Applied: press Ctrl, then hover your cursor over an Anchor Point. After the cursor has changed to a white tipped arrow point, (keeping Ctrl pressed), gently pull the anchor point to any position, and the Path will move with it. Note - The white arrow will change to the following black arrow.

Alt-clicking over an Anchor Point displays the following Bezier Control Handles.

Enabling you to grab a handle, and swivel it so the Path curves in different directions.

If you then Ctrl-click one of the Bezier Curve Handles, you can further swivel the Path.

To delete an Anchor Point without breaking the path, activate the following Delete Anchor Point Tool.

Then left-click the Anchor Point (or Points) you wish to remove.

Rubber Band option: to see how the Pen Tool works - after you have applied a path, or a segment - click the following arrow on the Options bar - then click a dot into the Rubber Band box.

Now, when you apply your next segment, you are able to stretch the path (in any direction) - as if it were an elastic band.

Rubber Band

Disable the Rubber Band by removing the Rubber Band dot.

1/ Extract A Tulip From Its Background
Open your choice of two Start Images onto Photoshop’s workspace.

You will find this easier if you Zoom into your photograph - and navigate it with the Navigator palette - or Hand Tool. Additionally, if you need to quickly retrace your steps, click a previous snapshot in the History palette.

Now, from the Toolbar, activate the Pen Tool.

And set the following Pen Tool attributes into its Options Bar.

Now, hover your cursor over the edge of the tulip; and when you see the following X appear. 
Then left-click. This applies your first Anchor Point, as illustrated below.

Now, hover your cursor a few centimetres above the Anchor Point.

Then left-click. A second Anchor Point is then added, and Photoshop automatically places a Path Segment between the first and second Anchor Points, as illustrated below.

Now, continue left-clicking and placing anchor points around the straighter contours of the tulip - and remember to click an earlier snapshot in the History palette, if you need to go back a step, or two.

Your Path should be building up slowly.

Applying a Path around a curved contour; such as the following; requires a slightly different approach.

Therefore, (following the tulip’s contour), move your Pen Tool upwards - as illustrated below.

Then left-click - and this time, slightly drag the Pen Tool towards the left.  Dragging the Pen Tool creates the following Bezier Control Handles

You will notice that your cursor has changed to a black arrowhead.

Keep the mouse button pressed, and continue to drag; this enlarges the Bezier Control Handles; making them easier to manoeuvre.

Now, keeping your left mouse pressed, hover your cursor over the left-side handle, and pull it gently to the left - and swivel it in an upwards and downwards movement. 

Swivel left-side handle
upwards and downwards
to bend the Path

As you can see by my example below, swivelling the handle bends the Path Segment - as if it were soft wire - enabling you to mould the Path around the tulip’s curve.


Being able to curve the Path around intricate areas makes the Pen Tool perfect for extracting complex objects from their backgrounds - for example the Harrier Jet in my PDF tutorial. Additionally, prior to converting the Path to a Selection Marquee, you have full control of the path, and can alter it, at any time, so it adheres to the tulip’s contours, snugly.

Continue extending the path by applying Anchor Points; working between left-clicking and applying a Straight Path, and left-clicking and dragging, to create Curved Paths, until you have completely isolated your image with a Path. After you have completed this step, you are ready for the next. 

You will gain more control, and accuracy, if you click your Anchor Points fairly close together.

After you have clicked a Path completely around the tulip, and are near to the first Anchor Point:

Navigate your image, and where necessary, adjust the Path, so it hugs the tulip’s edges, as snugly as possible. To do this; press your Ctrl key, and keep it pressed. Your cursor will then change to a little white arrow. Now, left-click over any Anchor Point, and gently pull it. You will notice the Path follows the direction you pull the Anchor Point to - as illustrated below; enabling accurate repositioning.

For further control, click additional Anchor Points along the Path.

After you have navigated your Path, and reshaped it as necessary; return to where you placed the first and last Anchor Points. Now, hover your cursor over your first Anchor Point, and when you see a little o next to the Pen icon.


Then left-click.

Left-clicking closes the path, and all Anchor Points are removed. Your tulip will now be isolated by an Anchor-free Path.

Now, from the Paths palette, left-click the following black triangle - then from the subsequent drop-down list, click Save Path.

And from the subsequent Save Path dialogue box, accept the path Name, then click OK.

Then, (again) click the tiny triangle from the Paths palette: and this time; from the subsequent drop-down list, click Make Selection.

Then from the subsequent Make Selection dialogue box, change the Feather Radius to 2 (Pixels), then click OK

The Path will immediately change to a Selection Marquee.

If you find a Feather Radius of 2 Pixels is insufficient; revert your image to before you applied the Selection Marquee, then reapply the Selection Marquee, and increase its Feather RadiusRevert your image by clicking an earlier snapshot in the History palette. 

When you are happy with the Selection Marquee: activate the Studio Background image - or an alternative image.

Then reactivate the tulip image: and from the top menu, choose Edit, then choose Copy. Now, activate the Studio Background, and from the top menu, choose Edit then choose Paste. Your extracted tulip will then be pasted onto the Studio Background, as illustrated below. 

Now, activate the Free Transform Command, (Ctrl then T - or Edit then Transform then Scale): and resize and reposition the tulip over the background image. And if necessary, utilise Photoshop’s Levels or Adjustment Curves to alter both images’ lighting.

If necessary, activate the Blur Tool - and with a very low Strength setting, gently soften the tulip’s edges. 

Then from the top menu, choose Layer then choose Flatten Image:
and save your work.

Wendi E M Scarth.
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