General, Tutorials & Tips

Digital Inking with the Photoshop Pen Tool

If you want inhumanly super clean lines, you might want to use the pen tool like I do for Stupid and Insane Defenders Against Chaos. This super-simple style is excellent for teaching the basics of the pen tool:

A: Setting Up Your Workspace:

Step 1: Scan in your sketch or create a new file (CTRL-N or CMD-N on the Mac). If you will be printing this file on an 8×10, select 8×10 and 300DPI.

If you are resizing your scanned sketch you can adjust the size of your canvas by going to Image > Canvas Size.

Step 2: Click the Create a New Layer button on the layers palette in the lower right corner of the screen.

This will create a layer above the background layer. You can ink on this without messing up your sketch, and if you don’t like it you can start over by just deleting this layer. (Delete by dragging it into the trash can icon next to the New Layer icon.)

Step 3: Name this layer, “Ink 1” by double-clicking on the “Layer 1” text.

Step 4: Double-click on the lock icon on the Background layer. A menu will pop up. Click OK. This unlocks the background layer so that you can lower the opacity and see what you are doing. Name the layers whatever you like to keep them organized. Remember, double clicking on the layer name will let you rename it.

Step 5: In the upper-right of the layers palette, you see a menu for ‘Opacity’. Click it and drop the opacity down to about 70%. Now the pencil lines are dimmer so you can tell your ink and the sketch apart.

Step 6: You may want to click this box to lock your sketch layer now. The biggest mistake everyone makes is inking on the wrong layer. If you lock it then it will not take any ink. You can unlock it by simply clicking on the box again.

Step 7: If you would like a white background rather than the checkered transparency, click on the New Layer icon as we did above for the ink layer, select white as your foreground color, then hit Alt-backspace to fill the layer with white. Be sure that you have the correct layer selected and that you drag the layer to the bottom when you are done so that it does not block the layers we are working with.

Step 8: You should now have a blank ink layer on top, a light sketch in the middle, and a white background underneath that. Now it is time to use the Pen Tool on the top Ink layer.

B: WAIT! Configuring the Pen Tool for the first time in Photoshop

The first time you use Photoshop, the pen tool will be set to ‘Shape Layers’ which means it will try to fill a shape, not create a path. This is bad. We want the pen tool to instead create a path so that we can apply clean pen strokes, not try to fill itself and complete a shape. To set your pen tool up simply click the following icon, the ‘Paths’ icon in the upper left corner. The good news is that Photoshop remembers this preference, and you only have to do this once. Now you are set to start using the pen tool.

C: OK! Let’s Use the Pen Tool!

NOTE: I am using a hard brush at 8px at all times here.

Step 1: Be sure you have the Ink layer selected, and click once on the canvas and release the mouse. Now click where you want the first stroke to end, but this time drag it to the upper-left so that it creates an arc. It looks like this:

Step 2: Now click on the indicated point and drag to the lower left as shown. This will move the handle.

Step 3: Create an awesome curve by clicking where indicated (do not hold ALT) and dragging to the upper left:

Step 4: Now you can Right-Click > Stroke Path > Click OK. Make sure that “Brush” is selected like this:

Step 5: Then Right-Click > Delete Path. You will leave behind super-clean lines like this:

Step 6: You now have a smooth pen stroke that you can add more to, erase parts of, or add to to make your lines the way you want them to be. Now all that is left is for you to trace over the rest of your sketch in this way. Do not be afraid to use more layers. If you mess up, just delete the layer and there’s no harm done. If you like it, go to Layer > Merge Down to merge it with the line art underneath it.

Here is my digitally inked drawing. It is ready to be colored:


I’ll admit that the pen tool is really difficult to understand via a written tutorial. The pen tool is used to make vector paths that are later stroked to turn into the appearance of black ink. Once you get the hang of the pen tool it really makes things easier, so I will try my best to explain it in text.

If you click somewhere a dot will appear. If you keep clicking around you will keep making more dots, and these dots will be connected by straight lines. This is not always what you want. Clicking on a second spot and then dragging it will make a curve that connects these dots. If you hold ALT, then click and drag on the second point, it will move the anchor (this is the bar that pops up around the point). You want the anchor moved towards the direction you are going to make the next point of the curve. Then you can click and drag and it will make a nice line. It is best to practice for a few minutes with the Pen Tool to get it straight. This can be used for super-simple artwork like you see in this tutorial, or applied to very complicated designs. (I’ll show you that later.)