Learn To Love The Pen Tool, Part 3

Creating Thin-to-Thick Lines

In Parts One and Two, I showed you how to use the Pen Tool to plot paths to create lines and curves. We looked at how to add points and curves to a path and even quickly duplicated it. I traced a sketch with basic paths, assigned different stroke thicknesses, and now we've got something that looks a bit like a coloring book page. Depending on what kind of look you're going for, this single-width approach could be a little too boring. If you want to emulate the look of ink on paper, you'll need to change the width of the lines along the path. When "inking" with a brush, you can get nice tapering along a line from thin to thick and then back to thin. Just look at any comic book and you'll see what I mean. Fortunately, with Illustrator, there are a few different ways to achieve this look. And, unlike ink on paper, these thin to thick lines are full adjustable and movable. There's really nothing like it real life.

A Quick Note on Brushes

When thinking about adding natural variation to your paths, it might be tempting to run to the Brushes Panel first. After all, this is how most drawing programs easily achieve hand-drawn looks, right? Well, it's true that the Brushes Panel gives a lot of options, but it's not the same as "Brushes" in Photoshop or Manga Studio. I think it's a little beyond the scope of "Learn To Love The Pen Tool" to get into the intricacies of the Brushes Panel. Instead, I'll show you how to take your existing Pen Tool strokes and add some ink-like qualities to them with some basic but effective methods. I'll get to Brushes another time.


Remember Shapes?

Before we get into the first method, I need to explain Polygons. In the first post, I explained that a shape is formed when a path is completed, joining the first point to the last point. Illustrator also has set of Polygon Tools in the Tool Palette. This lets you quickly create shapes like rectangles, ovals, and stars simply by dragging on the artboard. With that in mind, let's look at a rectangle shape.

Okay, now let's look at a short path with a thick Stroke width. See how they are really similar? The difference here is that the stroked path has two points with a black outline and the rectangle has four points with no outline and a black fill.

Outline Stroke

We can turn our two-point stroked path into a four-point filled rectangle using Outline Stroke. With the path selected, in the top menu go to  Object>Path>Outline Stroke. Once selected, Illustrator will turn that stroked path into a shape. The geometry of the rectangle is now fully editable from its four points. 

Left: Rectangle Right:Stroked Path


Object>Path>Outline Stroke

This technique can be used on curved paths as well. I do this a lot to achieve a thin to thick look with my lines. I'll just make a path of medium thickness, place it where I want it, and then when I'm happy with it, I'll do Outline Stroke. Then, I can use the white arrow (Direct Selection Tool) to pinch the ends or drag handles to adjust the width. This can take a while if you're dealing with lots of paths, but it gives you the most control over your line widths. you can even add/delete points to get the width and change that you're looking for.


The Width Tool

Illustrator recently introduced the ability to add multiple stroke widths to a path. This means that you can pinch and expand parts of a path using the Width Tool in the Tool Palette. With the Width Tool selected, select any spot on a stroked path to drag in or out. Dragging in toward the line will "squeeze" the stroke smaller. Dragging out away from the line will "inflate" that area of the line. The distance of these adjustments can be changed by dragging the nodes in center of the path. This technique as the advantage of keeping the thin-to-thick line a single path, making it easy to adjust after the effect is applied. Points and handles can be accessed just like a single-width path.


Paths with Stroke Profiles applied

Stroke Profiles

In the Stroke Panel under "Options", there is a drop-down menu called Stroke Profiles. Profiles are a list of preset width instructions for paths. The menu shows a preview of how a line will begin and end once the profile is applied. The icons next to the preview allow you to flip the direction of the profile left/right and up/down. After applying a profile to a stroked path, the thinness and thickness can be adjusted using the Width Tool.

Dashed Lines

Also, in the Stroke Options, above Profiles, there's a Dashed Line checkbox. This does what you might expect. It creates dashes and spaces along a path in point sizes that you specify. I find that dashed lines are great for indicating stitching on clothing, a whisper word balloon, or the continuation of a line through fog or clouds. Profiles and Width Tool adjustments will apply to a dashed line as well.

Bringing the Techniques Together

Let's say that you've applied some Stroke Profiles to your paths, adjusted some of widths with the Width Tool, and maybe even made some of the lines into Dashed Lines. You've got a lot of variation going on, but maybe you want even more precision control. Well, you can run Outline Stroke on lines with profiles and dash effects, turning them into shapes.


If you do Outline Stroke on a path that you've applied a Stroke Profile to or a Width Tool adjustment, you'll find that illustrator adds a lot of extra points to your outline. This can make it difficult to isolate the right point to move with the white arrow (Direct Selection Too0). Sometimes a bunch of points will be stacked on top of each other? Why? Math. Again. The easiest way that I've found to fix all the extra points is to use the Object>Path>Simplify option from the top menu bar. There are a few variables with Simplify, but the main thing to adjust is the "Curve Precision". If "Preview" is checked, you should get a live preview of how your line will change at different percentages. Once you're happy with the result, click "OK" and you can how manipulate the shape a little more easily with fewer points.


Practice, practice...

The only way to get faster and more comfortable with the Pen Tool is to keep using it. Over time it will start to feel like second nature. I recommend tracing drawings, photographs, text, and whatever you can to get the hang of making straight lines and curves. Hopefully these three posts have helped you see what's possible and that it's not all that difficult to jump right into it. If you want to send me your creations, I'd love to see them. Email me at ellingson@gmail.com. 


If you like tutorial posts like these and want to see more of them, please consider contributing to my Patreon campaign. There are perks, and you'll have the satisfaction that only comes with being a patron of the arts! Happy illustrating!

Simplifying an outlined stroke