Using the Pen with the Pencil

Using the Pen with the Pencil

The Pen and Pencil tools are the primary tools for drawing in Illustrator, and they work really well together. As you gain a knack for knowing which tool to use when, your work flows more smoothly — and your illustrations look more and more the way you want them to.

Swapping one tool for another

A common technique that’s useful for combining the Pen and Pencil tools is to switch between them while drawing. You can click each tool whenever you decide to change from one to the other, but the really zippy way to do this is to press the key that corresponds to each tool. Press the P key (on your keyboard) to switch to the Pen tool and press the N key to switch to the Pencil tool.

As your drawing changes from free-flowing curves to precise straight lines and back, you want to change between the two tools: Just click the endpoint of the path you were previously drawing with the other tool and then continue drawing.


Watch those icons! Working with the Pen and Pencil tools together is much easier if you pay attention to what the icons are doing. When the Pen tool is over an endpoint, a little slash (/) appears to the lower right of the pen icon. When you’re about to close a path, a hollow circle appears beside the tool. When you have the Pencil tool in position to edit a path, its icon doesn’t have anything beside it. Both tools, however, get Xs beside them when they’re about to create a new path.

Precision versus speed: You make the call

Keep in mind the types of shapes and paths that are best drawn with each tool. Here’s a breakdown of the shapes and paths each tool draws best.

Shapes and paths best drawn with the Pen tool

To draw anything with straight lines, choose the Pen tool because the Pencil tool really can’t draw a straight line. To create a path or shape that has a smooth curve, you choose the Pen tool because the line the Pencil tool creates is just an average of the total strokes you make, which means absolute precision is impossible. Finally, to trace a logo or other scanned art that requires precision and accuracy, you’re better off choosing the Pen tool because it offers you precision down to the thousandth of a millimeter.

Shapes and paths best drawn with the Pencil tool

When speed is more important than accuracy in your drawing; for example, when you need to put a lot of hairs onto your lovely kiwi-fruit illustration, and the precise length and position of each and every hair doesn’t matter, choose the Pencil tool. For quick sketching, such as doodling an insulting ?picture of your favorite co-worker, choose the Pencil tool because you don’t have to worry about each and every point and handle the way you do with the Pen tool. The Pencil tool lets you focus on creating the lines where they should be — and lets Illustrator do the rest of the work for you. (Ah, progress.)