Using the Pencil Tool as a Pencil

Using the Pencil Tool as a Pencil

?Computer mice (mouses?) have never been good drawing tools; often you need a steady hand and more patience than the guy at the mall in the Santa suit needs. That was then. These days, the Illustrator Pencil tool makes even the most hopped-up-on-caffeine, impatient Picasso-wannabe into a computer artist. (Just looking at it makes you feel better about drawing, doesn’t it?)

Minimal effort and hefty stress reduction

The whole idea behind the Pencil tool is to let you draw exactly what you want — as quickly or slowly as you want. Regardless of the speed at which you draw, the resulting path appears the same (a nice thought for those of us on a deadline).

The Pencil tool can create smooth lines even when you’re jittering around. (Unless you don’t want it to — in which case it makes funky jittery lines.) The Pencil tool is also intuitive. It looks like a pencil, and when you click and drag with it, it creates a line that more or less follows where you dragged, pretty much as a real pencil would do. (For contrast, look at the Pen tool. It looks like a pen, and yet it does nothing even remotely penlike!) And it allows you to fix your mistakes without ever having to push or pull a point or a handle.

The following steps (deftly illustrated in Figure 8-1) show you how to use the Pencil tool:

Click To expand
Figure 8-1: Drawing with the Pencil tool.
  1. Choose the Pencil tool from its slot in the Toolbox.

    Your cursor changes into (surprise!) a pencil.

  2. Click and drag in the Document window. As you drag, a dotted line appears.

    Think of these dots as breadcrumbs that show you where you’ve been.

  3. Release the mouse button after you amass a nice little trail of breadcrumbs (dots).

    A path forms where the breadcrumbs were. (If Hansel and Gretel had used the Pencil tool, that poor witch would be alive today.)

??If you stop drawing with the Pencil tool, you can just start up where you left off — simply by clicking at the end of the path and continuing. Be careful, though. If you don’t click close enough to the end of the path, you start a whole new path. Fortunately, the Pencil tool tells you when you’re in the right place. When you’re creating a new path, a little X appears to the right of the tip of the Pencil (shown at the bottom in the margin). When you’re close enough to a selected path to add to it, the X disappears (shown at the top in the margin).

A few unexpected exceptions to all this bliss

You’re right. Using the Pencil tool does sound too easy. Although the Pencil tool is undeniably wonderful, it can cause frustration (or at least uncertainty) in the unwary. Here are instances to watch out for (and avoid if possible):

  • You can’t continue your path. You need to select a path in order to add to it. For example, if you stop drawing, do something that deselects the path, and then return to drawing your path, you create a second path instead of extending the first one. To continue the path you were originally working on, you must select it before you start drawing again with the Pencil tool. Click the path, let go of the Ctrl key (z on a Mac), and start drawing, starting at either end of the newly selected path.


    To get to the selection cursor right away, hold down the Ctrl key (z on a Mac).

  • You accidentally edit an existing path. If you start a new Pencil path near a selected path, you can edit the selected path instead of creating a new one. In fact, you can do so with any path that was created with the Pen, Pencil, Line Segment, Arc, Spiral, Star, or any other tool in Illustrator. You can edit any of them with the Pencil tool. (So is the Pencil versatile or overzealous? Your call.)

  • You create a path that’s too lumpy or too smooth. You can set up the Pencil tool to be very smooth or very accurate. (In this case, accurate really means that it follows all the skittles and bumps you make as you draw). If someone you love changes the Pencil tool preferences (which you can access by double-clicking the Pencil tool), the Pencil retains those settings. Pencil tool preferences are loyal to the most recent user; they never return to their original settings.

  • You get a wacky fill or stroke as you draw. This situation really isn’t the Pencil tool’s fault, but it’s not exactly unknown to habitual Pencil tool users. If, before you start to draw, a nameless somebody sets the fill or stroke to something a little odd, boom! you get a mess. Fortunately, you can change the fill or stroke back to the default settings by pressing D. Before you know it, you’re back to normal. (Well, at least the path is. . . .)

  • You can’t close a path. Often when you use the Pencil tool in an attempt to create a closed path (by ending the path where you started), you wind up with two points that are very close to one another without actually being joined. For some reason, the Pencil tool has a hard time making a closed path if you draw the entire path with one continuous stroke. When you near the end of the path, hold down the Alt key (Option on a Mac) and release the mouse with Alt (Option on a Mac) still pressed when the end of the line that you are drawing is near the beginning. The two ends of your path will be joined together.

  • You can’t draw a straight line. In Illustrator, pressing the Shift key doesn’t keep the Pencil tool on a horizontal or vertical plane. Just about every other tool in Illustrator draws or moves in straight lines at 45? angles. In fact, just about every other tool in every Adobe product moves or draws in straight lines when you hold the Shift key down! But the Pencil tool can’t even think straight! Fortunately, you can switch over to the Pen tool to draw straight lines and then switch back to the Pencil tool to create the rest of the drawing.