[2024] How To Use The Pen Tool In After Effects - Full Tutorial

Start by locating the Pen Tool in After Effects and use it to create custom paths or shapes within your composition. Utilize modifier keys like Ctrl/Cmnd and Alt/Option to refine your paths, and then animate them using keyframes to bring your design vision to life.

December 18, 2023
[2024] How To Use The Pen Tool In After Effects - Full Tutorial
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Adobe After Effects Pen Tool

Not only does it alter the visual dynamics of your project, the Pen Tool in After Effects serves as a bridge between static designs and dynamic animations. Mastering this tool is crucial for anyone aiming to craft custom paths and shapes, which are foundational elements in motion design.

Why is this so vital?

  • Customization: The Pen Tool offers unparalleled precision, allowing you to create bespoke designs tailored to your project's needs.
  • Animation: Beyond just drawing, the paths you create can be animated, bringing your designs to life and adding depth to your compositions.
  • Versatility: With the aid of modifier keys and associated tools, the Pen Tool's capabilities expand, offering a range of functionalities from refining curves to adjusting path edges.

What will you gain from this article?

  • Understanding the Pen Tool: Its location, basic functions, and how to draw with it.
  • Modifier Keys Mastery: Learn the secret spices of the Pen Tool, enhancing its basic functions.
  • Feathering Techniques: Soften and refine your paths for a more polished look.
  • Animation Basics: Bring your paths to life with keyframes and motion.

Locating the Pen Tool in After Effects

The Pen Tool is an essential instrument in After Effects, especially when you're looking to create custom shapes or paths. To locate the Pen Tool, direct your attention to the main toolbar at the top of the After Effects interface. It's represented by an icon that looks like a classic fountain pen. If you hover over it, a tooltip will appear, confirming it's the "Pen Tool."

Drawing with the Pen Tool: Creating a Basic Path

Drawing with the Pen Tool is quite intuitive, especially if you've had some experience with vector graphics before.

  1. Starting a New Composition: Before diving into the drawing process, ensure you have a composition open. If not, navigate to the "Composition" menu at the top and select "New Composition."
  2. Selecting the Pen Tool: With your composition open, click on the Pen Tool icon from the toolbar.
  3. Drawing Your Path: Click within the composition to set a starting point. As you click again, you'll notice lines connecting these points, forming a path. Think of this process as connecting the dots. Each click sets a new point, and the line between these points can be straight or curved, depending on how you manipulate them.

Modifying Your Path: The Power of Modifier Keys

Modifier keys are like the secret spices in a recipe. They enhance the basic functions of tools, giving you more control and versatility.

  1. The Ctrl/Cmnd Key: Holding down the Ctrl (or Cmnd for Mac users) key transforms the Pen Tool into a selection tool. It's akin to switching from a pen to a pair of tweezers. With this, you can grab and adjust line segments. If you hover over a specific point while holding this key, it becomes a tool to delete that point.
  2. The Alt/Option Key: Pressing the Alt (or Option for Mac users) key brings up the convert vertex tool. Imagine this as a tool that lets you mold clay - it allows you to adjust the curvature of the path between points, giving your path smooth bends or sharp angles, depending on your design vision.

The Feather Tool: Fine-Tuning Your Path's Edges

The Feather Tool is another fantastic tool that works in tandem with the Pen Tool. It's like the soft brush to your sharp pencil, allowing you to soften the edges of your path.

  1. Accessing the Feather Tool: On the toolbar, look for an icon resembling a feather. This is your Feather Tool.
  2. Using the Feather Tool with Modifiers: Even with the Feather Tool selected, the Ctrl/Cmnd and Alt/Option keys still play a role. Holding down Ctrl/Cmnd lets you edit the path by selecting specific segments or points. Meanwhile, the Alt/Option key retains its function, allowing you to adjust the curvature of your path.

Bringing Your Vision to Life: Animating the Path

This part is always the most rewarding. It's where your design starts to move and come alive. If you've set up your path correctly, animating it becomes a breeze, offering numerous possibilities to achieve the desired motion.

  1. Setting Keyframes: With your path drawn, navigate to the timeline panel at the bottom. Here, you can set keyframes for various properties like position, scale, and rotation. Think of keyframes as bookmarks in a story, marking significant events or changes.
  2. Animating the Path: Move the playhead to a different time, adjust your path or its properties, and set another keyframe. After Effects will automatically create a smooth transition between these keyframes, animating your path.

The idea here is to have your path set up in a way that you can make most of your creative decisions during the animation phase. Using the Pen Tool and its associated features, you can tweak your design in numerous ways. For instance, by adjusting the feathering or using the various modifier keys, you can achieve specific looks and movements for your path. This approach ensures that you have all the creative freedom you need, making it straightforward to iterate, customize, and realize the exact vision you had in mind.

After Effects Pen Tool Not Working

Here are the main causes and their designated solutions for why the pen tool may malfunction in After Effects. the list is sorted based on most common cause to the least common.

# Cause Solution Source
1 In After Effects, each time you press a tool shortcut, it cycles through the available options. This can sometimes lead to the Pen Tool not behaving as expected because another tool option is currently active. Ensure you have the correct tool option selected. For the Pen Tool, there are multiple options available, especially when combined with the Ctrl/Cmnd or Alt/Option key. Familiarize yourself with the modifiers for all tools that can be modified by the Alt/Option and Ctrl/Cmnd keys. This will help you quickly identify and select the desired tool option. Adobe Support Community
2 Sometimes, the Pen Tool might not work correctly due to issues within a specific composition or project. This can be caused by various factors, including corrupted files or settings. Try adding a new composition with only a new solid and test the Pen Tool. If it works, the issue might be with the original composition. If the problem persists, consider rebooting the software, relaunching, and trying again in a new project. If the issue still exists, consider resetting your preferences or checking for updates for your mouse drivers, GPU, and other related software. Adobe Support Community
3 When creating a shape layer and drawing a straight line with the Pen Tool, the default stroke value might be set to none, making it seem like the Pen Tool isn't working. Ensure that the stroke option in the tools panel is set to a solid color. You can also edit the path by expanding the shape layer and selecting the appropriate path option. Adobe Support Community