Pen Tool Tutorial: Line Drawing Einstein

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Adobe’s pen tool is one of the most challenging and brilliant tools for mastering digital illustrations. It oftentimes requires patience during the several revisions to polish a design to your vision. However, it’s well-worth the time, even if it’s frustrating.

Using the pen tool is, personally, not one of my strong suits. I’ve been practicing this exercise from Advanced Digital Illustration course via HOW Design University‘s partnership with Sessions College and thought it is an excellent exercise to share for those with rusty pen skills or for those who wish to maintain their eye-pen-tool coordination. In this pen tool tutorial, you’ll line draw the genius, Albert Einstein, in Adobe Illustrator, while paying particular attention to positive and negative space. Pretty cool, huh?

Here’s the exercise. If you want to develop your digital illustration skills more, enroll in the Advanced Digital Illustration course. If you’re a beginner, start your learning with the Digital Illustration Basics and then refine your skills with the more advanced instruction.


Pen Tool Tutorial: Portrait of a Genius

Exercise created by Andrew Shalat

Let me first explain how I derived the above image of physicist Albert Einstein so that you’ll be able to create your own in the future, using any image you find suitable.

I began with a black and white image of Einstein, which I chose specifically because it was a high contrast, chiaroscuro image that I felt would work well as a positive/negative illustration. And the subject is recognizable to pretty much everyone in the modern world, or at the least, it should be!

The “recognizability” factor is actually important, because as we complete the image, we’ll know whether or not we succeeded pretty much right then and there.

So I took my Einstein image and placed it in Illustrator (File > Place) into an existing document.

Note: On a Mac, there’s an alternative to using the File > Place method. From the Desktop, drag the image file directly on top of the Illustrator icon in the Dock. The file will open with the image already placed.

Using Image Trace to Vectorize a Photo

With the image selected, the Control panel (Window > Control) will give me tracing options. I then chose Image Trace.

Pen Tool

The Control panel at the top of your screen offers the Image Trace option when bitmap images are selected.

The default setting for the Image Trace command will reduce the image to a black and white vector image with a threshold 128 setting. You can play with presets in the Control panel or Image Trace panel (Window > Image Trace), adjusting the number of colors, but I left it as I found it. I then clicked the Expand button to convert the image to a set of vector paths.

A simple black and white trace boils the photograph down to its shadows and highlights, but maintains recognizability.

A simple black and white trace boils the photograph down to its shadows and highlights, but maintains recognizability.

Now if I were just trying to get an image of Einstein, without trying to show you how to do anything with the Pen tool, then I’d say I was finished. But that’s not why we’re here. Using the presets and the tracing is a good starting point. But it’s not where we want to end. Remember, this is a lecture on technique.

I cleaned up the vector images by removing some errant and extraneous points, keeping only what I thought was necessary for the image. If you click around using the Direct Selection tool (A) you’ll be able to see how the various shapes in the portrait are all actually separate closed paths.

Next, I selected all the image points at once. Then I created a set of guides for our lecture, using View > Guides > Make Guides. Now we have a starting point.


Any drawing or tracing can become a guide.

You can see where I may have missed some of those errant points. But the good part of this is that we don’t have to use all the guides for our drawing. We only need the ones our eye and our design sense deign necessary.

Line Drawing: Einstein

By habit at this point, you should activate the rulers and select the units you would prefer by right-clicking (PC) or Control-clicking (Mac) on the ruler. Set your fill/stroke so that the fill is None, and the stroke is black. Select the Pen tool (P).

Start at the upper left of the main path guide. Now click and drag the points so that for the most part you are getting Bezier handles on each anchor point. This is the technique you’ll be working with throughout this exercise. It’s not really as tedious as you’d think. And in the little movement of the click and drag, you’ll be gaining skills. Because that’s where the lines curve and where you make the line your own.

As you click and drag, handles will appear to guide your curves.

As you click and drag, handles will appear to guide your curves.

Take your time with these anchor points. As you get the hang of how they work, you’ll speed up naturally. Make a point of placing your cursor on either edge of a curve, and using the handles to define the curved line.

Pen Tool

Use the handles to manipulate curves.

When you’ve completed the large outer path, start outlining the details. The main details, in this case, are the eyes and the mustache. You don’t need to get every piece of every guideline. This is where using your eye as a designer comes into play. It’s really up to you to decide the essentials.Again, make sure for the time being, that the fill is None and the stroke is black. We’ll make decisions about positive and negative sp
ace in a moment.

When we have the whole face, details and all, we’ll consider how to fill the forms.

Even as a simple line drawing, Einstein's face is fairly clear.

Even as a simple line drawing, Einstein’s face is fairly clear.

Note that I didn’t outline all the guides. We’ll see if those details matter when we fill in our illustration.

Forming the Background

One last thing. If you look closely at the guides, you’ll see the rectangular outline that frames the image. This will give us a guide for the background of the image. But there’s a trick. Since we want that as a background, we’ll need to ensure that it remains behind the details.

Create a new layer and name the layer “Background.” Select the Background layer, and draw your large rectangle. Fill it with black. You’ll notice that your guides will appear, but not necessarily your fine work from the previous steps. No worries.


Now drag the Background layer under Layer 1 and Lock the Background layer. Then select Layer 1. Using the Selection tool, select the larger of the detail paths, and fill it with White.

With our background and main fill, the face becomes well-defined.

With our background and main fill, the face becomes well-defined.

Using the guides and the outline paths you created in the previous steps, select the closed paths and fill them with either black or white. I am going to leave it to your own eye to figure out which parts should be black and white. After you’ve completed filling all your paths, you may want to select all and then apply a stroke of None to all forms. Hide your guides to see the finished product unobscured (View > Guides > Hide Guides).


The point of this method is to show you how to import photographic images, and from them create vector-based versions. The vector images you create can be very versatile. You can fill them with color, although here we only did a black and white. You can use them as masks for other applications. Or you can just use them as starting points for your own particular style of illustrations.