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Misunderstood Photoshop: Paths

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In the ninth article in her series on handy Photoshop tools that are often overlooked or misunderstood, Helen Bradley looks at paths, which is a useful Photoshop tool for working with and saving selections. Although working with paths brings you into contact with the sometimes complex Pen tool, the combined power of these two tools makes them important additions to your Photoshop skill set.
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In this series, Helen Bradley discusses some handy Photoshop tools that are often overlooked or misunderstood, either because they’re hidden away or because their use isn’t immediately apparent. Yet these tools provide smart and useful ways to perform various tasks in Photoshop, so they’re worthy of adding to your Photoshop skill list.

In this ninth part of the series, we look at paths, a tool for working with and saving complex selections as well as for creating interesting text effects.

Understanding Paths

At its simplest a Photoshop path is a line with anchor points at either end. It can be a straight line or it can be curved, depending on how you create it. More-complex paths are made up of multiple segments, each with an anchor point at either end. You can have an open path or you can close the path so the anchor point at the end is created over the top of the first anchor point, thus closing the shape (see Figure 1).

View your paths in Photoshop in the Paths palette, which can be displayed by choosing Window > Paths.

Figure 1

Figure 1 On the left is a path that is a straight line, in the middle is a curved line path, and on the right is a complex closed path made from multiple line segments.

Although you typically use the Pen tool to create a path, it’s not the only tool you can use—the Shape tool, for example, can create paths, too. Whichever method you use, the Pen tool remains important to understand because it is the tool you use to edit a path, however it was created.

You can convert a path into a selection and vice versa. Like selections you can both stroke and fill a path. Paths are stored in the image when you save it, so you can create a path around an area and save it in the image to use again later on.

To see how to create a path from a selection, open an image and make a rectangular selection using the Rectangular marquee tool. View the Paths palette and click the Make Work Path From Selection icon at the foot of the palette. This creates a work path from your selection (see Figure 2). To save this path, drag and drop the work path onto the New Path button and it will be given a new name. Do this for any path you want to keep because the work path is only a temporary path.

Figure 2

Figure 2 You can turn any selection into a path by choosing the Make Work Path From Selection button at the foot of the Paths palette.

To see the process in reverse, click the work path in the Paths palette and click the Load Path As A Selection icon at the foot of the Paths palette.

You can convert text to a path by right-clicking the text layer and choose Create Work Path. The text on the path is not editable, but the text on the layer remains editable.

A path on one image can be dragged and dropped onto another image and used there. When you do this, it appears in the Paths palette of that second image. When you have a path selected, you can stroke the path with a brush by selecting the Brush tool, selecting the brush type and settings. Then from the Paths palette select the path to stroke and click the Stroke Path With Brush icon. To fill a path with the Foreground color, click the Fill Path With Foreground Color button at the foot of the Paths palette.

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