How to Stroke a Path in Photoshop

Photoshop isn’t really intended as a vector design program, but it does allow you to create basic vector paths using the Pen tool. However, since this is Photoshop and it wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t completely complicated, there are different types of paths that you can create. 

The two path types we need to look at are shape paths and work paths. 

A shape path has its own separate layer and gets assigned a fill color and a stroke color to create a vector shape, while a work path exists separately from any layer and acts as a virtual “stencil” for other operations such as creating selections, curved text, and most importantly for us, brush strokes. 

Here’s how they work!

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Adding a Stroke to a Shape Path

To create a custom shape path (a pen tool stroke) in Photoshop, switch to the Pen tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut P

In the Options bar above the main document window, open the path type dropdown menu (shown below) and select the Shape option. 

Immediately next to the path types dropdown are the swatches for controlling the fill color and stroke color of your shape path. 

Simply click each swatch to open a menu offering a range of preset color choices, including your most recently used colors. To use the traditional color picker dialog, simply click the color picker icon in the swatches menu (shown below). 

Once you’re happy with your stroke color, you can set the stroke thickness and even adjust the line pattern to create dotted or dashed lines. 

Once you’re happy with all your color settings, click in your main document window to create your first anchor point, and continue clicking until you’ve created your desired path. 

Because you’re creating a vector shape, it’s possible to go back and edit the color, line thickness, and line pattern at any point in the editing process, so don’t worry if you change your mind later on! 

Switch to the Direct Selection tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut A, select your path, and then adjust any of the stroke properties in the Options bar. 

Adding a Brush Stroke to a Work Path 

If you want to add a stroke to a path using one of Photoshop’s brush tools, you’ll need to create a work path. 

The process is very similar to the one used for creating a shape path, except that you’ll need to choose the Path setting in the Options bar before you create your path with the Pen tool.

Work paths aren’t automatically created as part of a separate layer, so if you want to apply a stroke using a brush tool, it’s a good idea to create a new layer to keep the new pixels separate from the background layer. 

You can create a new layer using the Layer menu or the keyboard shortcut Command Shift N (use Ctrl Shift N if you’re using Photoshop on a PC). 

Since paths function independently from layers, you’ll have to get familiar with the Paths panel. 

The Paths panel is located in the same section as the Layers panel, although if your Paths panel is missing or hidden, you can bring it back by opening the Window menu and selecting Paths

All the work paths you’ve created will be listed in this panel, and you can use the row of buttons along the bottom of the panel to apply various commands using the work path. 

As you can see below, one of the buttons is labeled Stroke path with brush, but running the command from here doesn’t give you the most flexibility.

Make sure that your empty new layer is selected in the Layers panel, and then switch to the brush tool you want to use for your stroke. 

Customize the tool and brush options as needed, and then right-click on your path in the main document window and select Stroke Path… from the popup menu. 

Select the tool you want to use for the stroke, and if the brush settings you selected included any pressure dynamics, you can optionally check the Simulate Pressure button to add a bit of variety to the stroke. This doesn’t always produce good results, but it’s worth experimenting with.

If you’ve selected a brush that uses foreground or background colors, it will use the currently selected colors shown in the toolbox. 

Because brush tools are pixel-based, there’s no easy way to change the properties of the stroke after you’ve applied it, although you can use any of Photoshop’s editing tools on it afterward.

The work path remains separate from the brush stroke and can be transformed or repositioned and used again, just like an airbrush stencil in the real world. 

A Final Word

I have no idea why Photoshop’s various stroke commands give such wildly different options depending on where you initiate the process, but I think it’s probably a result of leftover commands from previous versions that Adobe hasn’t gotten around to simplifying. 

Hopefully, they’ll give us a slightly more coherent process for adding a stroke to a path in a future version of Photoshop!

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