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The Custom Shape Tool In Photoshop

In the previous tutorial, we learned the essentials of working with shapes and Shape layers in Photoshop.In that tutorial, we learned how to add simple rectangles and ellipses, as well as stars, starbursts and direction arrows, to a document using Photoshop’s five geometric Shape tools – the Rectangle Tool, the Rounded Rectangle Tool, the Ellipse Tool, the Polygon Tool, and the Line Tool.

Having tools that allow us to easily draw circles and squares is great, but what about more interesting shapes? What if you wanted to add, say, a heart shape to a wedding or engagement photo, or the shape of a dog or a cat to a pet store logo? How about shapes of flowers and leaves, snowflakes, music notes, or a copyright symbol to add to your images? Photoshop actually ships with all of these shapes and more, and lets us add them to our designs just as easily as adding circles and squares. Adobe calls these more complex shapes custom shapes, and we draw them using the tool we’ll be looking at in this tutorial – the Custom Shape Tool.

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The Custom Shape Tool

You’ll find the Custom Shape Tool nested in with Photoshop’s other Shape tools in the same spot in the Tools panel. By default, the Rectangle Tool is the tool that’s displayed, but if you click on it and hold your mouse button down, a fly-out menu will appear listing the other tools that are available in that spot. The Custom Shape Tool is at the bottom of the list:

Selecting the Custom Shape Tool from the Tools panel in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click and hold on the Rectangle Tool, then select the Custom Shape Tool from the fly-out menu.

If you already have one of the other Shape tools selected, you can quickly grab the Custom Shape Tool from the Options Bar. You’ll see a series of six icons, each representing a different Shape tool. The Custom Shape Tool is the last icon on the right (it’s the icon that looks like a blob):

Selecting the Custom Shape Tool from the Options Bar in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
If another Shape tool is already active, the Custom Shape Tool can be selected from the Options Bar.

Choosing A Custom Shape

Once we have the Custom Shape Tool selected, we need to choose the shape we want to draw. A shape preview thumbnail will appear in the Options Bar to the right of the Custom Shape Tool icon. The thumbnail displays the custom shape that’s currently selected:

The custom shape preview thumbnail in the Options Bar in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
The preview thumbnail displays the currently selected custom shape.

To choose a different shape, click on the preview thumbnail. This will open the Shape Picker which displays all of the shapes we currently have to choose from. Photoshop actually comes with many more shapes than the limited number we’re presented with at first. We’ll see how to load in the other shapes in a moment:

The shape picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click on the preview thumbnail to open the Shape Picker.

To choose a shape, simply click on its thumbnail, then press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to close the Shape Picker. Or, double-click on the thumbnail, which will select the shape and close the Shape Picker for you. I’ll choose the Heart shape:

Selecting the Heart shape from the Shape Picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Selecting the Heart shape from the Shape Picker.

Choosing A Color For The Shape

Once you’ve chosen your shape, select a color for it by clicking on the color swatch to the right of the word Color in the Options Bar:

Choosing a color for the custom shape in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click on the color swatch to choose a color for the custom shape.

Photoshop will pop open the Color Picker so we can choose the color we want. Since I selected a heart shape, I’ll choose red for my color. Click OK when you’re done to close out of the Color Picker:

Choosing a color from the Color Picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choose a color for the shape from the Color Picker.

Select The “Shape Layers” Option

As I mentioned in the previous tutorial, Photoshop lets us draw three very different kinds of shapes with the Shape tools. We can draw vector shapes, which are resolution-independent and fully scalable without any loss of image quality (the same type of shapes we’d draw in a program like Illustrator). We can also draw paths, which are just outlines of shapes, or we can draw pixel-based shapes where Photoshop fills the shape with colored pixels. In most cases, we want to be drawing vector shapes, and to do that, we need to have the Shape Layers option selected in the Options Bar. It’s the left icon in a group of three icons near the far left of the Options Bar:

Selecting the Shape Layers option in the Options Bar in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Select the Shape Layers option in the Options Bar to draw vector shapes.

To draw the shape, click inside the document to set a starting point, then keep your mouse button held down and drag away from the starting point. As you drag, Photoshop displays an outline of what the shape will look like:

Drawing a heart shape with the Custom Shape Tool in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click to set a starting point, then drag out the rest of the shape.

Release your mouse button to complete the shape, at which point Photoshop fills it with the color you chose in the Options Bar:

A heart shape drawn with the Custom Shape Tool in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Photoshop fills the shape with color when you release your mouse button.

Drawing A Shape With The Correct Proportions

Notice, though, that my heart shape looks a bit distorted. It’s wider and shorter than I was expecting it to be. That’s because by default, Photoshop makes no attempt to keep the correct proportions or aspect ratio of the shape as we’re drawing it. I’ll press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on my keyboard to undo the shape so I can try again.

To draw a custom shape with the correct proportions, click in the document, keep your mouse button held down and begin dragging out the shape as you normally would. Once you begin dragging, press and hold your Shift key on your keyboard and continue dragging. As soon as you press (and hold) the Shift key, you’ll see the outline of the shape snap into its proper aspect ratio:

Drawing a custom heart shape in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Hold Shift as you drag out the shape to draw it with the correct proportions.

When you’re happy with the size of the shape, release your mouse button, then release your Shift key (make sure you release the Shift key after releasing your mouse button). Photoshop again fills it with color:

A custom heart shape drawn in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Release the Shift key only after you’ve released your mouse button.

I’ll again press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on my keyboard to undo the shape, then I’ll choose a different shape by clicking on the preview thumbnail in the Options Bar to open the Shape Picker. This time, I’ll select the music notes:

Selecting the custom music notes shape in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Clicking on the music notes thumbnail to select the shape.

To draw the music notes, I’ll click inside the document to set a starting point and, with my mouse button held down, I’ll begin dragging away from the starting point. As soon as I’ve started dragging, I’ll press and hold my Shift key to force the shape into its correct proportions as I continue dragging:

Drawing a music notes custom shape in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Holding Shift as I drag to keep the proportions of the notes correct.

I’ll release my mouse button to complete the shape and Photoshop fills it with the same color I chose for the previous shape:

Music notes drawn with the Custom Shape Tool in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
The new shape is filled with the same color as the previous one.

Next, we’ll learn how to change the color of an existing shape, and how to load in all of the additional custom shapes Adobe included with Photoshop!

Changing The Color Of An Existing Shape

What if I wanted my new shape to be a different color than the previous one? I could have simply chosen a different color from the Options Bar before drawing the new shape, but it’s just as easy to change a shape’s color after we’ve drawn it. Every new custom shape we draw is placed on its own Shape layer in the Layers panel, and each Shape layer comes with its own color swatch icon which displays the current color of the shape. To change the color, double-click on the color swatch:

The color swatch on the Shape layer in the Layers panel. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Double-click on the Shape layer’s color swatch to change its color.

Photoshop will re-open the Color Picker so we can choose a new color. I’ll choose purple:

Choosing a new color for the custom shape from the Color Picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choose a new color for the shape from the Color Picker.

Click OK when you’re done to close out of the Color Picker, and just like that, Photoshop changes the color of the shape for us:

Purple music notes drawn in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
We can change the color of any vector shape any time we want.

Loading Additional Shape Sets

As I mentioned, Photoshop comes with more custom shapes for us to choose from than the handful we’re given to start with. We just need to load them in ourselves, and we do that by clicking on the shape preview thumbnail in the Options Bar to open the Shape Picker, then clicking on the small arrow in the top right corner of the Shape Picker:

The menu icon in the Shape Picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click on the small arrow in the top right corner of the Shape Picker.

This opens a menu with various options, and in the bottom part of the menu is a list of additional shape sets that were installed with Photoshop. Each of these sets is a collection of shapes that share a common theme, like Animals, Music, Nature, and so on. A few of the sets listed here are new in Photoshop CS5 (which is the version I’m using) but most are available in any recent version of Photoshop:

The list of additional shape sets that are included with Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
All of these additional shape sets are included with Photoshop but need to be loaded in manually.

If you happen to know which set contains the shape(s) you need, you can select it by clicking on its name in the list. An easier thing to do, though, is to simply load all of them in at once, which we can do by choosing All from the top of the list:

Loading all additional shape sets into Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choose “All” to load all of the additional custom shapes into Photoshop.

Photoshop will ask if you want to replace the current shapes with the new shapes or if you want to add the new ones in with the originals. Choose Append, which will keep the original shapes and add the new ones after them:

Adding the new custom shapes in with the originals in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choose “Append” to load the new shapes into Photoshop while still keeping the originals.

And now, if we open the Shape Picker by clicking on the shape preview thumbnail in the Options Bar, we see all the new shapes we have to choose from! I’ve expanded the Shape Picker a little here so we can see more of the shape thumbnails. Use the scrollbar along the right side of the Shape Picker to scroll through the complete list:

Scrolling through the list of custom shapes in the Shape Picker in Photoshop. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
The Shape Picker is now loaded with all the custom shapes that Adobe included with Photoshop.

Here’s a random sample of some of the many shapes we now have available to us:

Photoshop custom shapes drawn with the Custom Shape Tool. Image © 2011 Photoshop Essentials.com
The Shape Picker is now loaded with all the custom shapes that Adobe included with Photoshop.

As useful as many of these ready-made custom shapes can be, it’s entirely possible that even after loading them all in, we still won’t find the shape we need for the particular design we’re working on, and that’s where the real power of Photoshop’s custom shapes comes in, because Photoshop lets us create any shape we want from scratch! Be sure to check out our Create Your Own Custom Shapes tutorial for everything you need to know on creating, saving and using your very own collections of custom shapes!

And there we have it! That’s the basics of adding custom shapes to our document with the Custom Shape Tool. In the next tutorial, we’ll look at the difference between vector shapes, paths and pixel-based shapes in Photoshop!

Download our tutorials as print-ready PDFs! Learning Photoshop has never been easier!

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