There's a lot to learn when first making icons in Photoshop. The Pen tool is a necessity but it comes with so many alternative tools and techniques that it can take months to really understand. I wrote a brief guide to the PS pen tool as an introduction but never went into pragmatic detail.
For this guide I want to cover how to trace existing icons using the Photoshop pen tool. This allows you to create vector shapes without worrying about the actual creative process. It's 100% technical where you learn how to manipulate a path with certain curves and connections.
1. Find an Icon Base
The first step is to locate an icon that you can trace. For this demo I'll be tracing one of the Apple iOS 8 line icons for simplicity.
Many apps have a user icon with a silhouette of a person's head & shoulders. This is what I'll be recreating in this tutorial but you can apply these techniques with anything.
After searching in Dribbble I found this free set of iOS tab bar icons. The whole set is free to download as an AI file but we want the vector path to be editable in Photoshop.
First I'll open the image preview in Photoshop and crop everything except the profile icon. Since it's pretty small you can resize the icon larger as needed. Just remember it's a pixel image so it'll get blurry past a certain point.
2. The Outer Circle Shapes
Let's get started by creating the circular container, since this can be done using Photoshop's ellipse shape tool.
Notice that the circle behaves more like a stroke where the color is found on the outer edge with a clear center. This means we need to draw an outer circle and clip off the rest with an inner circle. So grab the ellipse tool and make sure it's set to draw a Path in the options bar.
Click+Shift+drag out the circle to match up exclusively with the outside. It doesn't need to be perfect since your icon may be adjusted, but try to follow the original as closely as possible.
With the ellipse tool still selected draw another circle delimiting the inside of the shape.
This new path will overlap the previous circle and clip out the space to leave only an outline.
Grab the Pen tool and hold CTRL to get the direct selection arrow. If you click either of these shapes you'll be able to change their path operation in the options bar.
We want them set to “Exclude Overlapping Shapes”.
From here we could make a ring shape but it's pointless to do so by itself. Now let's move onto the final stage by tracing the outline.
3. Silhouette Path
You should be working on the same path layer and you can check this by viewing the Paths panel in the layers panel group.
Some people may draw out the silhouette as its own path but I think it's easier to add this into the inner circle. With this technique we make the shape more complicated but ultimately easier to edit.
Start by selecting the Pen tool and then CTRL+clicking the inner circle. This will make sure it's selected and open for manipulation.
Hover near the shoulder and you'll see the pen tool cursor with a plus sign. This means you're adding a new anchor point into the existing path which is exactly what we want to do.
Note however that this method is very tricky because every new anchor point needs to be added onto the same line. The process will look like spaghetti with paths everywhere.
But it's also the best way to encapsulate the shapes together. If you prefer to do a separate silhouette you can always make a new path and draw it from scratch.
If you're new to drawing paths then this is going to be hard. You won't get it perfect, but perfect isn't the goal. Just match it close enough so that you can recognize the shape.
Once you've completed the path go up to Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color.
This will create a new vector shape with a solid fill that matches your path. Now you can scale the icon to any size without quality loss, and you can still manipulate the anchor points to fix minor errors.
Certainly a helpful technique for beginners who need to practice the pen tool but don't have the ability to create icon designs from imagination.