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Affinity Designer Pen and Node Tools Tutorial

Friday, July 29, 2016

As with any vector art program, you need to be comfortable with creating and manipulating Bézier curves. In Affinity Designer, the pen and node tools are the way to do that.

Understanding Bezier Curves

Bézier curves are used in vector art programs like Affinity Designer and Adobe Illustrator to model smooth curves.

The basic idea is that you can describe any curve using four points in space:

  • the starting point
  • the end point
  • the control point for the starting point
  • the control poing for the ending point

For a straight line, you only need the start and end points, like this:

Start and end points

There are no control points here, since we don't need any.

Let's look at an actual curve.

Curve with start, end, and control points

You change the shape of the curve by moving the control points. The curve bends toward the control point. The farther away the point is, the more the curve bends. For example, if we move the control point attached to the start point, we can get something like this:

Moving a control point

Here are the control points in action:

Moving both control points

How exactly does the software draw the curve? Wikipedia has a great animation:

Animation on drawing a Bézier curve

There's a ton of math involved, but you don't need to know the equations to create the curves you want.

Types of Nodes

In Affinity Designer, there are three kinds of nodes:

  • sharp nodes
  • smooth nodes
  • smart nodes

Sharp Nodes

Sharp nodes are either the end of a line or have a sharp angle. The nodes themselves are shown as squares.

Sharp nodes

The node on the bottom is a sharp node, even though it has two control points that create two curves. Since those curves don't join in a smooth swoop, but rather at an angle, the node is a sharp node.

Essentially, any time the two control points aren't joined by a straight line, you have a sharp node.

Smooth Nodes

Here's an example of a sharp node (on top) and a smooth node (on bottom).

Sharp and smooth

As you can see, the control points of a smooth node are joined by a single straight line. Smooth nodes are represented by circles.

Smart Nodes

Smart nodes are simply smooth nodes where Affinity Designer controls how they look instead of you. They're represented by a circle with a dot in them.

In the animation below, a user creates several points and Affinity Designer draws curves between them using smart nodes.

Smart Nodes

We'll look more at smart nodes later.

Pen Tool

Use the pen tool to create curves and to transform sharp nodes into smooth nodes.

To start using the pen tool, either select the icon from the toolbar Pen icon or press P.

(I strongly recommend learning the keystrokes for any graphic design program you use regularly: it can make a huge difference in your productivity.)

Move the cursor to your document, and you'll see the pen icon with a little "x" below it. That "x" tells you that you're about to create a new curve.

Pen icon

Creating a Curve

To create a curve, simply select the pen tool and start clicking around your document. You'll see something like this:

Random points

While there's nothing curvy about this shape, it's still known as a "curve" in the vector art world.

The node with the red square is where the next line will be drawn from. As you click around, the red square follows you.

Closing a Curve

To close a curve, click on the first node you created. When you hover over that node, a little circle will appear beneath the pen. That circle tells you that you're about to close the curve.

Closing a curve

Drawing a Smooth Curve

Fortunately, you can create a smooth curve with your pen tool. When you're drawing your curve, click and drag on your nodes instead of simply clicking (which we've been doing up until now.)

Drawing smooth curves with the pen

You can also create a curve with all sharp nodes, and change those to smooth nodes with the pen tool.

Converting from Sharp Nodes to Smooth

When you hover over a node that's part of a closed curve, you'll see a little slash appear beneath the pen icon.

Change sharp nodes to smooth

Converting from Smooth Nodes to Sharp

If you want to change a node from being smooth to sharp, i.e., removing its control points, you can option-click -click on a node.

Converting from smooth to sharp

Pen Tool Modes

The pen tool has four different modes:

  • Pen mode
  • Smart Mode
  • Polygon Mode
  • Line Mode

Pen Mode

Pen tool modes

So far, we've been using the Pen Mode, which means we can create both sharp and smooth points.

Smart Mode

The smart mode button is next to pen mode:

In Smart Mode, Affinity Designer decides how smooth your curves should be.

Smart nodes are circles with little dots in them. You saw these earlier in the article.

Polygon Mode

Next to smart mode is polygon mode.

Polygon Mode icon

In polygon mode, you can only create sharp nodes. No smooth curves in polygon mode.

Polygon Mode

When you create a curve in pen mode, clicking and dragging will create a smooth node. but in polygon mode, clicking and dragging simply moves a sharp node around.

Line Mode

In line mode, you can't create a closed curve; only lines.

Line mode icon

You can create lines by both clicking and dragging, or by clicking twice (once for each end point).

Here's how you use it:

Line mode

Notice that it's impossible to create a closed curve in line mode. After you create the end point, the pen becomes ready to draw a new line.

Node Tool

Once you've created your curve with the pen tool, it's time to fine-tune it with the node tool. You'll find the node tool icon on the toolbar, right underneath the Move tool.

Node tool icon

You can also just press A.

Selecting Nodes

There are several ways to select nodes on a curve.

Selecting a Single Node

Hover over a node. You'll see the cursor change from a white arrow to a black arrow. Then click, and you've selected that node.

Selecting single nodes

Selecting Multiple Nodes

Often, you'll want to manipulate more than one node at a time.

Selecting One at a Time

To add nodes one at a time, hold down the shift key when you click ( - click).

Selecting multiple nodes one by one

Selecting Several at Once

To select a number of nodes at once, draw a rectangle around them.

Selecting several nodes at once

Deselecting Nodes

To deselect nodes, hold down the control key () and draw a rectangle around the nodes you want to deselect.

Deselecting nodes

Moving Nodes

Once your nodes are selected, you can move them with the mouse or the arrow keys.

You can also shift-click (-click) to select multiple nodes at once.

Moving nodes with the node tool

Adding a Node

To add a node to an existing curve, just click on that line with the node tool.

Adding a node with the node tool

Curving a Straight Line

Affinity Designer can a great feature that lets you easily create a curved line from a straight one. It doesn't give you a ton of control, but I've found it to be quite handy.

Place the node tool over a straight part of a curve. You'll be a little squiggle underneath the tool icon. Click and hold, and create a curve.

Curving a Straight Line

Adjusting Control Points

To adjust control points, click on a node and move the control points that appear.

For smooth points, if you change the angle, this will move both points. However, if you just make the line shorter or longer, the other point won't be affected.

Here's what I mean:

Adjusting control points

But what if you want to move only one of the control points, not both at the same time? In that case, hold down the option key () when you select a control point.

Adjust single control point

You can also constrain your control points by holding down the shift key () when you move them.

Adjusting control points when constrained

Converting a Smooth Node to a Sharp Node

If you've decided that smooth curve just isn't working, you can turn a smooth node into a sharp one without any control points. Simply option-click ( - click) the smooth node.

Converting a Smooth Node to a Sharp Node

Deleting a Node

To delete a node, simply select it and press delete.

Deleting a node with the node tool

Congratulations! You now have all you need to know about the mechanics of the pen and node tools in Affinity Designer. Go forth and make great art.

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