Make Editable Arrows in Photoshop

Ever needed to create an arrow to point at something in a photograph? (Like, “Dead body found here,” or “Note the crack in the fuselage”?) You don’t have to jump to a different program to do that. With the image open in Adobe Photoshop, there are at least two ways to create an editable, vector arrow pointing at exactly what you want.

Method 1: Use One of the Built-in Custom Shapes
To begin, choose the Custom Shape tool from the toolbar. Can’t find it? Click on the Rectangle tool at the bottom of the toolbar’s group of vector tools (Pen tool, Type tool, Selection tool). Now the Options bar shows all the vector shape tool variations. The Custom Shape tool is the blobby-looking one at the right. Select it there, or choose it from the Rectangle tool’s fly-out menu down in the toolbar.

Make sure the tool is in Vector Shape mode, one of the three modes available when you’re working with vector tools in Photoshop. That way, dragging the tool across the image creates a vector shape layer (instead of a path or a selection), which is what we want. Vector Shape mode is the first icon at the far left of the Options bar and looks like a square with points on the corners (Figure 1). Click it if it’s not selected already.

Figure 1.

Now that you’ve selected the correct mode and the right tool, you can open the custom shapes library. In the Options bar, look for the label “Shapes:” and click the shape thumbnail to the right to open the library. The arrows aren’t part of the default shape set, so you’ll probably have to use the library’s fly-out menu to choose it. (Hint: the library you want is called “Arrows.” Very obscure.) Add or append the shapes to the ones already in the library; either works.

You’ll see twenty different arrow shapes to choose from. Click on the one that calls you to and then press Return/Enter to close the library. Now just start dragging diagonally on the image and you’ll see the arrow appear, changing its width/height ratio as you drag the mouse. Release the mouse button when it’s roughly how you want it (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Initially, the arrow is filled with the foreground color, but that’s easily changed by double-clicking the color swatch thumbnail in the shape layer that you just created and choosing another color (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

You can modify the path with the Direct Selection tool, add/remove/modify points with the Pen tool variants, and curve the shape with Edit > Transform > Warp (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

To get the bounding box back (so you can change the width, height and rotation of the entire arrow shape), press Command/Ctrl-T, which is the keyboard shortcut for Edit > Free Transform Path.

Method 2: Use the Line Tool
Here’s another way to skin the cat. You may have noticed that one of the vector shape tool variants is the Line tool. It’s the only tool in Photoshop that allows you to add arrowheads at the start or end of it (or both).

The trick to the Line tool is that you have to set up its weight and arrowhead styles before you drag a line with it. After you create the line, its shape can only be modified with the Direct Selection and path editing tools, or by transforming it, as above. So, it may take some experimenting with different lines and settings to get what you want. (You can save the perfect settings, though, as a Line tool preset. That way you can have the same type of arrows in other Photoshop files.)

You’ll find the Line tool in the shape tool’s fly-out menu (press and hold on whichever shape tool is currently active — the default is the Rectangle — to reveal the fly-out) or as one of the shapes in the Options bar when any Pen or Shape tool is active.

Select the Line tool and change its weight (thickness) in the Weight field in the Options bar from the default value of 1 pixel. Then, click on the downward-pointing triangle to the right of the array of shape tools in the Options bar. Doing so reveals the options for the particular shape tool that’s selected. When the Line tool is selected, the options are all about arrowheads (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Here’s your cheat sheet for the Arrowhead Options:

Start: Do you want an arrowhead to appear at the start point of the line you’re about to drag out? If so, turn on this checkbox.

End: Do you also or alternatively want an arrowhead at the end of the line, when you release your mouse button? If so, turn it on.

Width: What percentage of the line weight should the width of the arrowhead be? The default is 500% (five times the line weight), your typical arrowhead. As you transform the finished arrow, the arrowhead will grow/shrink proportionally.

Length: The default measure of 1000% means that the length of the arrowhead (from its pointy business end to its base) should be ten times the line weight. In other words, accepting the default 500% width and 1000% length means you’ll get a somewhat narrow, pointy arrowhead — its length will be twice its width. If you want an equilateral triangle for an arrowhead, enter the same percentage for Length as you did for Width.

Concavity: Because this is set to 0% by default, the base of an arrowhead — the side that touches the line’s end — is perfectly straight. To make the bottom end curve inwards, towards the tip of the arrow, enter a larger percentage. You can go up to 50%, which I think stands for 50% of the arrowhead’s length. Interestingly, you can also go down as far as negative 50% (enter -50), which makes the bottom end curve outward, into the line.

Now that you’ve entered your settings, press Return/Enter to close the Arrowhead Options window and get-to-draggin’ (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

All your arrows will be straight when you first create them because that’s what the Line tool does, but you can curve them with Edit > Transform > Warp. For more control you can add curve points to the shape with the Add Anchor Point tool (one of the Pen tool variants). It’s kind of tricky, though, since the “Line” tool actually creates very thin rectangles, not lines (!) so you’ll have to add matching curve points on either side.

To change the overall width, height, and rotation of the arrow itself, use the same Free Transform method as above.

Fancy It Up
With both of these methods, you’re working with shape layers, and you can apply Layer Effects to shape layers (Figure 7). I’ve seen some striking Photoshop arrows designers have created with clever applications of Stroke, Drop Shadow, Gradient Overlay and Bevel & Emboss. These too can saved in a Custom Shape or Line tool’s preset.

Figure 7.

Posted on: June 4, 2008

Anne-Marie Concepcion

Anne-Marie “Her Geekness” Concepción is the co-founder (with David Blatner) and CEO of Creative Publishing Network, which produces CreativePro, InDesignSecrets, InDesign Magazine, and other resources for creative professionals. Through her cross-media design studio, Seneca Design & Training, Anne-Marie develops ebooks and trains and consults with companies who want to master the tools and workflows of digital publishing. She has authored over 20 courses on on these topics and others. Keep up with Anne-Marie by subscribing to her ezine, HerGeekness Gazette, and contact her by email at or on Twitter @amarie

14 Comments on Make Editable Arrows in Photoshop

  1. Hi there … no, this is not a CS3 tip only. Photoshop has had the same set of vector tools and shape libraries for at least three versions, I believe, maybe more.

    Powerpoint? Not sure why you brought that up. It’s not metioned in my article.


  2. I really like this tutorial. It seemed like it would be to simple to do so well, but it was done so nicely that I learned a great deal. It had all the parts needed and, to me, perfectly done-fun picture to use, short and clear wording, excellent added details/instructions where needed.

  3. I forgot about the custom shapes!

  4. Nice and easy…even for the dummies among us!

  5. Very well done – thanks! I needed to curve some arrows which I could do with transforms, but usually the arrow shaft and sometimes the head became wider. Any tips on how to just curve the shaft?

  6. Never had to do a simple thing as an arrow, but this helped perfectly! Well done and thanks!

  7. Thank you so much for this — I successfully put an arrow in an image. Much appreciate the time it took to create the post!

  8. Thank you for this neat trick. It’ll save countless of hrs of trying to read it in books.

  9. thank you for the helpful tips. 🙂

  10. I had forgotten where my vector arrows were located, and after searching online, found this page. Its not often people take time to explain things with screenshots and follow it with instructions. It was very helpful and I appreciate whoever took the time to explain where the arrows were and how to apply them.


  11. Very nice arrows!
  12. Great editorial. The screen shots were very helpfu.

  13. This was a perfect tutorial. It explained every step in sufficient detail for beginners in photoshop. I have easily created the arrows I needed thanks to your tutorial. Thanks again!!

  14. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.