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How to Create a Clipping Mask in Adobe Illustrator

Updated on January 10, 2014

What is a Clipping Mask?

In Illustrator, a Clipping Mask is when one or more shapes overlap another and block out the parts of the other shape that are not covered by the first shape. So as an example, if you had a small circle shape in front of a big square and you turned the two into a Clipping Mask, you would only be able to see the part of the square that was behind the circle. The other parts of the square would become invisible. It kind of works like a cookie cutter, accept nothing is actually cut, just hidden.

And now that we understand what a Clipping Mask is, we can move on to explaining how we can make one.

In this mini tutorial I aim to explain how you create a Clipping Mask in Adobe Illustrator CS3 and above. I will also shed some light on the difference between Clipping Masks and Compound Paths (as many people I know often mix up the two).

If you already know how to create a Clipping Mask in Adobe Photoshop, you may want to forget it for this tutorial. The methods are insanely different.

Create a Document

The obvious first (and arguably most important) step would be to create a new .ai file; unless you already have one open.

New Document
New Document

Add your Shapes

Now that you have a new document, you should place the shapes you want involved in the Clipping Mask on the document. So below (but on the same layer) you should have the shape you want to be 'cut' and above you should have the shape you want to cut it with. As you can see I am using a photograph to be cut. Illustrator allows both vectors and images to be cut by the Clipping Mask

My shapes are now placed in the document
My shapes are now placed in the document
Both my shapes are selected. Notice the blue lines?
Both my shapes are selected. Notice the blue lines?

Select Both Shapes

Select/highlight both of your newly placed shapes on the document. You can do this by either clicking one with the selection tool, holding SHIFT, and selecting the other, or by simply dragging around them with the selection tool. You should be able to tell if they are selected because they should have a thin blue outline around them (it may be a different color depending on your preferences).

Time the Create the Clipping Mask

With both shapes selected, right-click and press 'Make Clipping Mask'. After this step you should have successfully created a Clipping Mask out of your two shapes. To release the Clipping Mask (stop its effects from working), right-click on the Mask and click 'Release Clipping Mask'.

Complete Clipping Mask
Complete Clipping Mask

Moving Clipping Masks

After you have created your Clipping Mask you can move the position of the shape being clipped. So, for example, say I didn't like which part of the picture you can view in the hexagon, I'd be able to move the picture being clipped.

Here's how. Double click on the Clipping Mask. You should see a blue outline of the shape you clipped. You can now move the clipped shape around to anywhere you want.

Notice the blue line of my image selected?
Notice the blue line of my image selected?
The image has now been moved
The image has now been moved

Do you think you will use Clipping Masks in the future?

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What are Clipping Masks Commonly used For?

So now that you've learned how to create Clipping Masks the first question you may be asking yourself is 'Why would I ever need to use one?' Well as an amature web designer I see myself using Clipping Masks very often in the framework and planning process. An example would be if you need to see what a picture looks like when cut into a certain shape (such as hexagon), this is a growing web design trend. I also use Clipping Masks for other, smaller tasks like mocking up button and icon designs for my personal projects. Clipping Masks are really a quicker way of cutting things up than using the eraser tool. Learning how to use them greatly speeds up your workflow.

How to Create a Compound Path

Creating a Compound Path is somewhat similar to creating Clipping Mask, but in my opinion slightly easier.

  1. Select the two or more shapes you want to join together (like before)
  2. Right-click on them but instead of clicking on 'Make Clipping Mask' you are going to click 'Make Compound Path'

If the two shapes were overlapping, you should notice that the area between them has become empty (i.e. has no color filled into it). This is one of the features of Compound Paths. You can move where the joined shapes are by double-clicking on the shape. After you double click, you should be able to move them individually. When you click back onto a blank part of the canvas, they should move in unison again.To release the Compound Path, right-click on the shape and click 'Release Compound Path'.

The Difference Between Clipping Masks and Compound Paths

When I was just starting out with learning Adobe Illustrator, I remember asking myself this question more than once. This is an issue many beginners face, so I thought it was only fair I shed some light on the matter.

As we know now, a Clipping Mask covers up certain areas of a shape so that you can only view parts underneath another shape.

A compound path is when two vectors join together. When you join them together as a compound path, the overlapping areas become empty holes. These can be used for stylistic effect.

Example of a Compound Path with two shapes overlapping.
Example of a Compound Path with two shapes overlapping.

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    • thranax profile image

      Andrew 2 years ago from Rep Boston MA

      Great guide on a simple but powerful tool in Adobe Illustrator!

      ~thranax~

    • profile image

      Clipping Mask 2 years ago

      I read this Page About Clipping Mask full tutorial, really quite awesome for every graphic designer, who interested to learning Adobe Illustrator of clipping mask work.Last few days I am finding good articles about Graphic Design online, but unfortunately I have no much idea all about graphic when I see your post I read fist to last full article really very optimize and helpful resource optimize, I also happy because next time I am coming your site, there are more article your site about graphic tutorial. Carry on really Good Graphic Tutorial Blog :) Great Work :)

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    • profile image

      Sukhen 23 months ago

      I just amaze the awesome clipping mask tutorial by the Adobe Illustrator, I just realize when I visit http://expertclipping.com/

    • karlcei profile image

      Karl Johnson 16 months ago from Leesburg, Virginia, USA

      Nice and detailed tutorial about masking...

    • clippingcrowd profile image

      Clipping Crowd 10 months ago from Dhaka

      Sounds and Great! Very nice and helpful tutorial over Clipping Mask.

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