Adobe Illustrator tutorial: clipping mask and compound path

Aloha, designers! Please meet Community Director, Jason Aiken’s sweet and totally-cute dogs, Job and Lily.

Job and Lily have a love for professional swimming and we are going to use one of Illustrator’s brilliant design tools to show off their skills — the clipping mask.

Aiken's Dogs, Job and Lily

What is a Clipping Mask?

A clipping mask is a shape (called a clipping path) that masks any object below it, so only what’s inside of the clipping path is visible. A clipping path can only be a vector object, not a photo. However, the object below it can be anything – a raster photo, vector drawing, etc.

A few things to note about clipping masks:

  • The clipping path must always be on top of the object you’d like to clip.
  • You can only have one clipping path.
  • However, one or more objects can be clipped.
  • Clipped objects must be in the same layer or group.

By now you might be thinking… “What? I’m a visual learner.” Well I am too… so let’s demonstrate.

How to Make a Clipping Mask

In this demo, the clipping path will be the text of their names, Lily and Job. The objects we are going to clip will be images of them swimming. To start, we will do a clipping mask for Job.

A clipping mask can be made in a few different ways:

  • Drop down Menu: Object > Clipping Mask > Make
  • Shortcut Key: Command > 7
  • Layer Panel: Make/Release Clipping Mask icon at the bottom
  • Right click: highlight all objects and select Make Clipping Mask

In one layer, I have put Job’s name on top of his swimming photo. You can expand the layer view to see the text and object image separately:

Job Swimming

Note: you can use different layers, as long as the clipping path layer is on top of the photo layer.

Once the images are properly arranged, click on Object > Clipping Mask > Make. You will notice that everything disappears except what is inside of the clipping path (Job’s name).

Cool and easy, huh?

Job's Clipping Mask

If done correctly, incorporating photos into words can be cool for posters and book covers (or tutorials ;). 

Using Two or More Clipping Paths

Now, let’s do the same thing for Lily. Lily’s name needs to be altered so that her image fits nicely. When dealing with clipping masks, you will often find that either the clipping path or object underneath needs to be altered to fit together.

In this case, I want to edit the letters individually. First, I converted the text to outline so each letter can be edited. To convert text to outlines, click on Type > Create Outlines (shift>command>O) or by right clicking on the text and selecting Create Outlines.

Each letter has now become an object that can be edited but not like regular text. You will notice that anchor points appear on each letter — they can be moved and edited individually:

Outlined Text

The outlined text is no longer one path (it’s now four paths: L I L Y). It will not clip correctly because remember, you can only have one clipping path.

Luckily, compound path allows several paths to be combined into one path. We can convert it to one path by highlighting Lily and selecting Object > Compound Path > Make (Command>8).

Lily's Compound Path

Now, highlight the compound path and photo, then select Object > Clipping Mask > Make:

Lily's Clipping Mask

Voilà! Lily is having some fun.

Compound Paths

As you saw, compound paths combine all selected paths into one. You can also use this tool to make some pretty cool designs quickly.

Play around with it by taking a few basic shapes and stacking them on top of each other. Then select Object > Compound Path > Make (Command>8):

Compound Path Shapes

This is three compound paths but each compound path has multiple shapes incorporated into it. 

Clipping Two or More Objects

Although, there can not be two or more clipping paths (without making them a compound path), you CAN clip two or more objects underneath.

I’ve made sure the photos of Lily and Job are on the same layer. I’ve also made sure they are placed underneath the clipping path: DOG LOVE.

Dog Love

Select Object > Clipping Mask > Make. I’ve made the images more visible by adding a black background.

Black Background - Dog Love

Release or Edit a Clipping Mask and Compound Path

To release or edit a clipping mask, you can either:

  • Select Object > Clipping Mask > Edit/Release
  • Or edit by isolating the clipping mask: double click it or find it on the Layers Panel

Release or edit a compound path:

  • Select Object > Compound Path > Release
  • Or edit by isolating the compound path: double click it or find it on the Layers Panel

As you can see, clipping masks and compound paths are some pretty cool and easy tools that make designing that much more fun.

Thanks to Job and Lily for showing the community just how fun the clipping mask can be:

Thanks Job and Lily

Note: The clipping path is JOB LILY and it’s clipping the graphic, THANKS. 

Make sure to keep an eye on our facebook and twitter@99designs for more Adobe tutorials.

What tools do you want to learn? Share in the comments!

Based in San Francisco, Allison (Alli) Stuart works as Community Manager at 99designs. When she's not writing blogs and communicating with designers, she is working on her Children's Book. She also enjoys extreme sports, like sky diving and traveling to new places. Alli has a Fine Arts Degree with a concentration in Graphic Design from Louisiana State University, her home. Geaux Tigers!
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33 Comments

  1. ihwalz

    More tutorial on Adobe Illustrator so that i would learn much deeper because i’ve started to work with AI just to design on my small portraits and i’ve learn new insights with the designing of names, logo, etc…likewise tutorial of photoshop CS5 for my post processing. Thanks and more power Ms. Allison

    Reply May 16, 2012 at 6:04 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      And more power to you! Feel free to share any new tools you “fall in love with” in Illustrator. :)

      Reply May 17, 2012 at 10:01 am
  2. Jamal Hossain

    Thanks for updated tutorial.

    Reply May 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm
  3. Waseem

    A detailed tutorial about gradient mesh would be awesome :D

    Reply May 17, 2012 at 7:05 am
    • Allison Stuart

      Yes, that would be very helpful. Thanks for the response. I’ll make sure to note it for near future tutorials. :)

      Reply May 17, 2012 at 9:59 am
  4. Mike

    It is incredible how “behind” Illustrator is as a vector program when compared to the awesome program that FREEHAND MX still is. As a program which hasn’t seen an update for close on 10 years it is still the software I prefer to work in. Incredibly user friendly, logical and achieves fantastic results. Adobe, update FreeHand and give back the best software that graphic designers deserve!!

    Reply May 19, 2012 at 3:08 am
  5. bhoyank

    Great tutorial :)

    Reply May 22, 2012 at 1:04 am
  6. mishal

    so cool….:)

    Reply May 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm
  7. Shamim

    This is a uncommon tutorials.thanks to share

    Reply June 2, 2012 at 7:19 am
  8. Clipping path Service

    nice tutorial for who want to know about clipping path

    Reply June 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm
  9. badiel

    nice info from very nice girl

    Reply June 7, 2012 at 9:04 pm
  10. vanita

    Allison, you are very generous to share. I am fairly new to Illustrator and this has been the best explanation yet on clipping masks and compound shapes. Thanks for the totally awesome tutorial and to your gorgeous models Lily and Job!!

    Reply August 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Hi Vanita! That is great to hear… we will be posting much more. So make sure to check back. :) Cheers!

      Reply August 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm
  11. Darrell

    Salutations, I think that it’s charming when a person has some knowledge and shares it with everyone, what can be better than that? thank you very much for this cool piece of information! I actually think that this blog is just gorgeous.

    Reply September 10, 2012 at 2:33 am
  12. sp

    Hay Hello
    thanks for sharing tutorial this is helpful for everyone i am also graphic designer add mi in facebook my id is shrikant.aim@gmail.com

    Reply September 22, 2012 at 12:42 am
  13. Manish kumar

    thanks, for sharing helpfultutorial i am a graphic tutor add me in facebook my id is bittumuz@gmail.com

    Reply September 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm
  14. Michel

    Nice work… really inspiring for special photo album covers

    Reply October 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm
  15. Taimy

    Its great!! Well, I’m trying to compound paths in which one of them is clipped path. I’m facing problem there. Can you please tell me how to compound paths which also includes clipped paths in them.
    Thanks :)

    Reply October 17, 2012 at 6:02 am
    • Allison Stuart

      Hi Taimy. I’m pretty sure you can’t combine a clipping path with a compound — are you getting an “error” message when you try to do it? Have you tried doing the compound path then turning it into a clipping path? Or you might be able to only use a clipping path to achieve the result you are looking for. I suggest looking for an online video tutorial. :)

      Reply October 17, 2012 at 9:42 am
  16. Anna

    Thank you very much Miss Stuart! :) This tutorial was easy to understand and it helped me a lot!

    Reply October 27, 2012 at 8:30 am
  17. Carl

    WOW! This tutorial was much more help full than that offered by adobe. Thanks Alison!

    Reply February 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Thanks, Carl! More great tutorials to come :)

      Reply February 13, 2013 at 9:45 pm
  18. Ali

    Hi Allison! I’m trying to create a clipping path out of a (closed) object that I drew with the paintbrush tool. I’ve placed it on the top of what I want to clip, and put it on top, but when I clip, it only shows the picture that I want underneath within the lines of my object – not in the middle of it. Any ideas on how to fix? Thanks!

    Reply February 20, 2013 at 10:37 am
    • Allison Stuart

      Hi Ali. I am not exactly sure what the problem is without seeing the object you drew. However, it’s possible the stroke you created has been outlined — this makes the actual stroke of your “closed object” an object path itself (for a visual of what I’m talking about look at STEP 1 in this tutorial: http://ow.ly/hIMUC). Since the stroke is acting like an object, your clipping mask will be made within the stroke’s width. If you’d like me to take a closer look, you can email a screen shot (or the file) to allison.stuart@99designs.com. Hope this helps!

      Reply February 20, 2013 at 11:12 am
  19. Alex

    Great tutorial, was wondering what font was used here? Thanks!

    Reply April 11, 2013 at 5:48 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Thanks Alex! The font is from dafont, Nova Solid Solid by Billy Argel: http://www.dafont.com/nova-solid.font. Note: If you ever want to use it commercially, you must contact him for a license. Cheers!

      Reply April 12, 2013 at 10:44 am
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    Great tutorial indeed! Seems like clipping path isn’t too tough as I thought it first time. I just want to know what is the besic difference between image retouching and image masking?

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  26. Narendra

    Hello Allision, I am new user for Illustrator before this software I officially use Corel Draw. In corel draw I can Powerclip (i.e.Clipmask) so many object in a container. Is it possible in Illustrator. Pls reply.

    Reply July 17, 2014 at 6:20 am

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