How to use clipping masks effectively

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Clipping masks can be extremely useful in the Illustrator workflow – enabling rapid exploration of cut shapes, complex crops, and unique letterforms in a non destructive way.

Unfortunately, the way clipping masks get translated to print can be unexpected due to the fact that the vector programs or interpreters used in production environments might not “see” the clipping masks. This guide shows how to use clipping masks and how to safely prepare them for print environments.

How to use clipping masks

Clipping 1

This example begins with a simple word, “CLIPPING”. The goal will be to “clip” off the top edge of the word.

Clipping 2

A clipping path (at this point it can be considered just a regular path) is drawn over the section of the word that needs to be be visible in the final result. With both the clipping path and the word “CLIPPING” selected, the drop down menu presents the option “Make clipping mask”. Alternatively the shortcuts Cmd+7(Mac) or Ctrl+7(Windows) can be used.

Clipping 3

The final result, of course, “clips” off the top of the word, leaving a completely transparent space. The transparency is important to note, as in alternate solutions where a white cover-up box might be used, the final result is not as “clean”. Also note in the layers panel, the clipping path is identified with an underline.

Upon imagining the possibilities with typographic or geometric clipping paths, one can begin to see the power of clipping paths in the creative workflow. It is also worth emphasizing the non destructive nature – words or shapes can be edited as if they were complete and unaltered despite their “clipped” appearance.

Dealing with the issues

The real issue with clipping masks is that vector programs used in production environments might not “see” the clipping masks. In other words in the example above, the word “CLIPPING” might get printed with a big black square over it. Mac users can get a taste of this by previewing an Illustrator file with a clipping mask: Not what one would expect!

The solution is simple – the visible shapes need to be “flattened” into literal vector shapes. Note that this can be done as one of the last steps before a handover as to preserve the clipping masks as long as possible.

Clipping 4

All clipping mask elements must be expanded before continuing! Once all elements, including type are expanded, simply select them all and hit “Crop” in the pathfinder window.

Clipping 5

The beauty of a final design outlined in literal vector paths is unrivaled. Send it off to the client!

Conclusion

The inherent issues that clipping masks have in print environments should not deter anyone from using them. This tutorial shows just how easy it is to overcome those problems while maintaining and exploring all the creative possibilities that clipping masks provide.

Questions or comments about using clipping masks in Illustrator? Post below!

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