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Editing and Combining Shapes and Paths

  • Sample Chapter is provided courtesy of Adobe Press.
  • Date: Mar 25, 2017.

Chapter Description

Explore how to both edit and combine shapes and paths in Adobe Illustrator CC (2017).

Combining shapes

A lot of the time, creating more complex shapes from simpler shapes can be easier than trying to create them with drawing tools like the Pen tool. In Illustrator, you can combine vector objects in different ways. The resulting paths or shapes differ depending on the method you use to combine the paths. In this section, you’ll explore a few of the more widely used methods for combining shapes.

Working with the Shape Builder tool

The first method you’ll learn for combining shapes involves working with the Shape Builder tool (builder_tool.jpg). This tool allows you to visually and intuitively merge, delete, fill, and edit overlapping shapes and paths directly in the artwork. Using the Shape Builder tool, you’ll create a complex bird shape from a series of simpler shapes like circles and squares.

  1. Choose 4 Butterfly from the Artboard Navigation menu in the lower-left corner of the Document window.

  2. Choose View > Fit Artboard In Window to ensure it fits in the Document window.

  3. Select the Zoom tool (zoom.jpg) in the Tools panel, and click a few times on the red and green shapes on the left side of the artboard to zoom in.

  4. Select the Selection tool (selection_tool.jpg), and drag a marquee selection across the red/orange rectangle, white circles, and green rectangle to select the shapes on the artboard.


    In order to edit shapes with the Shape Builder tool (builder_tool.jpg), they need to be selected. Using the Shape Builder tool, you will now combine, delete, and paint these simple shapes to create part of a butterfly’s wings.

  5. Select the Shape Builder tool (builder_tool.jpg) in the Tools panel. Position the pointer off the upper-left corner of the shapes, and drag from the red X in the figure, down and to the right into the red/orange rectangle. Release the mouse button to combine the shapes.


    When you select the Shape Builder tool, the overlapping shapes are divided into separate objects temporarily. As you drag from one part to another, a red outline appears, showing you what the final shape will look like when the shapes are merged together, after releasing the mouse button. The new combined shape should be the same blue as the bird shape you created previously. If not, don’t worry. You’ll change it shortly.

  6. Position the pointer off the upper-right corner of the shapes, and drag from the red X in the figure, down and to the left into the red/orange rectangle. Release the mouse button to combine the shapes.

    Next, you’ll delete a few shapes.

  7. With the shapes still selected, hold down the Option (Mac OS) or Alt (Windows) key. Notice that, with the modifier key held down, the pointer shows a minus sign (minus-sign.jpg). Click the red shapes, one at a time, to delete them.

  8. Double-click the Shape Builder tool in the Tools panel. In the Shape Builder Tool Options dialog box, select Straight Line from the Selection options. Click OK to close the dialog box.

    By default, the Shape Builder tool lets you drag across shapes in a freeform way. The Straight Line option lets you draw across shapes only in straight lines.

  9. With the shapes still selected, hold down the Option (Mac OS) or Alt (Windows) key and drag through the green shape in the center from top to bottom to remove it. Release the mouse button and then the key.

  10. Select the Selection tool (selection_tool.jpg). With the blue shapes still selected, change the fill color in the Control panel to an orange/red color with the tooltip name that shows as “C=0 M=90 Y=85 K=0.”

  11. Choose Object > Group to group the now orange shapes together.

  12. Choose View > Fit Artboard In Window.

  13. Drag one of the orange shapes in the group to the right side of the artboard, above the yellow shapes. See the following figure for how to position them.

  14. Drag the orange/yellow shape (an arrow is pointing to it in the figure) into the center of the wing shapes.

  15. Choose Select > Deselect, and then choose File > Save.

Working with the Pathfinder panel

The Pathfinder panel is another place to combine shapes in different ways. When a shape mode such as Unite is applied, the original objects selected are permanently transformed, but you can hold down a modifier key, and the original underlying objects are preserved.


When a Pathfinder effect such as Merge is applied, the original objects selected are permanently transformed. If the effect results in more than one shape, they are grouped automatically.

  1. Choose 5 Bird 3 from the Artboard Navigation menu in the lower-left corner of the Document window.

  2. Choose Window > Pathfinder to open the Pathfinder panel group.

  3. With the Selection tool (selection_tool.jpg) selected, hold down the Shift key, and click the red oval and blue rectangle beneath it to select both objects.

    You need to create a shape that looks like a bird wing. You will use the Pathfinder panel and those shapes to create the final artwork.

  4. With the shapes selected, in the Pathfinder panel, click the Minus Front button (frontbutton.jpg) in the Shape Modes section of the Pathfinder panel to permanently subtract the top shape from the bottom shape.

  5. Choose Edit > Undo Subtract to undo the Minus Front command and bring both shapes back. Leave them selected.

Shape Modes in the Pathfinder panel

The buttons in the top row of the Pathfinder panel, called shape modes, create paths just like the Pathfinder effects, but they can also be used to create compound shapes. When several shapes are selected, clicking a shape mode while pressing the Option (Mac OS) or Alt (Windows) key creates a compound shape rather than a path. The original underlying objects of compound shapes are preserved. As a result, you can still select each original object within a compound shape. Using a shape mode to create a compound shape can be useful if you think that you may want to retrieve the original shapes at a later time.

  1. With the shapes still selected, hold down the Option (Mac OS) or Alt (Windows) key, and click the Minus Front button (frontbutton.jpg) in the Shape Modes section of the Pathfinder panel.

    This creates a compound shape that traces the outline of what’s left after the top red shape is subtracted from the bottom blue shape. You will still be able to edit both shapes separately.

  2. Choose Select > Deselect to see the final shape.

  3. With the Selection tool, double-click the blue shape to enter Isolation mode.

    You could also double-click the (now) white oval, but that shape is harder to see.

  4. Choose View > Outline so that you can see the outlines of the two shapes, and click the edge of the oval shape or drag across the path to select it.

  5. Choose View > GPU Preview or View > Preview On CPU if not available.

  6. Drag the white oval from the middle a little to the left.

  7. Press the Escape key to exit Isolation mode.

    You will now expand the wing shape. Expanding a compound shape maintains the shape of the compound object, but you can no longer select or edit the original objects. You will typically expand an object when you want to modify the appearance attributes and other properties of specific elements within it.

  8. Click away from the shape to deselect it, and then click to select it again.

  9. Click the Expand button in the Pathfinder panel. Close the Pathfinder panel group.

  10. Drag the blue wing shape on top of the bird like you see in the figure.

  11. Choose Select > All On Active Artboard, and then choose Object > Group.

Creating a compound path

Compound paths let you use a vector object to cut a hole in another vector object. Whenever I think of a compound path, I think of a doughnut shape, which can be created from two circles. Holes appear where paths overlap. A compound path is treated like a group, and the individual objects in the compound path can still be edited or released (if you don’t want them to be a compound path anymore). Next, you’ll create a compound to create some art for the butterfly.

  1. Choose 4 Butterfly from the Artboard menu in the lower-left corner of the Document window.

  2. Choose View > Fit Artboard In Window, if necessary.

  3. With the Selection tool (selection_tool.jpg) selected, select the white circle with the black stroke. Drag it onto the larger orange circle above it, a little off-center.

  4. Drag across both shapes to select them.

  5. Drag the shapes onto the larger orange wing of the butterfly. The selected shapes should be on top. If they are not, choose Object > Arrange > Bring To Front.

  6. Choose Object > Compound Path > Make, and leave the artwork selected.

    You can now see that the white circle has seemingly disappeared, and you can now see through the shape to the reddish-orange color of the butterfly wing. The white circle was used to “punch” a hole in the orange shape. With the shape still selected, you should see “Compound Path” on the left end of the Control panel above the Document window.

  7. Option-drag (Mac OS) or Alt-drag (Windows) the new compound path to the right side of the orange wing shape. Release the mouse button and then the key.

  8. Select all of the shapes for the butterfly by choosing Select > All On Active Artboard.

  9. Choose Object > Group.

  10. Choose Object > Transform > Rotate. In the Rotate dialog box, change Angle to -45, make sure Preview is selected, and then click OK.

  11. Choose File > Save.

4. Using the Width tool | Next Section Previous Section

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