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Editing and Combining Shapes and Paths

Chapter Description

In this sample chapter from Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book (2021 release), author Brian Wood teaches you how to edit and combine paths and shapes to create more complex artwork. You will learn to cut shapes and combine them with the Shape Builder tool and Pathfinder effects.

Combining shapes

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.

Start by creating a shape

Before you can jump into combining shapes, you’ll create a triangle. Then you’ll combine it with a few other shapes that are already there. Those shapes will then become the last part of the dinosaur. Before creating the triangle, you’ll swap the fill and the stroke so that the fill becomes the stroke for the new shape you make.

  1. To swap the fill and the stroke of the shape so that the fill becomes the stroke, click the Swap Fill And Stroke option toward the bottom of the toolbar.


    Having a stroke on the shape, rather than a fill, will make it easier to see the gray guide path.

  2. Press and hold on the Rectangle tool and select the Polygon tool in the toolbar.

  3. To the right of the eye shapes, in the middle of the artboard, you’ll see a few yellow shapes. Starting in the center of the yellow circle, drag to create a polygon. While dragging, press the down arrow a few times until the shape has three sides (triangle). Drag until the shape is as wide as the gray triangle guide, press the Shift key to straighten it, and release the mouse button and then the key.

  4. Drag the top edge of the triangle down to snap to the guide triangle, and drag the bottom bounding point up to snap to the same guide triangle.

Working with the Shape Builder tool

The first method you’ll learn for combining shapes involves working with the Shape Builder tool (sp_shapebuildertool_lg_n.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 more complex shape for another dinosaur head from a series of simpler shapes you create.

  1. Select the Selection tool (sp_selectiontool_lg_n.jpg) and drag across the existing yellow paths and the shape you made. The guide path for the triangle is locked, so it won’t be selected.

  2. Change the stroke weight to 5 pt in the Properties panel. Change the stroke color to the color named Orange to make it easier to see.


    To edit shapes with the Shape Builder tool (sp_shapebuildertool_lg_n.jpg), they need to be selected. Using the Shape Builder tool, you will now combine, delete, and paint these simple shapes to create a single shape.

  3. Select the Shape Builder tool (sp_shapebuildertool_lg_n.jpg) in the toolbar. Move the pointer off the left side of the shapes, and drag to the right. Release the mouse button to combine the shapes.

    When you select the Shape Builder tool, the overlapping shapes are temporarily divided into separate objects. As you drag from one part to another, a red outline appears, showing you the resulting shape when the shapes are merged together.

    Next, you’ll delete a few shapes. You may want to zoom in to the shapes.

  4. With the shapes still selected, hold down the Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) key. Notice that, with the modifier key held down, the pointer shows a minus sign (shape_minus.jpg). Click in the middle of the shape on the far left, not the stroke, to delete it. Zoom in if you need. Refer to the figure to see which shape to remove.

  5. Move the pointer below the shapes. Hold down the Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) key and drag through the rest of the bottom shapes. Release the mouse button and then the key to remove those shapes.

  6. Option-drag (macOS) or Alt-drag (Windows) across the two curved paths to delete them. Refer to the figure to see what to remove.

  7. Select the Selection tool. To swap the fill and the stroke of the shape so that the stroke becomes the fill, click the Swap Fill And Stroke option toward the bottom of the toolbar.

Assemble the second dinosaur

To complete the second dinosaur, you’ll drag and position the artwork you have worked on to this point.

  1. Choose View > Fit Artboard In Window.

  2. With the Selection tool (sp_selectiontool_lg_n.jpg) selected, drag the yellow eye into place on the dinosaur and the orange shape onto the nose. Don’t worry about exact positioning. Leave the last orange shape selected.

  3. Choose View > Zoom In a few times to zoom in to the dinosaur.

  4. To arrange the orange shape behind the other artwork on the nose, click Arrange in the Properties panel and choose Send Backward as many times as necessary. I had to choose it three times.

  5. Click the yellow circle around the eye, and to resize it, press the Shift key and drag a corner. Release the mouse button and then the key. Drag it into place.

  6. To make a copy, Option-drag (macOS) or Alt-drag (Windows) the eye to the other side. Release the mouse button and then the key.

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

Combining objects using Pathfinder effects

Pathfinder effects, found in the Properties panel or the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder), are another way to combine shapes in a variety of ways. By default, when a Pathfinder effect such as Unite is applied, the original objects selected are permanently transformed.

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

  2. With the Selection tool (sp_selectiontool_lg_n.jpg) selected, drag across the three ellipses with the black strokes to select them all.


    You need to create a combined shape for the dinosaur head to the right. You will use the Properties panel and those shapes to create the final artwork.

  3. With the shapes selected, in the Properties panel on the right, click the Unite button (unite.jpg) to permanently combine the three shapes into a path.

  4. Choose Edit > Undo Add to undo the Unite command and bring all of the shapes back. Leave them selected.

Understanding shape modes

In the previous section, the pathfinders made a permanent change to the shapes. With shapes selected, Option-clicking (macOS) or Alt-clicking (Windows) any of the default set of pathfinders showing in the Properties panel creates a compound shape rather than a standard shape (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, press the Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) key and click the Unite button (unite.jpg) in the Properties panel.

    This creates a compound shape that traces the outline of what’s left after the shapes are combined. You’ll still be able to edit the original shapes separately.

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

  3. With the Selection tool, double-click the black stroke of the shape to enter Isolation mode.

    You double-clicked the stroke of the shape and not anywhere in the shapes because they do not have a fill.

  4. Click the edge of the ellipse at the top or drag across the path to select it.

  5. Drag the selected ellipse straight down from the blue dot in the center, if you see it, or from the path stroke. As you drag, press the Shift key. When in position, release the mouse button and then the Shift key.

  6. Press the Escape key to exit Isolation mode.

    You will now expand the artwork appearance. Expanding the appearance of 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.

  7. Click away from the shape to deselect it and then click to select it again. That way the entire object is selected, and not just the one shape.

  8. Choose Object > Expand Appearance.

    The Pathfinder effect is now permanent and the shapes are a single shape.

  9. Change the Fill color in the Properties panel to an aqua. Change the stroke weight to 0.


Reshaping a path

In Lesson 3 you learned about creating shapes and paths (lines). You can use the Reshape tool to stretch parts of a path without distorting its overall shape. In this section, you’ll change the shape of a line, giving it a bit of curve, so you can finish the nose of one of the dinosaurs.

  1. Make sure the Smart Guides are on (View > Smart Guides).

  2. With the Selection tool (sp_selectiontool_lg_n.jpg) selected, click the green path in the middle of the artboard.

  3. To make it easier to see, press Command and + (macOS) or Ctrl and + (Windows) a few times to zoom in.

  4. Click Edit Toolbar (more_options.jpg) at the bottom of the toolbar. Scroll in the menu that appears, and drag the Reshape tool (reshape_tool.jpg) onto the Rotate tool (sp_rotatetool_lg_n.jpg) in the toolbar on the left to add it to the list of tools.

  5. With the Reshape tool (reshape_tool.jpg) selected, move the pointer over the middle of the path. When the pointer changes (direct_select_dot.jpg), drag to the left to add an anchor point and reshape the path.

    The Reshape tool can be used to drag an existing anchor point or path segment. If you drag from an existing path segment, an anchor point is created.

  6. Move the pointer over the top anchor point of the path and drag it to the left a little. Leave the path selected.

4. Using the Width tool | Next Section Previous Section

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