You’ve probably heard of a Clipping Path in Photoshop. Well, a Clipping Mask in Illustrator is pretty much the same thing (Corel Draw calls it a “Powerclip,” and in Freehand, “Paste Inside”). It’s a vector path that masks, or “clips” out part of the image. Clipping Masks provides vector artists with more flexibility when building and organizing files. For designers, they can be scary at first, but are easy to de-mystify. Here we go:

In Photoshop and InDesign, Clipping Paths are often used to isolate an irregular shape in a photo to create a “cutout”. Since irregular vector shapes can be easily made, why would you need to use a Clipping Mask in Illustrator? Most of the time, they’re used to crop a set of irregular shapes into a neat, simple shape. In this regard, it can be helpful to think of them as “cropping masks.” Except with one benefit: the cropped or excluded part of the image doesn’t really go away, it’s just hidden. Let’s have a look.

Member Penfold has used a circle as a Clipping Mask in this illustration. The runner’s legs are masked out, forming a tight circular composition. But let’s say you wanted to use the runner by itself, without the circles. Had Penfold simply trimmed away the shapes outside the circle, you’d have to draw the feet. This way, the file has more flexibility for the designer, while retaining the aesthetic the artist intended.

How do you find them?

What is the first clue that you’ve downloaded a file that contains a Clipping Mask? It should be the file description. Though it is not required, it’s a good idea for contributors to include that information in their descriptions, just as a heads up for the designer. Another clue is this: You try to click on a single object in the file, and you can’t. OMG — I’ve downloaded a non-editible vector! What a rip! Hold on a minute. View the file in Outline mode. Now you can see that there are hidden pieces. You can also find Clipping Masks in a file by going to Select > Clipping Masks.

Outline mode

Now that you’ve found the mask(s), what can you do with it? If you simply want to get rid of it, select the group, then go to Object > Clipping Mask > Release. All the objects that were clipped are now revealed, and can be edited separately. The path that had been used as the mask is left behind, and will have a fill and stroke of None.

You can modify the mask itself by clicking the Edit Clipping Path button on The Control Bar The path will be selected for you, and you can make adjustments from there.

There are three things you can do to select and edit the paths inside a Clipping Mask, without releasing the mask.

1. Use the Direct Selection tool (also known as the white arrow). Simply click on any shape with this tool. Here I’ve selected and changed the color of one of the circles.

2. Target the path in the Layers panel. Expand the group (known as the “clipping set”) in the Layers panel, and find the object you want to edit. Click the target indicator to select it, then modify it as you wish. (For more on working with layers, see this article)

3. Go to Object > Clipping Mask > Edit Contents. Everything in the clipping set will be selected. You could use this method to recolor every object, for example.

How to make a Clipping Mask

Any closed shape can be used as a mask. The object(s) to be masked can be vector or raster. The path that will be used as the Clipping Mask should be on the very top of all objects to be masked. Simply go to Object > Clipping Path > Make, or press the keyboard shortcut Command/Control-7 (why 7? ‘Beats me).

Vector shape (green outline)

Masked photo

So why use Clipping Masks at all? Why not just crop off the excess? Cropping and trimming can result in extra paths, and areas of color that get broken into too many shapes. Think about the designer who downloads your file, and make it as easy and logical to edit as possible. Use a clipping mask to obscure objects from view, but leave those objects in tact.

Masked objects

Excess shapes and white gaps after trimming


Image credits:

running in circles by penfold

In The Shadows by theprint

Cheryl Graham (FreeTransform) began uploading to iStock in December 2005. She creates Adobe® Illustrator® tutorials for the Layers magazine Web site, as well as her own blog,