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Working with Illustrator makes it easy to work with vector graphics and shapes. Being able to manipulate, clip and combine shapes is an essential capability we must have in order to work quickly and efficiently. Understanding how to combine objects to create complex shapes will help you to build complicated illustrations much quicker.

The Appearance Panel

To understand how to make shapes easier, you have to understand how they interact with each other. You have the normal Layers Panel, where you can stack your objects on top of each other, while keeping them separate. Notice that the object that is selected is represented by a square to indicate which layer it is on. When you have an object selected like this, you can click and drag the square icon to a different layer, and the object will jump to that layer.

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You also have the Appearance Panel, which allows you to stack strokes and fills in a specific order. This gives you complete control over how your object looks. Instead of your stroke taking away from part of your shape, you can place the fill in front of it, so that it doesn’t. This is especially handy when working with type and you don’t want to compromise the integrity of the lettering.

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Groups

You can group multiple shapes and objects together. This is extremely useful when you have complex shapes and you don’t want to have to select each piece. Then, when you want to edit an object within the group, you can double-click the group to go into a specialized editing mode that only affects the objects of that group. You can move them around, change colors, resize objects in the group, and anything else that you can think of. When you are done, you can either click the arrow in the top left corner of the screen, or double-click the canvas to return to normal mode in Illustrator.

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Clipping Masks

Clipping Paths are when you use a shape to mask multiple objects. Anything within the shapes area is visible, but everything outside of the shape’s bounds is not shown. The way Illustrator creates a Clipping Path is that the shape in which you want everything to be clipped needs to be on top. If it isn’t, you can go to Object> Arrange> Bring to Front. You can either hit Command/Ctrl+A or click and drag to select everything, and then go to Object> Clipping Mask> Make. You can also hit Command/Ctrl + 7. The first example shown below shows all of the objects and the second example shows them after the clipping mask has been applied. Notice that the top circle that we used as a clipping mask had a stroke, which disappeared after we used it as our clipping shape. The other objects contained within the clipping mask retained their strokes.

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Editing a Clipping Mask

Editing a clipping mask is very similar to editing a group of objects or shapes. You can double-click the clipping mask to go into an editing mode, where just the contents of the clipping mask are present. You can move them, delete them, change their colors, and more. When you are done, click the arrow in the top right corner or double-click the canvas to return to normal mode.

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Pathfinder Panel

The Pathfinder Panel is extremely handy when building shapes in Illustrator. You can combine simple shapes into a complex shape, and you can also subtract any shape from another to form other complex shapes. To use this panel, just select 2 overlapping shapes and click one of the options. It is really that simple. In the example below, you can see that the shapes on the left are separate. After clicking Minus Front, the front square is subtracted from the back one, creating the shape on the right.

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In the next example, I clicked Exclude to exclude the overlapping areas, which are where the corners overlap. This creates the hollow section in the middle of the shape.

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Align Panel

The Align Panel is a life saver when trying to align multiple objects. Instead of trying to align each one by hand, you can select all of the objects that you want to align, and select how you would like for them to be aligned, such as via the top, bottom, left, right, or centered.

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You can also use the Distribute settings to spread objects across a distance evenly. Simply position the outer objects where you would like for them to start and stop, select all of the objects, and then click Distribute. Illustrator spreads them out evenly from each other with a click of a button.

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Conclusion

Knowing how to quickly align, mold and shape objects in Illustrator can really help you to build shapes faster and easier. Illustrator is packed with tools to make your life easier by combining shapes and removing what you don’t need. Understanding these tools will allow you to harness the power of Illustrator so you can create quality vector graphics in little to no time at all.