Illustrator #4: Combine Shapes

This short tutorial will show you how to create more complex geometric shapes combining two or more shapes into one by adding, subtracting or overlapping them.

Previous Tutorial

Illustrator #3: Editing ShapesLearn a wide range of techniques to to draw and edit shapes.

Set Up

Create new Illustrator file, 10x10cm in RGB space and call it “Tutorial 4”.

Draw a group of 3 overlapping rectangles,  then copy it 4 times (Select tool + click and drag + hold ALT key), similar to the sketch below:


If you were wondering how to achieve this transparent effect, click on Opacity in the Control Bar and change opacity to, say, 30%.


You can see all this in greater detail in this video:


Combining Multiple Shapes Into One

Using Pathfinder

Pathfinder is a tool that lets combine shapes into one through adding or subtracting them in several different ways. Open the Pathfinder Panel by clicking the Pathfinder icon in the Dock.

You will see, among other things, 4 Shape Modes icons that will combine shapes using different rules.


Select first group of 3 rectangles, and click UNITE icon. Then repeat the process with other 3 groups of rectangles, using different Shape Mode for each group. You will get this result:


So what exactly happened here?

UNITE (add) – This shape mode simply joins the shapes together.

SUBRACT – This shape mode subtracted two front rectangles from the back one.

INTERSECT – This shape mode resulted in intersection between the selected rectangles.

EXCLUDE (difference) – This feels a bit complex because there are 3 shapes, but basically this shape mode is inverse of intersection (try with two objects instead to get a better understanding).

In a video:

This is all nice in theory, but what does that mean in practice?


Pathfinder Example

Let’s delete all these rectangles and start from scratch.

Image speaks a thousand words, so:


And video speaks a thousand images:


Note the use of Smart Guides to place circles and draw lines.

Also if you were wondering how to draw a circle specifying its center first, keep ALT key pressed while drawing it.

Now if we try to combine these shapes into a basketball via Pathfinder > Subtract, we will get result that we probably didn’t expect:


This is because, although small circles had an outline and no fill, Illustrator still considers them solid shapes when subtracting (and discards lines altogether).
In fact, when if activate Outline Preview (View Menu > Outline) we’ll see the “raw” shapes without any color styles applied to them, and will understand the results of Pathfinder subtraction much better:


So what we need to do first is to convert those thick yellow strokes into shapes on their own.


Create Filled Shapes Out Of Strokes

This operation is fairly simple. Select all the yellow outlined objects (2 circles and 2 lines) and go to Object Menu > Path > Outline Stroke. You will hardly notice anything happened, but let’s compare these two images, where left was before and the right image was after the Outline Stroke command:


Noticed how the blue outline (the one that always marks the objects you select)  changed, and it no longer runs through the middle of the stroke but outlines it?
Let’s see the Outline Preview again, to confirm that the yellow lines were actually turned into filled shapes:



Now we can use Pathfinder Substract Shape Mode and finally get the “basketball” shape:


All of this again, this time on video:

This technique is very useful from creating graphics like logos to working on things such as maps.

Next time, we’ll get into more complex drawings and the way to organize them efficiently.

Next Tutorial

Illustrator #5: Organize Your DrawingsIllustrator files may become very complex so organizing your objects into shapes and groups is an essential part of an efficient workflow.


Any questions?

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