Day 9: Creating Compound Paths

Almost all objects in over daily life can be built with basic shapes. By drawing shapes using our basic shape tool, we can use compound path to combine or subtract shapes to create what we need.

What is Compound Path?

Compound path is made out of at least two objects. You can add, subtract and intersect shapes to form a compound path.

Compound Path Cheat Sheet

I have compiled a cheat sheet to show how it looks like using different functions of compound path. You can see the final effect after we applied the compound path to three colored circles.

Compound Path Cheat Sheet

Creating an Ancient Key Using Compound Path

In this tutorial, I will show you how to create an ancient key using compound paths rather than using Pen Tool in our previous tutorial.

Turning on the Grids

Go to View>Show Grid to turn on the grids, then go and turn on Snap to Grid. With the grid and snapping turned on, you can easily snap objects to the grid.

First draw a Circle using your Shape Tools, hold Alt/Option as you click and drag a new copy beside it.

Duplicate a new circle and place it on top.

Next, select the Rectangle Tool and continue building up your key shape.

Swap the Fill and Stroke for the object, this will show you all the objects we have.

Using the Selection Tool, select the whole shape and go to Window>Pathfinder to bring up the Pathfinder. Select Add to shape to combine the objects.

You can still make changes to the compound path at this stage. Try moving the top circle below to see how it works. To do this, double click with the Selection Tool to go into isolation mode to move the individual shapes.

Next we will swap it back to black fill again, draw a circle in the middle which we will punch a new hole there. Select both shapes and select Subtract from shape area.

Here is the final illustration.

Next Lesson: Working with Color and Strokes »
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67 thoughts on “Day 9: Creating Compound Paths”

  1. wow, i never knew you could still change the compound path after selecting ‘add to shape’… i’m always using the ‘merge’ tool!

  2. Mine didn’t work like that. Instead of removing the middle, it took the whole thing with it! What could be causing this?

  3. I can’t seem to manipulate the individual circle after using Add to shape. The entire compound path is moving altogether. What did I miss?

  4. Swap the Fill and Stroke … after I’ve found it, it only made some of my key black. Besides, why should I keep down Alt/Option to draw the second cirkle? Give up for now 🙁 Too many things I do not understand.

  5. Just wanted to drop you a note on Compound Path lesson: Creating an Ancient Key. I found it very enlightening, and as a matter of fact; since Iv’e been visiting your site (less than two weeks), working in Illustrator has become less of a chore. Thanks for all your instruction.

  6. To those who have trouble –
    You must hold down the alt/option key while clicking the “add to shape / unite” button in the pathfinder window. This way, you’ll be able to move each circle independently in isolation mode.

    Try it this way. Draw 3 random circles with the ellipse tool, all overlapping eachother like the key. If you click the unite button in the pathfinder window, they’ll all now be one object and move together as one object, even in isolation mode. BUT, if you click the unite button while holding down alt/option, now they’ll be separate objects in isolation mode.

  7. I dont understand the moving of the circles, it doesnt move for me, it moves the whole key not the circle.

    i’m using cs4, would that change how it at all?

  8. For CS4, it is different. Compound Paths get expanded on default. Hence, you will need to press Alt/Option before you click the Pathfinder effects to make it editable.

  9. I’m almost an expert at photoshop, but trying to go from Photoshop, to Illustrator, is a DAUNTING task. Thanks for this tutorial! Its insanely helpful, and I’m starting to get the hang of this!

  10. Reginald Raju

    me neva used ol dose compound and pathfinder effects… its amazing.. me used to draw ol dose shape.. buh its easier to use pathfinder..

  11. Another excellent lesson. This is enjoyable and so easy to understand. Thanks again for being so generous and sharing your knowledge!

  12. if i place a new circle on an existing circle an try to subtract, it subtracts the wrong circle, not the little one , but one of the three big circles. Can someone explain this to me?

  13. Subtract always take the top level object and subtract away the object that is directly below. In this case it will be the circle in the 2nd level instead of the bottom circle.

  14. # Duke December 26th, 2008

    It adds the extra, that the tut missing. Very usefull. Thx Duke

  15. Dear: I Try : “You can still make changes to the compound path at this stage. Try moving the top circle below to see how it works. To do this, double click with the Selection Tool to go into isolation mode to move the individual shapes.”
    Into Illustrator CS4 but don’t works? You can help me!
    Best Regards!

  16. Hi,
    Thanks very much for the tuts….this lesson took me a bit of time to get my head around but I got there in the end !!!
    Cant wait for the next one



  17. Thank you for this series 🙂

    However, like the other CS4 users, I couldn’t move the objects, even after using alt/option key. Any other way that we can try, perhaps? 🙂

  18. DAY9: The title of this lesson scared me a little – Compound Paths – but it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. Although, some of the finer points ARE a bit tricky – and not being totally au fait with many of the commands (yet) I find I have to go over it many times until it sort of works.
    Hopefully things will get easier as I become more proficient and more aware of all the common tasks.
    The terminology is one thing I AM having a bit of a struggle with. For example: ‘Swap the Fill and Stroke for the object’ and ‘go into isolation mode’ and ‘swap it back to black fill’ and ‘minus back’ (in the cheat sheet – which I got totally lost in BTW). Day10 beckons….

  19. using illustrator CS5 I found a couple of slight differences to the tutorial (which was excellent and I’m really enjoying them so far)
    1. As mentioned above, you need to hold down alt/option key to make the paths remain inidivually editable when you’re merging them;
    2. Before it’ll let you punch that final hole, you have to click the ‘expand’ button on the original set of paths to fully merge them before it’ll allow you to punch through. i tested this on a couple other shapes too and it seems to be the rule.

  20. to nicxt: I found another trick for CS4 (maybe it works for CS5 as well). You don´t have to click expand, before punching the hole. Just keep your shapes in stroke, instead of fill, add the hole, select all shapes and Alt click on Substract (Minus). Fill the shape and you have it. This way you can still move and change each separate shape.

  21. What am I doing wrong? When I try to use pathfinder on my circles, it tells me that Pathfinder effects should usually be applied to groups, layers, or type objects, and that it may not have any effect on the current selection. …?

  22. Dude, there’s something you’re doing here that you’re not telling anyone else. I can’t replicate each image because something you did is missing here. I can’t get the same image because when I click Swap Fill and Stroke like you said it doesn’t show me the overlapping lines. I’m completely lost on this because I don’t know what you’re doing, please help me!

  23. Jana suggestion worked perfectly. I still don’t even know what expanding is, but sounds like if I can avoid it at this stage, it’s a good thing : )

  24. NICXF: 2. Before it’ll let you punch that final hole, you have to click the ‘expand’ button on the original set of paths to fully merge them before it’ll allow you to punch through. i tested this on a couple other shapes too and it seems to be the rule

    Hell yeah! I was messing with this for like 30 minutes before I got it to work. You’re a life saver!

  25. Hello I just starting my own Illustrator project and I have filing that your blog will be very help full for me.
    I have some question about illustrator compound path and I can’t find answer anywhere. When I’m creating two overlapped path lets say two circles. Small and large. Than I try using pathfinder to cut hole in the bigger one. but I don’t wont them to create compound path. Can I do something like this.

  26. thanks for this. btw, after selecting multiple shapes, you have to ‘Alt-click Pathfinder->Add’ to make the separate shapes editable after combinining them. Coz, if you just do ‘click Pathfinder->Add’, they cant be editable again. 🙂 ijust figured this now.hehe.

    thank you for this whole series of AI tute 🙂 i’m going to the next lesson now 🙂

  27. what i said was said by Duke and Vectordiary already. 🙂 i’m just happy that i actually learn this time 🙂 thanks guys…

  28. Double clicking the Selection Tool brings up a Move dialog box, and does not make the shapes editable. I am using CS5.

  29. In CS5 you have to hold down ALT before & then click on the “Unite” or “Add”. It will then temporarily make it like that. After that you can go into isolation mode & edit it. Worked for me.

    Here’s the source:

    Thanks For the tutorials, I hope you’ll fix this soon ‘cos this is a major issue for most of the people going through your tuts.


  30. when i try to use compound path it doesnt even come up as an option its grey out so i cant click on it. does anyone have any idea why? i have CS5

  31. CS5 Use shapebuilder tool.

    Try this: Draw one circle on top of another. Select both shapes (using shift). Select shapebuilder tool – as you hover it over each shape it will be ‘grayed out’ – Alt click over the shape you want to delete and voila!

  32. Too bad I did not read the comments when I was in trouble with Add to shape and moving the circle after that.

    This has been mentioned in other comments, CS5 users need to hold down ALT key when you click Unite to Add to shape if you want to be able to move the objects in the Isolation Mode.

    Thanks for the tut.

  33. I’m having trouble understanding “Swap the Fill and Stroke for the object, this will show you all the objects we have.”
    I changed my fill from white to black, my stroke is in black but when I select either/or, I never seem to get a stroke (outline).
    Any tips?

  34. I was having problems moving a circle when in isolation mode, then I tried holding down the control (alt didn’t work)key whilst clicking the add to shape area and it worked, I could move shapes in isolation mode.
    Using CS3 on a Windows 7 box.

  35. I am researching things like this that give excellent samples for the steps to take in this kind of art. I look forward in learning more from this site. This is awesome. Thank you!

  36. Illustrator has a way of turning me mad. After I create the small circle inside the key, if I attempt to change its color, it changes the color of the key too. If I swap fill an stroke, it swaps not only in small circle but in key too. Lastly, if I select both shapes and click on the subtract thing, it complains that I need to select two intersecting paths. Can anybody explain me what is going on? I just don’t get it.

  37. Actually I found out that my problem is solved if I exit isolation mode BEFORE I create the small circle. Then, I can subtract the shapes ONLY if I keep alt/option pressed while clicking on “minus front” shape mode.
    I completed the exercise, but I am utterly confused and don’t get a thing. It all seems random and crazy to me.

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