Illustrator tutorial – using clipping masks

Illustrator tutorial – using clipping masks

A clipping mask is a simple way of trimming off parts of your artwork – like using a cookie cutter, or a crop. The beauty of clipping masks is that you can use any filled shape you like – from simple circles and rectangles to hand drawn shapes or text.

I’m using this design, created using filled rectangles for the stripes, and custom Art brush strokes for the flower. Here’s how mask it inside a circle using a clipping mask to crop away the excess.

Draw a filled circle (the colour doesn’t matter) over the area that you still want to be visible. Select all of the artwork including the circle. Then go to Object > Clipping mask > Make

The result is that you are left with your design trimmed inside a circle

So the orange circle disappears, and you are left with the cropped design. Note, the clipping mask shape HAS to be on the top of the rest of the design. Make sure by selecting it and pressing Ctrl + Shift + ] or go to Object > Arrange > Bring to front.

But Wait, It’s not really gone – It’s just kind of hidden..

What if you want to make this masked effect ‘permanent’ and use/move/re-colour the various shapes in the design? Because, right now, if you click on the design, you will still see the rectangular bounding box of the original artwork. It’s annoying. Sometimes you may want to re-use a masked element that you created with a clipping mask. Here’s how..

Select the whole design using the black arrow selection tool. Now go to Object > Expand appearance.

Next open the Pathfinder window (window > pathfinder) and click on divide.

Go to Object > Ungroup.

It’s now possible to select the individual parts of the design. You can recolour them, drag them away – use them as you want. Much better.

Finally, expanding and dividing clipping masks like this allows you to use your designs as Art brushes.


  1. Nice and informative site. Keep up the good work.

  2. Mel,
    I was just looking at your tutorial. In CS4, expand appearance is no longer necessary to release the clipping mask and it’s probably better to use trim rather than divide, as divide cuts through all the art while trim keeps the top objects in one piece. That makes it so you don’t have to re-unite your objects later. I do you owe a bit of gratitude though as I was doing a film separations today with a ton of intersecting lines and you reminded me that trim will take care of that in no time, so thank you.

  3. Thanks for this tutorial. I see that it works great for vectors. How about for raster images such as a JPG? The instructions don’t work for JPG, and I am left with the box of the original raster image still present. Am I missing something? Is this something that Illustrator cannot do?

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