Clipping masks are an indispensable tool in the arsenal of any graphic designer who uses Adobe Illustrator. With their easy-to-use controls and instant results, they make it possible to seamlessly integrate images and graphics to produce stunning visuals in an instant. 

Learn how to incorporate clipping masks into your own designs by exploring their ins and outs, from their basic definition to practical applications and four techniques for implementation.

What Is a Clipping Mask?

A photo of a hammock hanging between two trees with a blue tropical ocean visible in the background. The shape of a thought bubble is superimposed on the center of the photo, and within it is a handwritten list that reads ‘Remember: bikini, passport, novel, plane ticket, iphone.’
In the Skillshare class “Master Masks in Adobe Illustrator – A Graphic Design for Lunch™ Class,” teacher Helen Bradley shows students the type of design that’s possible with the use of clipping masks. 

The Adobe Suite is full of software programs used and loved by visual creatives worldwide, and Illustrator is no exception. First released in the 1980s, Illustrator is now the industry standard vector graphics editor and design program. 

Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Adobe, Illustrator is chock-full of cutting-edge features, many of which are powered by AI and advanced algorithms. Depending on your goals, you can use those features to create logos for clients, digitize sketches and everything in between. But here, we’ll be focusing on one of the program’s more simple (but no less useful) tools: the clipping mask.

In short, the clipping mask is a powerful feature that enables graphic designers to restrict the visibility of a portion of their artwork to a specific shape or path. In other words, it clips the artwork to the shape of the mask.

Think of it as a stencil or cookie cutter placed over your work, which only allows what’s underneath it to be visible within its boundaries. This technique is particularly useful when creating intricate designs or quickly composite multiple elements.

Pro tip: A clipping mask and the object(s) it’s masking are called a “clipping set.”

When to Use a Clipping Mask in Graphic Design

The graphic design software Adobe Illustrator open on a computer. The center workspace area is occupied by an illustration of a woman in a red top and white shorts. The user has copied the red shirt from the illustration and moved it onto the white canvas in the center of the screen, where they’re adding a white-speckled texture to it. 
In the Skillshare class “Applying Texture in Illustrator Using Clipping and Transparency Masks,” teacher Josie Adams employs a clipping mask to add a speckled pattern to an illustration of a red blouse.  

Knowing when to deploy a clipping mask can speed up and simplify your graphic design workflow. 

Here are some scenarios where a clipping mask can come in handy:

  • Create interesting typography: Use a clipping mask to apply a pattern, texture or image within the confines of your text. This can add depth, detail and visual interest to any typographic design. 
  • Develop engaging editorial designs: Employ clipping masks to seamlessly blend images and text, creating captivating editorial layouts for magazines, newsletters and more.
  • Create a collage effect: Combine multiple images or graphics into a cohesive collage by utilizing clipping masks to control their shapes and visibility.
  • Add patterns inside shapes: Use clipping masks to fill shapes with intricate patterns or images and add layers of complexity to your designs.
  • Design unique social media ad creatives: Craft eye-catching social media ad visuals by using clipping masks to incorporate images and graphics with precision.
  • Isolate edits to a single layer: A clipping mask can also single out a specific area of an image you want to edit, without affecting the rest of its layers. 

4 Ways to Make a Clipping Mask

Adobe Illustrator open on a computer. Cursive text surrounded by floral designs is visible in the center of the screen, and the user has edited a portion of the text to look metallic gold instead of flat white. 
In the Skillshare class “Photoshop & Illustrator Techniques: Add Gold Foil Texture to Your Artwork,” teacher Taylor Shannon uses a clipping mask to transform text with a metallic gold effect.  

You can use several different methods to create clipping masks Adobe Illustrator. Here are four of the most straightforward: 

Method 1: Keyboard Shortcut

Select the object you want to mask and the shape you want to use as a mask. Then, press Control +7 on Windows (or Command + 7 on Mac) to create the clipping mask.

Method 2: Objects Menu

With your two objects selected, navigate to the Object menu in the overhead toolbar, choose Clipping Mask and then click Make to create the clipping mask.

Method 3: Right-Click

Select the two objects, right-click with your mouse or touchpad and choose Make Clipping Mask from the context menu to create the clipping mask.

Method 4: Layer Panel 

Arrange the object and the shape to be used as the mask in the Layers panel. Ensure the masking object is at the top of the group or layer, then click the group or layer’s name. Next, find the Make/Release Clipping Masks button at the bottom of the Layers panel and click it. 

Boost Your Adobe Illustrator Skills

Mastering the clipping mask tool opens up a wealth of creative possibilities in Adobe Illustrator. Whether you’re an experienced designer or just starting out, learning how to better incorporate clipping masks into your workflow can take your designs to new heights. 

Ready to take your Illustrator know-how to the next level? Skillshare’s online Adobe Illustrator classes can help you explore the essentials, nail the basics, discover new tips and tricks and more.

Written By

Carrie Buchholz-Powers

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