Make a Clipping Mask in Adobe Illustrator: The Step-By-Step Guide

Make a Clipping Mask in Adobe Illustrator: The Step-By-Step Guide

7 min read
Geometric shapes on white circles on an olive-colored background

See this super, duper, uber-rad image above? Thinking, "Man, that's cool; how do you make that?" Or maybe you're thinking, "Oh yeah, the good ol' clipping mask effect- haven't used that in a design project in ages..."

Well, either way, you're in the right place! In this article, we will explore the ultra-delicious clipping mask tool.

This is one of the most commonly used tools in graphic design, with good reason. 

It enables you to make designs unique and eye-catching. It's one of the basics everyone should know how to accomplish in Illustrator.

Below, we'll walk you through how to create a clipping mask in Illustrator and tackle it in Vectornator. We'll throw in some design tips for taking your vector art to the next level with clipping mask effects, and hopefully, you'll finish the article having gained some valuable knowledge. Bookmark this baby to refer back to it any time you need.

What is a Clipping Mask?

"Masking" is an effect in graphic design where one image is placed like a "mask" over another. Basically, masks show parts of an object within a specific shape. See these hexagons in the image above. Cheesy, we know, but they give you a good idea of how clipping masks can be used.

According to Adobe,  In Illustrator, a "Clipping Mask" is "a group of layers to which a mask is applied." Clipping masks create an effect where the layers added on top of a shape are only revealed inside the bounds of that base shape (the mask).

What is the Difference Between a Layer Mask and a Clipping Mask?

In Adobe, you can create both layer masks and clipping masks. A layer mask hides or exposes different parts of a layer. A clipping mask uses the transparency of one layer to expose the visibility of another.

With a clipping mask, the bottom layer is the mask, while the top layer is "clipped" to the mask (the bottom layer). So, if you're filling text shapes with a pattern, the text will be on the bottom layer, which will be the mask, and the pattern will exist on a layer above that and become the "clipping," which will fit into the mask.

Clipping masks use multiple layers to hide portions of images, and layer masks use only one layer.

When to Use a Clipping Mask in Graphic Design

The mask feature is excellent for creating all kinds of intriguing designs. You can use the effect to:

  • Create interesting typography by applying a pattern, photo, or any kind of image. You can even have an entire illustration inside the text if you want!
  • Create engaging editorial designs. Editorial designers are no strangers to the clipping mask tool. From magazines to brochures, this effect can take simple text, headlines, and layouts to the next level.
  • Boost your illustration game by using the clipping mask in illustrations. In particular, this is the perfect tool for creating surrealist illustrations.
  • Create a collage effect. The clipping mask is perfect for creating a design that looks like a paper collage.
  • Create patterns inside shapes. This is what a clipping mask does on the most basic level, so when you want to apply a pattern inside a shape or text, this tool is your magic wand!

How to Make a Clipping Mask in Adobe Illustrator

For this tutorial, we'll show you how to mask text with a pattern. This is one of the most common looks you'll come across that's achieved with the clipping mask. There are a few ways to go about using the tool. We'll explore three methods below.

Method 1

To begin, you'll need your pattern object and your text ready in a new Illustrator document.

The object you're going to be using as a mask clipping could be anything. Why not try a photo or an abstract pattern?

  • Once you've got the main object (the text) and the pattern object (photo), follow the process below:
  • Make sure that the text is on top of the pattern.
  • If the text is behind the pattern, you can change this by selecting the text, right-clicking, choosing "Arrange" and "Bring To Front."
  • Next, you're going to clip the pattern inside the text.
  • Select both the text and the pattern.
  • Navigate to "Object"-> "Clipping Mask"-> "Make."
  • The shortcut for this action is “⌘+ ctrl + 7” on macOS.
  • Oh yeah! We've now got some mask magic going on and your text should be masked by your pattern.

It might not look right yet, but no worries. You can edit the mask to look exactly how you want. To adjust it, do the following:

  • Navigate to the Layers Panel and select "Layers." The menu will expand.
  • Here, you will find a "Clip Group," which will contain each element of the mask (i.e., the text and the pattern). You can select the pattern from within the Clip Group.
  • Now you'll be able to resize the pattern and move it around until it looks just right.
You can combine multiple patterns in your object by adding them to the “Clip Group.”

Method 2

In this method, we'll explain how to create the mask so you can edit your text afterward. This includes changing the actual word, as well as the font and other text properties.

  • Create a new Illustrator document that contains both your text and your pattern.
  • Make sure your text is brought to the front of all other objects, as explained in "Method 1" above.
  • Place the text on top of the pattern.
  • Navigate to the "Pathfinder" window.
  • Click "Pathfinder" on the top right corner.
  • Turn the "Compound Shape" button on by clicking the button on the top right corner.
  • Select "Make Compound Shape."
  • This is what will enable you to edit the text after you apply the pattern.
  • Now select both the text and the pattern together.
  • Right-click the selection.
  • Select "Make Clipping Mask" from the menu.
  • Alternatively, you can navigate to "Object"-> "Clipping Mask"-> "Make."
  • Alright! Your text will now contain your pattern.
  • Now you'll be able to press "T" for the "Type" tool and edit this text while keeping the clipping mask effect.

Method 3

In this method, we'll explain how to create a clipping mask for select items in a pattern. In the example below, you'll see that a clipping mask is only applied to some of the shapes. Let's take a look at how to accomplish this.

  • Create a clean Illustrator document and import your pattern or photograph.
  • Create the pattern.
  • Drag the pattern on top of the image.
  • Decrease the opacity of the pattern so you can see the image underneath.
  • Now hold down shift and select only the shapes from the pattern you want to have the clipping mask.
  • Navigate to the pathfinder window and merge these shapes together to create one vector shape. Under "Shape Modes," select "Unite" on the far left.
  • Now, you need to change this into a compound path. Navigate to "Object" -> "Compound Path" -> "Make."
  • Then hold down shift and click the image and the pattern together.
  • Right-click and select "Make Clipping Mask."

How to Create a Mask in Vectornator

In case you enjoy experimenting with various software, or you’re looking for an Illustrator alternative, we’ve also added some tips on creating a mask in Vectornator.

Masking in Vectornator is very simple! Any closed shape can be made into a mask. All you need to do is:

  • Select the individual object you want to mask (i.e., the shape, text, or object you want as the base).
  • Next, select the shape you want to use as a mask (i.e., the pattern or photo you want to cover your base shape.)
  • You can select both objects at once using the "Multi Selection Tool."
  • Now tap the "Mask Button." You can find this inside the Path Tab.
  • Inside the Path Tab, look out for this mask icon shown in the image below.
Graphic design app interface
  • The mask will immediately be applied when you tap the button.
  • The letter "M" will appear in the bottom corner of your masked object, so you know that a mask has been applied to this object.
  • To edit your Mask Shape, double click the masked object
  • You will now be able to adjust the mask to your preference. When you are satisfied with the finished mask, double click outside the area of the object.
Graphic design app interface

For a more in-depth Vectornator mask tutorial, you can check out this video or read the full article here.

Here's a gif of the process as well!

Graphic design app interface

Clipping Mask Inspiration for Your Creative Process

Taking an adventure down the rabbit hole of clipping mask inspiration on Pinterest, Behance, or Dribbble is definitely a couple of hours well spent; but in the meantime, we've curated just a few of our favorite examples of this effect working its magic to get you fired up and eager to design.

Transcendent Typography

Clipping masks are commonly used in typography. It’s a simple way to transform ordinary text into a work of captivating letter art.

Illustration Sensation

Clipping masks are excellent for illustration and digital art. This tool does wonders for helping artists bring their imaginations to life on the screen. You can create all kinds of surreal, fantastical, and entrancing effects.

Edgy Editorial

You can create drool-worthy editorial design when you use this tool right.

Show-Stopping Shapes

Take any simple shape and transform it into a work of art.

Illusion Confusion

Woah. Why not bend your viewers’ minds with a little optical illusion, courtesy of the clipping mask tool?

Strange and Surreal

Masking is the perfect feature for creating strange and surreal visuals. If Salvador Dalí worked in Illustrator, this would be his go-to feature without a doubt.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you learned something from this article! If you enjoy deep-diving into the world of graphic design, be sure to stay up to date with our blog and join our online community on Instagram, where we share design tips and inspiration.

Download Vectornator to Get Started

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Geometric shapes on white circles on an olive-colored background
Geometric shapes on white circles on an olive-colored background

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