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 »
Back to Illustrator Training Course

Related Articles

See the list of all Illustrator tutorials.
Learn 101 Illustrator tips and techniques for free.

About The Author: Tony Soh

Hi. I'm the founder of Vector Diary. Illustrator is my passion and I have written numerous tutorials on illustrator helping people learn illustrator. My most popular tutorial on learn illustrator has been a hit. It makes learning illustrator so easy and has benefited more than 20,000 people worldwide. Also, I've revealed some of my secret techniques in the premium tutorials. So don't forget to check it out!

Related Articles

0 Trackbacks

+Add Comment67 Comments

  1. Gravtar for LadyAngora
    LadyAngora July 23rd

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

  2. Gravtar for Sean O
    Sean O July 28th

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

  3. Gravtar for iStockdiary
    iStockdiary July 28th

    Hi Sean, Make sure the circle is on top of the key. Select both and click subtract from shape area.

  4. Gravtar for ivan
    ivan August 5th

    to show grid it’s not “window>show” grid
    it’s “view>show grid”

  5. Gravtar for Sean
    Sean August 5th

    Thank you! It worked this time. On to the next lesson =D

  6. Gravtar for Heidi
    Heidi August 5th

    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?

  7. Gravtar for iStockdiary
    iStockdiary August 6th

    Hi Heidi, try to double click with the Selection Tool to go into isolation mode to move the individual shapes.

  8. Gravtar for Britt Malka
    Britt Malka August 16th

    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.

  9. Gravtar for Leroy Simpson
    Leroy Simpson August 26th

    Another good lesson, Jah rasta

  10. Gravtar for emily
    emily August 30th

    i think i got it! thanks!

  11. Gravtar for Rodolfo
    Rodolfo November 17th

    That was a really good tutorial!! you make it so easy to learn!! thanks a lot!!

  12. Gravtar for Dwight
    Dwight December 11th

    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.

  13. Gravtar for Duke
    Duke December 26th

    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.

  14. Gravtar for Tissaka Senarath
    Tissaka Senarath March 1st

    Again.. great tutorial.. thank you so much!!! very easy to understand

  15. Gravtar for Ethienne
    Ethienne March 6th

    Love you guys!! you helped me a lot 😉

  16. Gravtar for lj
    lj March 12th

    What a great site. Thank you

  17. Gravtar for hung vannguyen
    hung vannguyen April 18th

    very good

  18. Gravtar for bill
    bill May 8th


  19. Gravtar for Adrian
    Adrian May 26th

    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?

  20. Gravtar for Vectordiary
    Vectordiary May 26th

    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.

  21. Gravtar for Adrian
    Adrian May 28th

    oh, thanks!

  22. Gravtar for Devin
    Devin June 9th

    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!

  23. Gravtar for Reginald Raju
    Reginald Raju June 11th

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

  24. Gravtar for Jennifer
    Jennifer August 12th

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

  25. Gravtar for aurorasogna
    aurorasogna October 28th

    I’ve CS4 but also with Alt/Option it doesn’t work. Any idea??

  26. Gravtar for damian
    damian March 20th

    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?

  27. Gravtar for Tony Soh
    Tony Soh March 20th

    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.

  28. Gravtar for Johnni
    Johnni June 13th

    # Duke December 26th, 2008

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

  29. Gravtar for Natrak
    Natrak June 17th

    I got CS4 and moving circles inside the compound doesn’t work for me as well.

  30. Gravtar for Mbala
    Mbala June 28th

    Perfect!! I got the flow. Illustrator is my thing!! Thanks alot for the lesson

  31. Gravtar for AziF
    AziF July 11th

    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!

  32. Gravtar for abdullah
    abdullah August 16th

    thank.s great site

  33. Gravtar for j0hnb0y
    j0hnb0y October 26th

    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



  34. Gravtar for Paopi
    Paopi November 27th

    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? 🙂

  35. Gravtar for MichaelV
    MichaelV November 29th

    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….

  36. Gravtar for nicxf
    nicxf January 16th

    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.

  37. Gravtar for jana
    jana January 26th

    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.

  38. Gravtar for Lenore
    Lenore April 15th

    Tx so much nicxf,
    that’s exactly what I needed for my last punch!

  39. Gravtar for oldmantg
    oldmantg April 25th

    hihi, tôi rất thích các bài viết của trang này.

  40. Gravtar for Katherine
    Katherine June 16th

    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. …?

  41. Gravtar for Haidang
    Haidang July 19th

    I really like this tutorial! thanks a lot !

  42. Gravtar for Nanda Scott
    Nanda Scott August 19th

    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!

  43. Gravtar for kerry
    kerry August 22nd

    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 : )

  44. Gravtar for Z-Rabbit
    Z-Rabbit September 5th

    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!

  45. Gravtar for Andrzej
    Andrzej November 6th

    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.

  46. Gravtar for Tony Soh
    Tony Soh November 6th

    You can just go to Object > Expand the compound shape.

  47. Gravtar for marso
    marso December 11th

    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 🙂

  48. Gravtar for marso
    marso December 12th

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

  49. Gravtar for Mariane Meira
    Mariane Meira January 17th

    Hey guys…thank you so much! This has been so helpfullll!!!!!

  50. Gravtar for Eric
    Eric January 26th

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

  51. Gravtar for Stuck In Time
    Stuck In Time February 16th

    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.


  52. Gravtar for RSCdev
    RSCdev March 9th

    Hey @Duke, thanks for explaining it better! I got it. Cheers!

  53. Gravtar for hannah lake
    hannah lake May 5th

    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

  54. Gravtar for Grant
    Grant July 1st

    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!

  55. Gravtar for Muhammad Adil
    Muhammad Adil July 2nd

    Thank you great

  56. Gravtar for Rajitha
    Rajitha July 8th

    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.

  57. Gravtar for Rajitha
    Rajitha July 8th

    @Grant : Thanks for the tip man, that really helped. (I’m on CS 5)

  58. Gravtar for Gi
    Gi July 10th

    Very useful! Thanks so much for the help 🙂

  59. Gravtar for Michelle
    Michelle September 10th

    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?

  60. Gravtar for MikeH
    MikeH October 13th

    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.

  61. Gravtar for melissa
    melissa March 5th

    Actually it is best post.It is very helpful and important.

  62. Gravtar for Cindy Stout
    Cindy Stout March 10th

    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!

  63. Gravtar for Shoaib
    Shoaib April 2nd

    Thnku so much,
    that’s exactly what I needed for my last punch!

  64. Gravtar for Luis Martínez
    Luis Martínez April 6th

    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.

  65. Gravtar for Luis Martínez
    Luis Martínez April 6th

    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.

  66. Gravtar for May 1st

    This is one of the green weight loss pills for men. Polyphenols have antioxidant properties.
    Uterine fibroids plague as many as feasible,
    like a single review may allure you to place orders instantly, on
    some bogus product.

  67. Gravtar for Overnight Reputation
    Overnight Reputation May 2nd

    What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious know-how regarding unpredicted feelings.