How to Use the Illustrator Pathfinder

When drawing paths and shapes in Adobe Illustrator, there's nothing faster than the Pathfinder panel. Below, we've shared how to use the Illustrator Pathfinder to streamline the creative process, whether you're dealing with a fast-approaching deadline or just want to tighten up your skills. 

Using Shape Modes
First, launch Illustrator and select the Pen tool from the Tools panel. Then, go to "Window" > "Pathfinder" to enable the Pathfinder panel. As you draw shapes with the Pen tool, you can use the Pathfinder's Shape Modes to make certain areas invisible. For example, if you select multiple shapes with the Selection tool and then click the "Subtract" icon in the Pathfinder, the top shape will be completely visible, and any lower sections that cross the top shape will be removed. 

Besides "Subtract", the Pathfinder panel has three other Shape Modes:

  • Add: Combine all of the intersecting shapes into a single shape. The top-most shape will determine the final shape's attributes, including color.
  • Intersect: Delete all shape areas that don't overlap, and combine the remaining sections into a new shape. 
  • Exclude: Delete all shape areas that overlap, and create a compound path from the remaining shapes. 

Pathfinders
You can also use the Illustrator Pathfinder panel to instantly combine shapes. For example, if you draw a thick line with the Pen tool, draw a circle on both ends of the line, and then select all of the shapes, you can combine them by clicking the "Merge" icon. Only the outlines of the shapes (i.e. the areas that don't intersect) will remain. 

This is just one of the six Pathfinder features, located at the bottom of the Pathfinder panel. Here are the other five:

  • Divide: Cut shapes where they overlap, without changing the color attributes. After dividing, all of the shapes will still be selected, but you can move sections individually with the Direct Selection tool. 
  • Trim: Delete hidden sections of an object that are overlapped by another object. 
  • Crop: Retain everything located under the top object, while also removing strokes. 
  • Outline: Cut shapes where they overlap (just like the Divide option), but also remove the fills, so that only the outlines of each shape remain. 
  • Minus Back: Delete everything that overlaps the top shape, as well as any sections located underneath it. 

With just the Minus Front and Merge commands, you can create elaborate designs in a fraction of the time that it takes to draw them by hand. For even more detail, you can break up your shapes into even smaller sections with the "Divide" command. This works especially well with intersecting shapes, as the points of intersection will be used to divide the shapes. Make sure that all of the desired shapes are selected with the Selection tool, and then click the "Divide" icon in the bottom-left corner of the Pathfinder panel. 

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