Compound Paths in Adobe Illustrator: Complete Guide

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A Compound Path in Adobe Illustrator is when there are two or more shapes, and they interact with each other in a way that holes appear where they overlap. In other words, a compound path consists of two or more overlapping objects, and where they are overlapping, it's see-through.

How a Compound Path Acts

A compound path acts more like a grouped object where two or more paths or objects turn into one path. However, the objects in a compound path cannot be modified individually. You can change the shapes of each object but not how they look. You cannot modify or change the design, effects, or appearance attributes for any individual objects of a compound path as they are confined to one single path.

You can find compound paths in the Layers Panel, and you can see how they appear there. It will show that all the objects of a compound path are in one layer. It does not show different layers for different components of the compound path.

Compound path in Adobe Illustrator

Differences Between Compound Paths and Groups

You may be wondering if the group and the compound path work exactly the same, then where does the difference lie?

Although compound paths act as grouped objects, you cannot change or modify stroke attributes, appearance attributes, fill, effects, or graphic styles for individual components of the compound path.

Groups, on the other hand, act as a vessel that carries various objects, shapes, and paths. In a nutshell, a compound path merges two or more shapes into a single path, whereas in groups, all the elements are individual objects. Unlike the compound path, all the components of grouped objects are displayed in different layers in the layer panel, so you can change them separately.

Grouped layers in Illustrator

How to Make a Compound Path

Step 1:

Draw two or more shapes. Make sure you draw one shape bigger than the others so you can place the smaller ones on the bigger shape.

Star shapes

Note: You can put an image underneath to mask the image into the shapes.

Step 2:

Select both objects (shapes or images if you use any) using the Selection Tool (V).

Multiple star shapes selected

Step 3:

Go to Object, choose Compound Path, and select Make. You can also use the shortcut key Ctrl + 8 Your shapes are turned into a compound path.

Making a compound path

Your compound path is see-through or transparent where the shapes overlap.

All stars in one compound path

How to Release a Compound Path

  • Select the compound path you want to release.
  • Go to Object, choose Compound Path, and select Release. The shortcut key for this option is Alt+ Shift+ Ctrl+ 8
Releasing a compound path
Compound path in the shape of a donut

How to Adjust the Appearance of the Compound Path

You can adjust the appearance of the compound path using the Attribute Panel. In the attribute panel, you'll find two ways, the Non-Zero Winding Fill Rule and the Even-Odd Fill Rule from which you'll choose to make adjustments to the compound path. Both of these ways follow a mathematical rule to determine which areas should be filled and which ones should be transparent or see-through.

  • First, use the Selection Tool (V) to select the Compound Path.
  • Go to Window and select Attributes.
  • Toggle between Non-Zero Winding Fill Rule and the Even-Odd Fill Rule and select whichever you want to apply.
Multiple shapes
Even Odd fill rule

Use of Compound Paths for Clipping Mask

When we want to insert an image into a shape, we mask the image into the shape as a clipping mask. Suppose you have more than one shape and want an image masked into those shapes as a clipping mask. In that case, Illustrator randomly chooses one of the top objects or shapes for masking the image, as it cannot choose more than one shape for the clipping mask.

This happens because all the shapes here are separated and individual, and Illustrator only chooses one shape for clipping-mask. Hence, to mask the image into all the shapes, you first must make all the shapes as one single object.

But how to do that? The answer to that question is Compound Paths. Simply turn all the shapes into a compound path.

Making a clipping mask
Clipping mask without compound path

The compound path turns several paths into one single path. It means when you apply a compound path to all of your shapes, you're actually turning the shapes into one single shape.

When you try to mask the picture into these shapes, all the shapes work as one, and the image will be masked appropriately.

Step 1:

Bring the image you want to mask into the shapes and place it on the artboard. Make sure you place it right and embed the image if necessary.

Step 2:

Draw your shapes and place them over the image as you like.

Six squares
Six squares on top of city illustration

Step 3:

Now select all shapes and choose Compound Path from the right-click menu.

Selecting all the square shapes
Making a compound path

Step 4:

Now all your shapes are turned into a compound path. Select both the compound shape and the image.

Selected compound path
City illustration with shapes as a compound path

Step 5:

Go to Object> Clipping Mask> Make. Or you can apply a clipping mask by using the right-click menu.

Making a clipping mask

Now when you click on clipping mask, Illustrator will not randomly choose one shape. Since the shapes are already turned into a compound path, they act as one shape, and the image is now masked into all the shapes.

City illustration shown in six square shapes thanks to the clipping mask

I hope this article will guide you in using the Compound Path competently.