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A Comprehensive Guide to the Pathfinder Panel

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Read Time: 6 mins
This post is part of a series called Guides to Illustrator Tools.
Seven Helpful Techniques That Every Adobe Illustrator Artist Should Know
A Comprehensive Guide to the Pathfinder Panel Part 2 - Screencast

You've probably used the Pathfinder panel to combine shapes and make new ones. But do you often find yourself clicking (and undoing) each icon in the panel until you get the look you want? Wouldn't it be easier to take some time and learn exactly what each function does? Here's a look at the über-useful Pathfinder panel. The Pathfinder Effects, which are found under the Effects menu, are covered in video format in this tutorial.

Video Tutorial

I've created this video tutorial that is a Part 2 to this text + image tutorial. There are some Pathfinder features that work better described via a screencast. As this is the second part, be sure to read through the tutorial below first.


First of all, the Pathfinder doesn't actually find paths. It may create new ones from existing shapes, but the name can be misleading to the beginner. The panel itself is divided into two rows. The top four icons are called "Shape Modes," and the bottom five are &mdash there's that word again &mdash "Pathfinders." Let's start at the top row, from left to right:

Note: If you have your Tool Tips turned on (Preferences> Show Tool Tips), you'll notice that a couple of the buttons are called one thing in the tip, but another in the Edit menu when you undo. "Unite" is the same as "Add," and "Minus Front" is the same as "Subtract." Just so you know.

Step 2

Refer to the diagram below to see how the four Shape Modes work:

Add/Unite &mdash Combines all the selected objects and merges them into a singe shape. If the objects are different colors, the merged shape takes on the attributes of the top-most object.

Subtract/Minus Front &mdash Uses the top object(s) as a sort of "cookie cutter" to subtract their shapes from the bottom object.

Intersect &mdash Deletes everything that does not overlap, and combines the rest into a single shape.

Exclude &mdash The opposite of Intersect. Instead of getting rid of everything that isn't overlapping, it gets rid of everything that does overlap. The resulting shapes become a compound path.

Of course you can use the Shape Modes with more than two objects. It is important to remember the stacking order when using the Shape Modes. Refer to the image below and observe these behaviors:

Add &mdash The resulting shape will take on the color attributes of the top-most object.

Subtract &mdash The front-most objects will be cut out from the back-most object.

Intersect &mdash Only the areas in which all the objects overlap will remain.

Exclude &mdash When an even number of objects overlap, the overlap is cut out. When an odd number of objects overlap, the overlap becomes filled. And again, the resulting shape will take on the color attributes of the top-most object.

Expand &mdash There's one more button on the top row, the Expand button. By default, Illustrator CS4 expands the results of the Shape Mode functions. That is, once the Shape Mode is executed, it can't be edited. If you want to leave the shapes un-expanded, hold down the Alt/Option key when clicking the Shape Mode. The Expand button will then be clickable.

In the image below, I applied the Add/Unite command to the star and circle. The expanded version and the un-expanded version look the same in Preview mode. But if you show the outlines, you can see that the two shapes are still present in the unexpended version. This allows you to move the objects before committing to the Shape Mode action. So the Expand button simply expands and gets rid of the unnecessary paths.

NOTE: In Illustrator CS3 and earlier versions, the default Expand behavior is the opposite of that in CS4. Un-expanded is the default. Option-clicking on a Shape Mode button will perform the Shape Mode and expand it at the same time.

The Pathfinders

Now, on to the bottom row of the panel. The image below shows each Pathfinder's name and icon on the left, followed by the original shapes, then the outline view of the Pathfinder applied to the shapes, and lastly a representation of how the resulting paths are distinct from one another.

Divide: Probably the most often used, Divide cuts the artwork into separate pieces wherever shapes overlap. Color attributes of the original shapes are not changed. After Dividing, you can use the Direct Selection or Group Selection tool to move the resulting pieces independently. You can also ungroup the shapes and move them with the Selection tool.

Trim: Removes the part(s) of the objects that are overlapping or hidden. If the objects are stroked, Trim removes the strokes. It does not merge objects with the same color attributes.

Merge: Depending on the shapes you start with, you might think that Merge does exactly what Trim does. Merge has one exception, however. It does merge overlapping objects filled with the same color (regardless of the stacking order).

Crop: Uses the topmost object to crop away everything else. Think of it as an inverse cookie cutter. It also removes strokes.

Outline: This is another Pathfinder that, at first glance, may seem to do nothing. But look closer and you'll see that it is sort of like Divide, only instead of individual shapes, the result is individual line segments

Minus Back: Does the Opposite of Minus Front/Subtract. Anything overlapping and in back of the frontmost object goes away.

Try the Pathfinders on several combinations of shapes to get a feel for them. Once you incorporate them into your workflow, you might want to tweak things a bit. Click the flyout menu on the side of the Pathfinder panel to bring up the options. They are as follows:

Precision: Controls the accuracy of how Illustrator draws the paths. A smaller number will more closely adhere to the original shapes. A larger one, not so much.

Remove Redundant Points: Check to this box to get rid of any points that are exactly on top of one another.

Divide And Outline Will Remove Unpainted Artwork: When you use Divide or Outline, sometimes you're left with unwanted shapes that have no fill or stroke. Click this box to remove them.

As you become more familiar with the Pathfinder, you will understand how useful and time-saving it can be!


Now you should have a good idea of what each Pathfinder panel function does. So the next time you find yourself randomly clicking buttons, stop and think. Once you get the result you want on the very first click, you'll see how useful and time-saving it can be!

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