How to Use the Shape Builder Tool in Adobe Illustrator

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In Brief...

The Shape Builder Tool, which was added in Illustrator CS5, allows you to combine multiple shapes in various. You can merge shapes, as well as subtract one shape from another.

This tutorial applies to Illustrator CS5, CS6, and CC versions.

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  1. In the first example, an illustration of a hot-air balloon is being developed. The overall silhouette of the balloon has been created as a closed path. Line segments representing the seams have been added. Note that those lines are extending beyond the edges of the silhouette. In order for the Shape Builder to work properly, the paths must at least touch, so extending the lines beyond the edges ensures there won't be any weird gaps.
    Balloon Drawing
  2. The lower "collar" of the balloon will be created first. Using the Selection Tool, I'll click the silhouette shape, and Shift-click the horizontal curved line.
    Balloon Illustration
  3. Selecting the Shape Builder Tool, I'll then hover over the collar area, and click when the area shows a dot-screen highlight.
    Balloon Illustration
  4. Switching to the Selection Tool, the tail ends of the line outside the silhouette can be deleted.
    Balloon Illustration
  5. Still using the Selection Tool, I'll select the upper portion of the balloon shape, as well as the two vertical lines.
    Balloon Illustration
  6. With the Shape Builder Tool, I'll click on each of the three sections in selection, then switch back to the Selection Tool to delete the tail ends of the lines. Shown below is the balloon illustration with color applied.
    Balloon Illustration
  7. Although you may need to use your imagination, below is the beginning of a fish illustration.
    Fish Illustration
  8. I want the body, fins and tail to all be separate shapes, so first I'll select the body and tail shapes, then choose the Shape Builder Tool. This time I'll click, hold and drag through the body and just the portion of the tail that overlaps.
    Fish Illustration
  9. I also need to combine the overlapping sections of the fins with the body, so using the Selection Tool, I'll select the fins and body, then switch back to the Shape Builder Tool and drag through the overlapping section of the top fin shape, through the body and into the overlapping part of the bottom fin to combine them.
    Fish Illustration
  10. Here I've added another shape for the mouth, which I want to subtract from the body. I'll select the body and mouth shapes, then choose the Shape Builder Tool. This time I'll hold down the Alt and drag through just the mouth shape. Notice the minus sign [-] that appears in the cursor.
    Fish Illustration
  11. Here's the cartoon fish illustration with color applied.
    Fish Illustration

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Author: Kate Cahill

Kate Cahill is a graphic designer, writer, and creative director who has developed content for print and web. As creative director, she has produced award-winning work for agencies focused on the pharmaceutical and health and beauty aid industries. She has also served as production manager, with responsibility for the successful fulfillment of long-run print contracts. Kate has been delivering training for Webucator clients since 2010. Her enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology, combined with hands-on practical experience, brings an added benefit to her classes. Kate teaches real-world techniques and integration of Adobe software, as well as Microsoft PowerPoint, to produce a fully developed and cohesive brand identity.