How to Remove Background in Adobe Illustrator

Create a path around the object that you want to use from this image. You can use either the Pen Tool or the Image Trace option. Once you have the path, you can use a clipping mask to remove the background.

My name is April, and I’ve been working in the graphic design field for 14+ years now. In Adobe Illustrator, you are given tools to do many different things and kinds of design. While Illustrator is vector-based, sometimes a layout or design will call for the need to use a raster graphic in your design.

Maybe depending on what part of the raster graphic you are trying to emphasize, you may want to remove the background. I am going to show you two ways to achieve this, solely in Illustrator. 

If you also have access to Photoshop, you could remove the background as well, but that’s for a different day.

Let’s get to it. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Pen tool allows you to create a custom path around an object or image.
  • Image Trace can quickly provide a trace of your image.
  • Clipping masks are great for removing part of a graphic or image that you don’t want to be visible in your design.

Note: The screenshots from this tutorial are taken from Adobe Illustrator CC Windows version. 

Method 1: Using Pen Tool

For this method, we will use the pen tool to create a path around an object, and then use a clipping mask (made from the path) to remove the background.

Step 1: Add the raster image to Adobe Illustrator. To do this, go to the File menu, and choose Place.

Navigate to where your file is, click on it, then click Place.

You see that the image is not embedded. 

Step 2: It is my preference to embed the images into my document so that I don’t have to deal with broken links and trying to keep images all together. 

Note: Embedding the image will increase your file size. To embed the image, make sure your image is selected and click Embed in the Control Panel at the top of the user interface.

The X is gone from the middle of your image, so now you know it is embedded.

Now we are ready to draw our path. 

Step 3: Choose the Pen Tool from the toolbar or use the keyboard shortcut P to activate the Pen Tool.

Time to draw our path. My path is currently filled with white. Click to make a point, click and drag to make a curved point, and keep on going.

Eventually, you will draw a path around the object you want to remove the background of. 

For the last leg of the path, you will notice a circle as you are about to connect to the first/last point. That circle tells you it will be a closed path. 

This is important so that you can have a clipping mask later. Also, you may have noticed I switched to a white stroke on my path so I could see the line where I was drawing.

I have switched to a brown fill on my path so I can check out the details around my object (butterfly) to see if I need to adjust my path.

My path is ready, so now I want to select both the path and my image. You can do this by clicking one, holding Shift, and clicking the other.

Step 4: With both items selected, navigate to the overhead menu Object > Clipping Mask > Make.

Our path acted as our clipping mask and now the background has been removed.

Now you can place your clean object on a new background!

Method 2: Using Image Trace

Similarly to above with the Pen tool above, we are going to create a path to act as a clipping mask. This time, we are going to use Image Trace to create that path.

Step 1: Place and embed the image in Adobe Illustrator.

Step 2: Now we want to copy our image, and paste it on top. You can use Ctrl/Command + F to paste in place on top. Or go to the Layers panel and copy the image that way.

Step 3: In the Control or Properties panel, you will see Image Trace. Click the down arrow and we are going to start with the 3 colors option. This means Illustrator will trace the image with just 3 colors.

If you get this notice, it is okay. If you haven’t saved in a while, click Cancel, save your document, and then start the auto trace again. The higher the resolution, the more fine of a trace it can do.

Here is our result with 3 colors. Not great for what we are trying to do. We need everything in the background to be a separate color from our butterfly.

You can use the Image Trace panel to play around with the settings and fine-tune the trace to what will help you the most. If you are not seeing the Image Trace option, go to Windows > Image Trace.

Play around with the color amount until you get a result you like. For me, 20 colors provided enough separation from the background.

Step 4: With the traced image selected, you want to click the Expand button in the Control Panel. This will make the raster image a vector image. You can see all the vector edges in our image now.

Step 5: Double-click on your image with the Selection Tool (Keyboard shortcut V) to go into Isolation Mode. Now you can click on each vector piece. Start clicking on the pieces of the background and hit the Delete key on the keyboard. 

We want to delete every piece except the ones that create the object we are keeping.

Keeping going! Note, that we do have the other image behind it, so you are seeing a faded-out version of it from where you are deleting the background.

Finally, we have just our object left. 

Step 6: Double-click outside of the object to get out of Isolation mode. You can see that our patch is made up of many vector blocks. This will not work for our clipping mask in the current state.

Step 7: We are going to unit the paths. Go to Windows > Pathfinder to open the Pathfinder panel.

Unite is the first button on the left. Click that.

We are left with mostly one path, but there are still random pieces of vector lines in the path.

To get rid of the “trash”, double click to go into Isolation Mode. For an easy way to grab all the trash pieces, click the outline path. Then hold select and click and drag over the whole image. This will invert the selection. You can see those random vector pieces are selected.

Step 8: Now hit Delete on your keyboard. You are left with the main path now.

Step 9: Double-click to get out of isolation mode and you can see where the path covers the image, just like when we created a path with the Pen Tool above.

Step 10: To ensure our clipping path works properly, we want to make sure our path is compound. To do this, go to Object > Compound Path > Make, or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Command + 8

Note: If you ever try creating a clipping mask and everything goes blank, it is likely because your path was not a compound path!

Step 11: Select both the image and your compound path, then navigate to Object > Clipping Mask > Make.

Step 25: If your path has a lot of points, you may get this notice. Other than taking longer to load, you are good to proceed.

And voila, our background is removed. You may notice this version has a little more grit and character to it because we didn’t draw it ourselves, it was created with the nature of the image.

Try out your new graphic on a different background or wherever you want in your design!

Final Thoughts

Removing the background of an image can now be a relatively quick fix for you! Don’t let the Pen Tool scare you and clipping masks are magic all the time. 

Using the pen tool to create a path around an image or object within a photo is a great way to create a custom clipping mask to remove the background. Depending on the image, you may also be able to use image trace to create a quicker,  yet sometimes not as precise, path around your object to help remove the background.

Have you removed a background in Illustrator before? Which method did you use and was it for fun or work? Let me know in the comments below.

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