Today’s question comes in from Ran, a graphic designer in Israel:
Many times, when working in Illustrator, I have shapes that extend off the artboard, and when I want to preview my work, I have to create a clipping mask in order to see what the final design will look like. This is very tedious when trying to work and preview constantly. In InDesign, I can press the “W” key to preview only my artboard. Is there a simple solution in Illustrator?
I feel you brother – if you were to run some kind of analytical program on my computer to monitor my usage of Adobe Illustrator, you’d find that I use the Blend function in Illustrator more often than just about any tool. But that’s only because the default keyboard shortcut for the Blend tool in Illustrator is the “W” key – and I am constantly pressing it because it’s second nature in InDesign. How I wish we had such a feature in Illustrator as well. Alas, there is none, and we are indeed relegated to the use of masks in order for us to temporarily “hide” parts of our artwork.
Of course, I say temporarily because any designer who is required to specify bleed has come across this issue in Illustrator. All we want is a way to see what our artwork is going to look like when it prints – without the bleed getting in the way.
While I can’t offer a quick solution, what I can do is suggest a better way to create and use your masks. Instead of using clipping masks, utilizing layer clipping masks will not only make it easier to manage your artwork, it will also make it a one-click operation to show and hide your bleed or non-necessary artwork.
Step 1. The artwork displayed below features a common Illustrator file (the art elements came from the fabulous iStockPhoto folks). There are three layers, and I’ve create crop marks so you can see where the art will get clipped. Of course, the goal is to preview the art as it will appear when clipped. You don’t need to use layers, but I have used them in my file. My only suggestion is that even if you have a single layer, rename it to something more meaningful (like ARTWORK, etc). In general, it’s a good idea to name your layers (especially since more and more applications are beginning to recognize Illustrator layers, including InDesign, Photoshop, Flash, etc.)
Step 2. Create a fourth layer, and name it MASK. Create a rectangle to match the exact size of the trim size, or the area to be clipped, and apply the None attribute to both the fill and the stroke of the path.
Step 3. A layer clipping mask works as follows: The topmost object in any single layer becomes a mask for EVERYTHING else that exists within that single layer. Every layer in Illustrator has a mask, and that mask is either active or it isn’t. Our goal is to use the path we created in the previous step as a mask for the three artwork layers in our file. To do that, we’ll need to bring those three layers INTO the MASK layer. In the Layers panel, simply shift click on the three layers and drag them into the MASK layer. Make sure the path is sitting above the three layers, as you see in the Illustration below.
Step 4. At this point, you have everything you need in order to preview your art without the bleed. In the Layers panel, click once on the MASK layer to select that layer in the panel (you don’t have to have any art selected). Then, activate the mask for that layer by clicking the Make/Release Clipping Mask button at the bottom left of the panel. The button is actually a toggle, so clicking repeatedly on the button shows and hides your clipped artwork.
Obviously, once you have the mask set up, it’s pretty painless to switch between “previews” on your screen. But admittedly, it does take a minute to set up the mask. If you do this a lot, you may benefit from setting up a template that already has a mask layer set up within it.
An obvious benefit of this method is that you still may have some artwork that exists outside the clipped area that you want to stay visible all the time. For example, you may have some informational text, a slug, or some other element that needs to remain visible. By simply creating a new layer that exists on the same level as the MASK layer (meaning, it’s not a sublayer within the mask layer), the mask will not effect that layer at all. As always, the control is in your hands.
All told, it would still be lovely if Illustrator could somehow introduce a preview mode similar to that found in InDesign. But until that day arrives, a layer clipping mask will have to suffice.