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Path operations in Photoshop / Unite / Combine / Subtract / Intersect

How to combine / unite Photoshop custom shapes layers using combine, subtract etc path operations tutorial

Basics of path operations / combining Photoshop layer shapes

combine and subtract custom shapes set operation in PhotoshopThe path operations are now combine, subtract etc - previously 'add to shape area' (if used in the top bar) and unite etc if used via the layer commands and combine etc from the properties.


You can combine Photoshop custom shape layers to create new shapes in two different ways such as

intersect shapes combine layers Photoshop1) using the combine option for the live shape / custom shape layer such as combine, subtract front etc from the top bar


2) Layer menu and combine shapes and unite, subtract, unite shapes at overlap etc


Multiple combinations can be made. Areas can also be subtracted / excluded / intersected (or subtract overlap etc - should be noted that the terminology has changed a few times and hopefully it won't change any time soon) to create a new shape. A single pack of shapes can be used to create millions of different and exciting designs.


shape operations combine using menuYou can use the custom shapes such as basic custom shapes and banner custom shapes for Photoshop and elements and art nouveau custom shapes


If you are using the CC subscription then it may be easier to do all these path operations via Illustrator as you can then use the pathfinder panel to create ever more complex vector paths and also you can use many additional path tools such as Astute graphics' VectorScribe plugin and MirrorMe which are sadly not available to Adobe ® Photoshop ®.


Path operations in Adobe ® Photoshop ® order

The key thing to remember with the path operations is that the path operation works on the active shape so if there are no other shapes, the subtract option will just subtract from the entire document.


If you add multiple shapes and use the combine option and then create a new shape layer and wish that to subtract, draw the shape and then apply the dropdown to subtract front shape.


I must admit, I find it easier to use combinations of shapes and then use the merge command and then continue on with additional combination or path operations and then another merge. The results are often more predictable.


I would say that sometimes the path operations just do not seem to work and then suddenly they will, it does seem to have something to do with the properties panel which also contains yet another way of combining shape layers in Photoshop (three ways, I am certain there are a few more ways)


Combine Photoshop pixels

The option to add new Photoshop shapes / subtract only appears when you are applying the designs as shape layers and paths but not fills. You can always add shapes via the fills by applying the design in the same color; you can also subtract from the shape by applying the designs in white, 'erasing' the shape - the intersect are not possible.


Distress / mottled shapes combine in Adobe ® Photoshop ® using subtract path operation

mottled distress shape subtract photoshopdistress photoshop shapes combineUse the path operations / subtract features to create distressed shapes in seconds.


Personally, I generally use a vector application such as the fontlab tool or Adobe's own vector application to subtract and add shapes to a custom shape but if you are using Photoshop, these tools are still very powerful. Left image - you can see a mottled artwork with very small circles combined with a rectangle and the circles have been subtracted from the original rectangle all around the edge of the work as well as a small selection inside the rectangle.


You can, of course, use any number of other vector layers with this combination and not just circles either so you could instead use rabbits or hens or screwdrivers or any other vector artwork in the the subtraction (circles just happen to be a little easier to use than those)


In the example right a rectangle was used again and instead of circles, lines have been used to scratch into the artwork, the lines being of different size as they are subtracted from the original rectangle work


Combine 'unite shapes' layers in Photoshop

combine photoshop shapesIt should be noted that sometimes it is referred to as combine and sometimes as unite depending on how you perform the operation.


If done via the layer menu commands then it is unite and if used via the top bar of Photoshop it is combine (totally confusing but that is the way it currently stands though these functions has had a few changes over the years but the basics are still much the same - you want to stick two objects together !


The image on the left has had two circle / custom shape layers combined or united


'Subtract front' shapes combine / path operation in Adobe ® Photoshop ®


The above has two circles combined - using the subtract option for the second circle.


This can be done with any other artwork, of course, and is not limited to just circles. The subtract option can be repeated with the same artworks over and over to remove more and more from the original source artwork shape layer in Photoshop


On the right, you can see a shape layer with a shape layer subtracted (a circle) from a circle to create a crescent custom shape


To use the subtract front shape option in the path operations along the top bar of Photoshop

1) create the first shape and de-select

2) go to the path operations

3) select the subtract front shape

4) apply new shape


If you want to subtract with the layer menu option

1) select shape 1 and 2

2) go to the layer menu

3) combine

4) subtract front shape


'Unite shapes at overlay' combine layers / path operation

intersect shape combine layers photoshop


The left image is the intersect of two circles in Photoshop. You don't have to use just circles, of course, as it could be any custom shapes or rectangles etc.


You can then use the petal artwork (on the left) and then either create duplicates of that to perhaps create a flower artwork.


Combinations / subtracts / intersections can be repeated over and over to create all kinds of new works and once you have finished, the work can then be defined as a new vector artwork and stored in the preset panel of PS as well as being added to the CC libraries and stored for future projects.


If using the top bar Photoshop option

1) create a new shape

2) deselect shape

3) go to the path operations

4) select the intersect shape area

5) Apply new shape


If using the layer menu

1) create shape 1 and 2

2) select them

3) go to the layer menu

4) combine

5) unite shapes at overlap


'Subtract shapes at overlap' combine / path operation

exclude shape combine photoshop layers


The right is the 'exclude' or subtract shapes path operation applied in Adobe ® Photoshop ® for the two circle layers


Of course, as with all these path operations you can use shape layers other than just circles and you can create all kinds of wonderful excluded designs


The vector artworks can also be selected and then defined as a new custom shape via the edit menu and define custom shape command.


If using the path operations along the top bar

1) create new shape

2) deselect the shape

3) path operations

4) exclude overlapping shapes

5) apply second shape


If using layer menu

1) create shape 1 and 2 and select

2) layer menu and combine

3) subtract shapes from overlap

Merge combine shape components

merge command shape combine layers photoshopThere is also, at the end of the path operations, a merge operation which turns the current combination into a regular shape (apart from a live one).


Personally I find that I like to use the merge command more often than not as sometimes the result of a subtract or unite etc results in a very odd combination and that can generally be resolved by using the merge.


The Merge option for the Photoshop combine layer shapes can be found by selecting the artwork and then going to the top option bar of Photoshop and going to the path operations dropdown (combine, subtract etc).


If it is not available then you will need to use the direct selection tools and then the merge should be available as well as the custom shape tool define operation.


Other tutorials

You can find other tutorials on Photoshop shapes such as how to use shapes to create brushes and how to fill the color of the custom shapes in Photoshop and how to use the panel options for the custom shapes and how to use the shapes with the shape blur filter


Video tutorial

How to combine, subtract, exclude, intersect shape layers in Adobe ® Photoshop ® tutorial [Youtube]