How to Separate Layers in Illustrator – 2 Easy Ways

how to separate layers in illustrator

Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop may be compatible since they come from the same Adobe family. As for how to separate layers in Illustrator, it works differently from Photoshop.

In Photoshop, any items added to the file will turn into individual layers by default. But in Illustrator, anything you add to a new file will be part of a parent layer. If you want to know how to separate layers in an Illustrator file the easy way, you are in luck.

In this tutorial, I’m using a Macbook Pro and Adobe Illustrator CC.

Create Layers Right From the Start

If you are creating a design on a blank artboard, you can make each object to be of a separate layer right from the get-go. By default, there is always one layer every time you start a new blank Illustrator file. Once you add images, objects, or text to the blank file, it is added to the file as an object within the top layer, never a new single layer.

Even if you create a new artboard, any new object added to the artboard will be nested in the same layer by default.

How to separate layers in Illustrator
Four artboards and four objects in one layer

One way to keep objects separated is by creating a new layer every time you create or introduce a new object right from the start.

How to Create a New Layer

First, open up your Layers Panel by going to Windows and clicking on Layers.

Method 1 to Create a New Layer:

Go to the bottom of the Layers Panel and click on the Create New Layer button that is represented by a plus (+) icon. A new layer appears in the Layers Panel.

How to create a new layer in Illustrator Layers Panel
Add a new single layer

Method 2 to Create a New layer:

Go to the top right corner of the Layers Panel. Then, click on the Layers Panel menu represented by three horizontal lines. Next, click on New Layer in the dropdown submenu.

How to Separate Layers in Illustrator - 2 Easy Ways
Create a new layer via the Layers Panel menu

Once you click New Layer, you will see another layer appears above the first original layer in the Layers Panel. At the same time, the Layers Option dialog box appears. Key in your desired layer name into the Name field of the Layers Option dialog box. You can also change the color of the layer’s tag if you wish by clicking on the toggle represented by a triangular arrow pointing downwards.

It’s a good idea to give each layer a different color and label every layer to differentiate them. In this way, if your file has many layers, you can easily find the layers you want to edit by referring to the Layers Panel.

Next, leave the other options as per default and click the OK button.

Name your new layer in the Layers Option dialog box in Illustrator

How to Separate the Object from the First Layer

Now that you’ve created another layer, bring your cursor to the object that you’d like to separate from the main layer. Next, click on the object, hold and drag the layer to the new layer. Then, release your mouse or cursor and your object will be added to the new layer.

Drag object to a new layer

Repeat the same steps for the other objects under the same layer. You’ve successfully separated your objects from the main layer into separate individual layers.

How to Separate Many Objects into Different Layers

There are times when you are not starting an artwork from scratch. But you have an existing complex artwork with multiple vector images. In this case, there can be hundreds of sub-layers nested in one main layer. There’s no way you would want to manually separate them.

Here’s what it looks like when you have a huge number of layers:

How to Separate Layers in Illustrator - 2 Easy Ways
Multiple objects in one layer

There’s nothing wrong with having a huge number of layers nested in one main layer. But with so many objects, it’s easier to identify where they are if they are categorized into independent separate layers. It’s also easier to select them by clicking on the layer in the Layers Panel.

If you are able to identify which objects you have selected, you are able to edit the selected objects without having to ungroup or release the clipping mask. Having to release clipping masks can alter your artwork that may require you to rework it. Especially if you just wish to make minor adjustments, you don’t want to create a major change to your artwork just to do that.

Or maybe you just want to open your Adobe Illustrator file in Photoshop with individual separated layers.

The good news is, that you can do that with a quick method in just a few clicks.

How do you Separate Layers in Illustrator

Using the artwork of the cute cat above as an example, this is a complex artwork with vector graphics all in one layer.

Open up the Layers Panel and you will see one main layer with many groups of vector objects.

If you click on the arrow pointing right on the layer, all the layers that exist in this artwork will be shown to be in different groups and sub-layers.

How to Separate Layers in Illustrator - 2 Easy Ways
Many objects in one layer of a complex artwork

The next thing I want to do is to organise parts of this complex artwork into categories. For example, the background layer will only include the cat’s body colour, while the eyes, nose and mouth will be the outer layer. The fish that the cat is holding will be another layer. The shadows will be in another layer called Effects or Shadows.

You can also label all objects differently within one layer and group related objects together without separating them into layers.

But if you don’t want to move or edit the content of one layer and affect another layer, splitting them to separate individual layers will be the best way around this.

Release to Layers

To separate these layers, select the main layer in the Layers Panel. Then, go to the Layers menu with the three horizontal lines, click on it and you will see a dropdown menu.

Then, scroll down the menu and click on Release to Layers (Sequence).

How to Separate Layers in Illustrator - 2 Easy Ways
Release to layers (Sequence)

This will tell Illustrator to help you separate your sub-layers to make them become their own layers.

Now that you’ve converted all objects or groups to layers, click on the first object layer that you’d like to separate from the main layer. Then, hold the shift button on the keyboard. Next, while holding the shift button, scroll down the Layers Panel until the last object you’d like to separate into another layer. Click on that last layer. Now you’ve selected all objects you want to separate into layers.

Next, click on any of the layers to make sure all are highlighted. Then, drag all of them upwards to move them above the current layer. Now, release your mouse or cursor and your object layers will become individual layers above the previous layer.

Drag layers out of the first layer to create separate individual layers

Improve Your Workflow with Layers

When working with graphics, it’s important to have the mindset that all artwork will never be final. There are always countless edits or adjustments to be made to any part of the artwork. Also, you can have all artwork made into templates or created from templates. Separating layers in Illustrator is a great way to save you time and optimise your workflow when working on these templates.

If you have to make changes, group them or move specific objects around, this makes it easier for you to find the objects you want to edit without worrying if it will affect the other parts of the artwork.

Featured image from: Online illustrations by Storyset

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