A colleague of mine sent me a design in .PDF format (first time seeing a design in such a format), Adobe Illustrator was able to recognize the vector paths inside the file, but I am having a hard time removing its background color.

I have tried saving it as EPS and PNG--hoping it would just save the paths that I have selected, but the background remains. I have gone through the sub-layers (there are literally hundreds) but none of them appear to be the white background--so I am guessing the background is a composite of several sub-layers.

Is there an easy way to extract the white background and just preserve the paths that make up the design? Illustrator already recognizes them as a number of sub-layers.

  • How/where do you experience the white background? Does objects disappear when you move them behind the artwork or are you trying to place it in another program?
    – Wolff
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:33

2 Answers 2


Possible solution...

  • Assuming the file just has objects on a white background, and you are trying to get rid of the white background.

Using the Direct Selection Tool (White arrow), click-drag on a corner of the artboard. Not around anything you see, just on the artboard corner.

Does a path highlight?

enter image description here

  • If Yes, then this is most likely the background or at the very least the clipping mask containing the background image. Now check the Layers Panel and it should highlight the path and allow you to see where in the stack it is and what it may contain. You should then be able to hit the Delete key twice. Your background should be gone, but it may delete the clipping mask.... but since you found it in the layers, if there's an associated image, you can remove that via the Layers Panel.
  • If No, Try unlocking everything -- Object > Unlock All then drag on a corner.
  • If still no path highlight --- then you'll need to find the object that is the background. Commonly the bottom of the layer/sublayer/object stack.

Even if the background is a raster object, it'll appear in the layer stack (as <image> or inside a <Clip Group>) Most commonly one of the bottommost layers/objects.

You might be able to look at the Links Panel (Window > Links) to check for raster images. From that panel you can select and/or delete any raster images.

Some PDFs will generate a clipping mask at the edge of the page/artboard. (Common for InDesign created PDFs) This may or may not be a raster image. It somewhat depends upon the artwork. If the visible artwork has things like drop shadows, this background may be a raster image of the shadows.

  • .... You sir, are a genius. Thank you for the detailed response, it was very easy to implement.
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:49
  • Glad I could help, @Matt
    – Scott
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 23:33

A white background that won't go away sounds like a rastered image problem.

If you can select the paths you need you can copy them to a new file.

When you open the .pdf in illustrator can you select the white background? It may be that objects "above" it are blocking the selection. Try locking, moving or deleting other objects until you can select the white background and delete it.

Lock or hide the sub layers until you isolate the white background.

If after you've isolated the white background you find that is it attached to other objects and they can't be ungrouped, expanded or taken apart than those are rastered together and you've got to

  1. trace them, divide and delete white background

  2. recreate them new or

  3. ask the person for a proper image file

.PDFs opened in illustrator are a mass of clipping masks, invisible rectangles are attached to many objects. If a small object has a large selection area you know it's attached to an invisible rectangle. Select each and every thing, right click and "release clipping mask", delete all the invisible rectangles.

  • Would Illustrator automatically recognize its paths/vectors if it were raster? I also don't think its raster because it retains its quality far too well when it is resized.
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:00
  • No, the rastered parts are not recognized as paths, just as a big image shape. After tracing it restores the paths but with a loss of quality.
    – Webster
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:15
  • Its definitely not a big image shape... Haven't traced or anything.
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:21
  • I would keep on digging down through the layers and masks until you find it and eliminate it. Don't forget you can toggle layer visibility on and off.
    – Webster
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 22:23

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