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How to Create a Seamless Bird Pattern with Retro Touch in Illustrator

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In this tutorial you will learn how to create a series of minimalist and stylized birds and create a seamless pattern from them. The tutorial is aimed at users of Adobe Illustrator CS5 and below, since in CS6 creating patterns has become easier and more intuitive. In the second part we will then use this pattern for what could be a poster background and apply some effects to give it a retro look.


Step 1

We start with a New document in square format. Square format because later on we want to create a pattern based on the illustrations and from experience a square format works best for patterns.


Step 2

I always find it's easier and more productive to work on a colored background, rather than white. Therefore I will create a rectangle the size of my canvas and fill it with a light blue using the Rectangle Tool (M). I renamed the layer "Background" and locked it, for the birds we will be added on a new layer.


Step 3

For the birds we will start by creating one bird as our base. The way this bird will be set up will make it very easy to create several more birds by simply changing the size and color of existing elements or even duplicating some to gain more detail.

Since we want the birds to be minimal and stylized, let's figure out first, which parts of the birds should be created. This simple sketch contains the major elements: head, eye, beak, torso, wing, tail and legs. If you take a closer look, you will notice that head, wing and tail align to the back of the torso. We will use that in the illustration as well and in order to align our shapes easier we will start by creating the bird in a vertical position and turn him 45° later on. This may appear a bit abstract at first, but will help us later on when it comes to editing the shapes.


Step 4

Using the Ellipse Tool (L), draw an ellipse on end.

We want the bottom anchor point to be pointed, so we have to delete its Handles. Take the Pen Tool (P) and hold down Alt to delete the handles.


Step 5

Select the left and bottom anchor points of the ellipse via the Direct Selection Tool (A) and open the Align panel. Select "Align to Selection" from the drop down at the bottom and apply the "Horizontal Align Left" option.


Step 6

Move the bottom anchor point further down. You can do so by selection the point and using your keyboards arrow keys or move it with the Direct Selection Tool (A). When using the Direct Selection Tool (A) make sure to hold down Shift so the left and bottom anchor point stay aligned. How far you move the point is up to you, you can always change its position later on, if you think something looks off.

The shape doesn't look perfect yet, so we will drag the lower handle of the right anchor point further down to create a smooth curve on the right side of our shape. Hold down shift to keep the handles at a perfect 90° angle.


Step 7

Create a circle for the birds head. I leave the size to your judgment. Select both elements and align them to the left. If the head now appears too close to the torso, move it up until it looks better.


Step 8

The bird is now still missing his neck. To fit this, we first need to turn on Smart Guides (Ctrl + U). Use the Rectangle Tool (M) and start dragging the shape from the left anchor point of the head's shape. Make it big enough so it looks like there is a straight line between the head and the torso.

Now we will add a throat to the bird. Therefore we will use the Pen Tool and start drawing. Start at the head's right anchor point by clicking and dragging, drag while holding Shift to create a smooth downwards curve. Let the curve end on the torso shape and close the path after adding one more anchor point "inside" the torso. Now these elements will work as our birds head and torso. I will not group them or Unite them yet, in order to keep the base bird easy editable. We may want to change the proportions or positions of head and torso for a different kind of bird later on.


Step 9

The wing is rather easy. Select the torso shape and duplicate it, I like to use a combination of Ctrl + C and Ctrl + F to have the shape appear at the same place on the canvas again. Go to Object > Arrange > Bring to Front and the wing will be on top of the other shapes. Select the Bounding Box's bottom right corner and make the wing smaller. This does not have to be proportionally, see for yourself how big you want the wing to be. You may also want to move the wing shape further down. The only important thing is, to keep the torso and wing shape aligned to the left.

For the tail, duplicate the torso shape again, this time you don't have to move it to the front, as it should only be in front of the torso and behind the wing. This shape is supposed to be long and thin, so change its size according to this requirement.


Step 10

For the Eye, duplicate the Head's shape, bring it to the front again and while holding down Shift make it smaller. Now it is still in the middle of the head, move it upwards to position it better.

Use the Pen Tool (P) to add a beak. Place it behind all other shapes by going to Object > Arrange > Send to Back.


Step 11

Now we are done with the base shape of our bird. The legs will be added later on. Group all elements (Ctrl + G). To get an impression of how the finished birds will look like, go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform. In the menu change the angle to -45°. .


Step 12

For the legs we will start by using the Pen Tool (P) again. We start with our first anchor point inside the bird's torso. Then while holding down shift we will add two more anchor points. This gives us a path with a perfect 90° angle. Move this path to the back.

To give the legs more size, we will use the Width Tool (Shift + W) and increase the width at all three anchor points. The biggest increment will be at the top where the legs comes out of the torso.

Now Go to Object > Expand Appearance and turn the path into a shape. The path is overlapping at the angle, to get rid of this open the Pathfinder panel and apply Unite. Use the Pen Tool (P) to delete the spare anchor points.


Step 13

Do the same to create the foot: draw a simple path with the Pen Tool (P), apply the Width Tool (Shift + W), Expand the Appearance and clean up the shape.


Step 14

You may want to move the leg and foot around to a better position. Again, do not group or Unite them yet, so we can change them for different kinds of birds. But do Group all the elements of the bird now (Ctrl + G).

This is our base bird! We will now create a series of birds based on this one.


Step 15

The first bird will be a Robin. A quick image search tells us that this bird has a grayish torso and wings with a red throat. Duplicate the bird group and hide the base bird.

Using the Group Selection Tool select all the torso and head shapes and fill them with a light blue grey.

The wing will become light brown, tail and leg are set in the same dark brown. Eye and beak in the same very dark red.


Step 16

In order to add the red throat, we have to go into the group. With the Selection Tool (V) double click onto the group. Now you can select all the shapes that make the torso and head. Duplicate them and open to Pathfinder panel to Unite the duplicates. The shape will be used as a mask for the red feathers. For those we want to create a circle with the Ellipse Tool (L).

Because we applied a Transformation effect to the whole group earlier we will change into View > Outline (Cmd + Y) view. Start dragging the Ellipse Tool (L) from the middle of the birds throat. Hold down Shift to create a perfect circle. Drag the circle until it is just around the bird's eye.

In the layers panel now move the red circle behind the shape we wanted to use as its mask. Select both and go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make or use the keyboard shortcut Cmd + 7.

This is how our final Robin looks like.


Step 17

The next bird will be a Cardinal. Give the torso, wing and tail each a shade of red. The beak will have to same color as the torso, the leg will share the color with the tail.


Step 18

Repeat the creation of the mask, which you already used for the Robin's throat. Here we will use it to mask the dark feathers on the Cardinal's head.


Step 19

To add the top of its head double-click on the group we applied the Transformation effect on earlier and use the Pen Tool (P) and draw an appropriate shape. Turn on Outline again to see the actual contour of the bird. Back in Preview you can now edit the shape with the Direct Selection Tool (A).

The top shape was added to the group, which causes the whole group to shift slightly. As you can see, the leg is now more covered than it was before or on the Robin. Select those two shapes and just move them around until it fits.


Step 20

Next we will create a Red-headed Woodpecker. This one will require some adjustments to its body, as it is a different genus of bird. He is much taller than Robin and Cardinal and has a sleeker appearance.

At first we will delete the shape we created for the throat, as we will have to redraw it again once the torso and wings have their final shape and size. Then select wing and torso and make them reduce their width.

Now select the head, eye, beak and neck and change their size and position. Use the Bounding Box's bottom right corner to drag the shapes smaller. That way the head and neck will stay aligned with the torso.

You may want to move the wing upwards as well once you are done with the head parts.


Step 21

Change into Outline view and draw the shape for the throat again as you did in Step 8.

Since this Woodpeckers wing has three different colors, we will have to to duplicate the original wing twice and adjust its size. Pay attention to keep all three parts of the wing aligned on the left side.

Add colors to the bird: red for head, neck and throat, white for the torso and the middle wing, dark blue for the tail and the other two parts of the wing, grey for beak and leg.


Step 22

Select head, beak, neck and throat and send them to the back. Select the tail and change its height, so that it disappears under the wing. Edit the beak into a longer and slimmer shape.


Step 23

With the next bird, an American Goldfinch, we will add some more color to our set of birds. Add yellow to the torso and head, a dark green to the wing and tail, orange to the leg and beak.


Step 24

This bird has some white feathers under his wing and tail, therefore duplicate the torso shape and drag from the top right Bounding Box's corner. This bird has some dark feathers on its head. To create those, we will change to Outline view again and add a dark circle starting from the beak. It only covers half of the bird's eye.

Duplicate the head and move the shape you just created under it in the Layers panel. Select the head duplicate and the shape and create a Clipping Mask (Ctrl/Cmd + 7).

This bird also has a "second wing", yellow on top and dark below. Duplicate the wing, fill it with the same color like head and torso and change its size accordingly smaller.

This bird's wings are also a bit smaller than on the ones we created before. Select the two wing shapes and the white shape that is under the tail and change their size. Make the tail a bit slimmer as well.


Step 25

The last bird we are going to create is a Magpie. Use another duplicate of the base bird we started with. Start by filling torso and head with dark blue, the tail with turquoise that is more green, the wing with turquoise that is rather blue. Leg and beak are filled with a very dark blue as well.

The Magpie has more than one color in her wing as well, so duplicate the wing shape twice, filling the top feathers with the same color like head and torso and the middle feather with white.


Step 26

Before we continue we will change the proportions of the bird to make it sleeker, similar to the Woodpecker we created earlier. After deleting the shape we used for the throat, change the wing and torso. Then change the head and neck area, for this part it is important to hold down Shift and use the bottom right corner of the Bounding Box to change the size. The head is supposed to stay a perfect circle, as well as the eye. Make the tail slimmer and longer.

Add a shape for the throat again, like we did for the other birds. Place this shape under the head shape in the Layers panel.

Magpies have a white chest. Again we want to create a shape that will be used as a mask from torso, neck, head and throat. Create an Ellipse (L) under the wing and create a Clipping Mask (Ctrl/Cmd + 7) with the shape we just created with Pathfinder.

Make the beak a bit longer as well. It is the easiest to do so using the Direct Selection Tool (A).


Step 27

Here you can see all the five birds in a row. When seeing them all at once, it is easiest to figure if something basic needs to be changed. You will notice that on the Cardinal and Magpie the eyes disappear in the dark feathers. We will add some white reflections to make them stand out more.

Go into the group with the eye. Duplicate the eye shape, fill it with white and make it smaller. Duplicate this one and make it yet smaller. Position them towards the top left of the eye. You can now copy those two shapes and paste them into each bird's eye.


Step 28

If you are happy with the bird's shapes we should now get rid of the Transformation effect. Therefore go into each bird, select the group with the effect and go to Object > Expand Appearance. You can also Ungroup those shapes now. Do this for every bird.
The birds are far bigger than required, so let's make them small enough to fit onto the canvas. This is also where we start adjusting the birds in relation to their actual size. The Robin, Cardinal and Greenfinch should be a lot smaller compared to the Woodpecker and Magpie.


Step 29

Now it's time to create the base for our pattern. Make a new layer and hide the layer with the birds. We will create branches which form a repeatable pattern. Create a horizontal line the same width as the canvas (1200 px) with 40 px Stroke Width. Use the Align panel to place the line.

Select the left anchor of the line and align it with the bottom of the canvas.


Step 30

To make it appear less clean, go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen and apply a small effect to the line.

Now go to Object > Expand Appearance to apply the Effect and again to Object > Expand to turn the line into a shape. You will now have two elements on the layer, the expanded shape in a group and the original line. Delete the line as we won't need it anymore. Align the whole shape with the bottom of the canvas using the Align panel.

Select the two anchor points of the shape on the left with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and align them to the left border of the canvas using the Align panel. Do the same on the right side and align the anchor points to the canvas' right edge.

Duplicate the branch shape and align it with the top of the canvas.


Step 31

To make sure the branches repeat seamlessly, we will adjust the end points of each shape. We will start with the middle of the canvas. Select the bottom last anchor point of the upper branch and the second highest anchor point of the lower branch. Open the Align panel, set it to Align to Selection and apply Vertical Align Center.

Do the same with the second lowest anchor point from the upper branch and the highest anchor point of the right branch.


Step 32

We will create another branch now, that goes from the top left to the bottom right corner. Draw a line and apply the same Roughen effect. Illustrator saves the last effect you applied with its exact settings, so since we have no intention of changing them, simply go to Effect > Apply Roughen at the top of the drop down menu. Repeat as before: first Expand the Appearance, then Expand the line into a shape.

Zoom onto the top left corner and manually align the anchor points to the canvas. In this case I did not use the Align panel, but the Transformation panel to give each point an exact location. Each point is supposed to be on the edge of the canvas close to it, so the X and Y positions will have 0px and 10px distance from the corner of the canvas. Do this accordingly on the bottom right corner.

Using the Pen Tool (P) add an anchor point at the right bottom of the shape to the connecting line. This anchor point will be aligned to the bottom right corner of the canvas. Again repeat this step accordingly on the top left corner.


Step 33

We will repeat what we did in the previous step to achieve clean corners with the first two branches we created as well. Eventually each corner will have a triangle for each branch.


Step 34

Now it's time to fill up the pattern! Copy the birds into the layer with the branches and place them to your liking. Flip some of them horizontally to have more variety.

The next step is to create some smaller branches inside the canvas, to fill up space and give more spots to place more birds on.

Use the Line Segment Tool (\) and draw a line that ends on one of the bigger branches. We will make the branches pointed by giving it more width where it connects to the bigger branch using the Width Tool (Shift + W).

Go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen give the branch some more edges. Do this multiple times until you are satisfied with the amount of branches on your canvas. You don't have to edit the Roughen effect for every branch, simply go to Effect > Apply Roughen (Last Effect) (Cmd + Shift + E) and the same effect will be applied to every shape with the previous settings.

I added a copy of each bird to the pattern, some of them sitting on the branches we just created.


Step 35

We will add more and smaller branches to the whole layout. Use the Line Segment Tool (\) to create a short line again. Like in the previous step we will again use the Width Tool (Shift + W) to make the end of the line thicker where it comes out of the bigger branch. Apply the Roughen effect again, with different settings this time because these branches are going to be smaller then in the previous step. I tried to add two small branches to each bigger branch.

I also added some more of the bigger branches to fill out gaps, like on the top right and bottom edge of the canvas. You can copy and paste some of the branches you already created and simply transform them to fit into their new position.

Make sure to have all elements inside the canvas and not touching the edges.


Step 36

As we want this layer to be the one we create the pattern in we will copy and paste the blue background rectangle into this layer and move it to the back. Duplicate this layer using Cmd + C and Cmd + F. Select the rectangle in the background and delete the fill, so it becomes transparent. This helps Illustrator recognizing the edges of our pattern.

I also put the bird and branches in separate layer groups.


Step 37

Select everything (Cmd + A) and simply drag and drop into the Swatches panel. And you have your pattern! At this point I like to zoom out, to something like 16%, and create a big square and apply the pattern to it.


Step 38

In the next part of the tutorial we will create a new document and apply a retro effect to a shape filled with this pattern. Create a New document in Letter size.


Step 39

Copy the shape with the pattern into this file and delete the shape again. This is the easiest way to add our pattern to the Swatches panel. Create a new shape in the size of the canvas and fill it with our pattern. As you can see not even the whole pattern fits onto our canvas.

Double click the Scale Tool (S). We want to scale down the pattern, but not the shape itself, so uncheck Object and add an appropriate percentage for the pattern.


Step 40

To give the image a retro touch we are going to add a simple pattern that gives the impression of being printed. Create a 6 by 6px Rectangle (M) with no fill and no outline. Duplicate this shape and change its size to 3 by 3px putting the Reference Point in the top left corner. Fill it with black. Duplicate this shape and set the Reference Point to the bottom right corner. Now turn the shape by 180°. Group those three shapes and drag them into the Swatches panel.


Step 41

Create another shape in the size of the canvas and place it above the birds pattern. Fill it with your new pattern. If something looks off, like for example the pattern appears completely blank, this may be because of the Scale Tool (S). Delete the new shape again and double click on the Scale Tool (S) and set the percentage to 100% again. Create the shape again and fill it with your pattern. It should look right now. Set the shapes Blending Mode to Soft Light and its Opacity to 20%.


Step 42

Create another rectangle and fill it with white. Go to Effect > Texture > Grain. Choose a regular grain and settings as follows…

Set the shapes Blending Mode to Multiply and Opacity to 50%.

If you want to keep your work 100% vector, I recommend you create your own noise texture, for example with help of the Quick Tip: How to Create Multi-tone Vector Noise.


Step 43

Create another shape and fill it with a dark brown. We are going to create a Mesh from this shape to add a Vignette Effect to the design. Select the Mesh Tool (U) and click into the middle of the shape. Change this point's color to white. Set the Mesh's Blending Mode to Multiply.

This is rather dark, so we will add more points to the Mesh which will give us a bigger bright area in the middle. Select the Mesh Tool (U) again and simply click into the middle of one quarter. The added point still active, change that points color to white. Do the same thing with the opposite quarter.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to change the other points of the Mesh that are inside the shape to white.


Final Image

And here is your final result! Why not try creating your own bird pattern with different birds. By modifying small details from a default shaped bird, you can create a variety of different species.