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Creating Scalable Textures Within Illustrator

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Read Time: 10 min

Sometimes it's just quicker to apply a raster texture on top of a piece of vector art to take your work to the next level. However doing this prevents the work from being entirely scalable. For some this is not so much of an issue, but for many this is a big deal. In today's tutorial I'd like to show you a way to achieve texture in your vector art without the need of raster assistance.


As a vector artist, I pride myself in creating work that is 100% vector, there is even some arrogance to this. If you're able to create almost raster looking work and effects, it can be a rush to get the odd comment questioning the scalability in your work.

In today's tutorial I'd like to show you some ways to achieve texture in your vector art without the need of raster assistance.

Clipping Masks

If you want to limit your texture to a specific area, you will need to know how to create a Clipping Mask. A Clipping Mask limits visibility of any work to a restricted area.

Step 1

Create the area you wish the texture to only be shown. In this tutorial, I'm wanting to limit it to the background, behind the portrait. Copy (Command + C) and Paste in Front (Command + F) this shape.

Step 2

I've created some random rectangles using the Rectangle Tool (M) for a quick example here, which overlap beyond the defined area I wish the texture to be present. With multiple objects, Group them (Command + G) and then drag and drop your duplicated shape from Step 1 on top of the group.

Step 3

Select both the group and the duplicated shape and then go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make, or use the keyboard shortcut (Command + 7). If you drill down into the group, which has been created from making it a Clipping Mask, you will notice your duplicated shape no longer has a fill or stroke color and is renamed "Clipping Path."

The only objects visible in this Clipping Mask group will be the rectangles. The gradient in the background is only visible because you duplicated the defined area. Below is the Clipping Mask group only and no other shapes in the background.

Step 4

As this is a live effect, you can rearrange the objects within the group of rectangles; their color, scale and position. As long as the Clipping Path is unaltered, the shapes will still only be visible within this defined area.

Live Trace

Whether you've scanned in a piece of crumbled up paper or taken a photograph of a piece of stone/bark, these are great textures which you can apply to art. The best way and quickest way to use these textures is to Live Trace them.

In this section, I'm going to be using stock textures provided by Anne Elster's stock account.

Step 1

So let's imagine I want to put the below stone texture in the background of our example:

If your texture is too large, then I strongly suggest you modify it in a program such as Photoshop. The larger the image, the more detail Live Trace will pick up.

Create a New Document and then go to File > Place... the image onto your canvas. Due to it's size, I've used the Free Transform Tool (E) to resize it.

Step 2

Now go to Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options.

I'm wanting to show a subtle texture in the background, so I'm wanting to limit the amount of colors and shapes. When using Live Trace for textures in the background, I like to either use the preset of Simple Trace, which is a black and white trace or Color 6.

It's worth noting towards the right of the Tracing Options window, you can note how many paths and areas are in the trace and you can modify the settings of a preset to decrease these numbers to reduce the file size.

Step 3

In this example, I'm going to use the preset Color 6. Once selected from the drop down menu, you can modify the settings to help the trace be a smaller file with less points.

I recommend dropping the Max Colors to either "3" or "4." If the texture is going to have a Blending Mode and Opacity applied to it, then there is no need for a large amount of colors. Theoretically this would mean that there are less shapes created and would decrease the amount of points created.

Increasing the Blur will also help decrease the points/shapes. The Blur is applied before the tracing of the photograph. As I'm tracing a stone texture, this will help reduce the smaller insignificant dots on the texture, which you wouldn't necessarily see. I've increased the number to 1.5px.

Increasing the Minimum Area will also decrease the points and shapes. For example, if you set the Minimum Area to 10px, it will not trace an area smaller than a total number of 10 pixels. I've increased this number to 80px – this has almost halved my Live Trace values!

Once done, click on Trace.

Step 4

Copy (Command + C) and Paste (Command + V) your Live Traced texture into the file you wish to use, and put it in the Clipping Mask group.

Step 5

Play with the Blending Mode and Opacity to find the right texture effect you'll want. In this case, I've kept the gradient behind the Clipping Mask group and changed the Blending Mode to Color Burn and kept the Opacity at 100%.

Live Trace Conclusion

Mixing Blending Modes, Opacities and settings within Live Trace Options you can create some unique looking textures for elements of your vector work. When mixed with a gradient, you can further alter how the texture looks, especially in terms of contrast.

Check out further tutorials to do with Live Traces functions on Vectortuts+:

Default Illustrator Patterns

Adobe Illustrator comes with its own patterns and textures. Ranging from Animal skins to dots and lines, they are free to use for personal and commercial purposes.

Step 1

Go into the Options menu of the Swatch palette and go to Open Swatch Library > Patterns > Basic Graphics > Basic Graphics_Textures. This will open the Basic Graphics_Texture swatches.

Step 2

Copy (Command + C) and Paste in Front (Command + F) the area you wish the texture to be and then select the pattern from the swatch. You can try out the textures without committing to an image to save on large processing time, unlike when using Live Trace.

In this case, I've opted for using the "Capsules" pattern.

Step 3

Adjust the Blending Mode and the Opacity of the pattern filed shape. In this case I've opted for Color Dodge and 80%.

Step 4

To create a more unique texture, try duplicating the shape again and filling it with a different pattern. Then you will be layering two different patterns upon each other. I've opted to fill the second shape with the "Sticks" pattern and changed the Blending Mode to Screen and the Opacity to 50%.

Default Illustrator Patterns Conclusion

The benefit of using the default Illustrator patterns are that they are specifically designed to be a lower file size. However their drawback is that they will not look as organic and unique as say a Live Traced texture. Why not try creating your own patterns to use as textures. There are plenty tutorials on Vectortuts+ on how to create them:

Default Illustrator Brushes

You don't need to create any fancy brushes to make a great texture. Illustrator comes with plenty of brushes that can be used to add texture. With some fine tuning, they can be used to add a watercolor texture.

Step 1

Go into your Brush palette options and select Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_Chalkcharcoalpencil. This will open the following brushes in a window.

Step 2

My favorite brush for adding texture is the top brush, "Chalk." It's good to use as it's got many jagged edges. A smooth brush will not add as much depth to a texture in comparison.

Using the Paintbrush Tool (B), draw strokes over the area you wish to cover at a low Opacity. In this case I've used 15% Opacity.

Step 3

You can change the appearance of the texture by simply changing the Stroke Weight. Below are the strokes at 4pt and 8pt to show you the difference.

Step 4

I'm going to use the Stroke Weight at 4pt. Select All (Command + A) of your strokes and then Group them (Command + G). Then drag and drop them into the Clipping Mask group.

Once in the Clipping Mask group, alter the Blending Mode to create the desired effect you wish. I've opted for Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity 20%.

Default Brush Conclusion

Try altering the color of the strokes, the brush and stroke weight to achieve a variety of effects. The best thing about using random strokes about your canvas is that the texture will always be unique. You can also tailor the textures more to the piece you're creating, for instance focus the texture in one area rather than another.

Check out some of the many useful tutorials to do with brushes and texturing effects here on Vectortuts+.

Gradients to Create Textures

The final tip on creating a texture is to do with the use of gradients. If you have Adobe Illustrator CS4+ then you can use transparent gradients. Should you have an earlier version, you can use blends to create just as effective a transparent gradient. These styles of textures can be the quickest to create.

Step 1

Create a transparent radial gradient in any color you wish. I've opted for a Cyan transparent radial gradient.

Using the Ellipse Tool (L), begin adding circles over the area you wish the texture to be. Vary the size of the circles and overlap many of them.

Step 2

Change the Blending Mode and Opacity of all of the circles. I've opted for Color Dodge and 70%. Then once done, Group the circles (Command + G) and drag and drop them into the Clipping Mask group.

Step 3

Try this alternative below with the Blending Mode set to Color Burn and Opacity set to 20%!

Gradients to Create Textures Conclusion

As you can see, gradients can be used for a quick and easy alternative to making a texture. You can alter the colors or even the number of colors within a gradient to come up with a variety of effects to suit the mood of the vector art piece you're creating.

Why not try using gradient meshes to create subtle textures and other gradients. You can check out these tutorials on creating textures and gradient effects here on Vectortuts+:

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