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Everything You Need to Know About Seamless Patterns in Illustrator

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Read Time: 22 mins

Adobe Illustrator patterns makes your work process easier and the result prettier. Every vector professional must know the secrets and details about using seamless patterns, as well as many approaches to creating them. In this tutorial I dive into the anatomy of patterns in Adobe Illustrator, analyzing numerous existing methods of creating a seamless pattern fill, from the easiest ones to the most complex ones.

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Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS3
  • Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 30 to 60 minutes


I believe that most readers know and use patterns in Illustrator, but I also know that there are some users that are only now making their first steps in
this program. This tutorial will be useful for both groups. We will start from the basics, moving to more complex things. This tutorial contains three sections comprised of: pattern basics, saving patterns, and creating seamless patterns. Let's get started!

Theory: Understanding the Basics

I think it's a good idea to start with the theoretical part first. This way those of you who are only starting to work in Illustrator will learn the basics
of patterns. Illustrator experts, however, may skip this part and jump right to the practical section on "Saving Patterns" or "Creating Patterns."

1. What is a Pattern?

In Adobe Illustrator Patterns are one of the powerful tools used to decorate your artwork. It may be applied in the form of Pattern fill - one of three
types of fills, along with Color and Gradient fill. Patterns can serve as one of two types of stroke - along with Color stroke. Besides, pattern is
a base of Pattern brush. These three embodiments of patterns are enough to make them irreplaceable helpers for designers and illustrators.

2. Pattern Anatomy

In a nutshell, patterns are a group of vector objects with rectangular-shaped borders (tile). The source tile is saved as a pattern. To form the seamless pattern texture, the saved source is automatically tiled horizontally and vertically.

The tile direction is guided by rulers in the Illustrator document - usually patterns start from the lower-left corner. Interestingly, when the pattern is applied to a vector object as a fill or stroke, the result is a pixel-based image. However, as the source tile is vector, it is still scaleable, so you don't need to worry about the quality.

3. Finding Patterns

We will soon be creating our own patterns, but first I want to make sure you try the existing ones. Adobe Illustrator has a plenty of default
libraries for most kinds of elements, such as: color and gradient swatches, symbols, brushes, and graphic styles. Of course, there are built-in patterns as
well, from simple dots to complex crocodile skin. To try them all, navigate to Window > Swatch Libraries > Patterns and select the
library you wish.

It is possible to load other pattern libraries, for example, downloaded from open-source internet sites. To do it, go to Window > Swatch library > Other library and navigate to the saved file on your hard disk (it might have a .ai extension). Usually, when you apply a swatch from an additional library it appears in the main Swatches panel. You may also want your main Swatches panel to show only pattern swatches - for this, choose Show Patterns in the panel View Options icon.

4. Studying Patterns

I recommend you to study the default patterns from inside Illustrator. To do it, simply drag the one you like onto your artboard. It is extremely useful for
understanding how patterns work. You will see the initial tile - the source group of objects that are repeated to form a seamless pattern. It is
especially interesting to find out what complex patterns consist of. This will help teach us how to create these later.

5. Pattern Fill

Pattern fills works in a simple way - it is applied as a fill to selected objects. You can apply multiple fills to any object, combining all types of fills (color, gradient, and pattern) using the Appearance panel (Shift + F6). You can also assign a blending mode and change the pattern fill opacity in the Transparency panel (Shift + Command + F10).

You can transform the pattern fill in any way - moving, scaling, rotating, reflecting it, etc, along with the object itself or separately. To do it, select any transform tool you want, for example Rotate (R), click Enter, and check what exactly you want to transform - either patterns only, or object only, or both.

6. Pattern Stroke

A pattern stroke is one of two types of strokes in Adobe Illustrator. Just like a pattern fill, you can combine pattern strokes with color strokes in the
Appearance panel. You can also change its opacity and blending mode in the Transparency panel.

As for transformation, again you may rotate, move, or scale a pattern applied to a stroke separately or together with the object. If you want all strokes to transform proportionally with the object, simply check Transform Strokes and Effects in the flyout menu of the Transform panel.

7. Pattern Brush

Another pattern embodiment is the pattern brush. There are many default pattern brushes, you can find them in Window > Brush Libraries > Border_Brushes and choose the library. Brushes can be applied as a stroke effect to any path, or you can use the Brush tool (B) to draw directly with chosen type.

Still you can create your own pattern brush using any pattern in the main Swatches panel - simply click the New icon in the Brushes panel (F5), select
Border type, and then select any pattern you like from the list. Adjust other settings, and your brush is ready. You can add other sections like
corner parts or end parts by creating objects you want and Alt-dragging them to the appropriate section of an existing brush. Or, again, you may add
any section choosing from the list of patterns in the main Swatches panel.

Vectortuts+ has plenty of custom pattern brush tutorials, like href="https://design.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-create-a-climbing-rope-pattern-brush--vector-3247">How to Create a Climbing Rope Pattern Brush,
or Create a Gold Chain Pattern
Brush with Illustrator
, and much more.

Important! Saving Patterns

Well, we've found out what patterns are and how to apply them. Still, the most important thing about Illustrator's seamless patterns is that we can
create and save our own custom pattern swatches. Prior to moving to the main section explaining how to create seamless patterns, I want to make sure you know how to save patterns properly. Below I explain everything you need to know about it. If you already know all about saving patterns you can go to the final section on "Creating Patterns".

1. Defining a Pattern

To define a pattern in Adobe Illustrator, you should first create the source tile for it that will be then repeated horizontally and vertically to form a seamless texture. Anyway, you will need to create the objects to form your pattern and then save it. To save an object or group of objects as a pattern swatch, simply drag it to the Swatches panel.

It is a good habit to name patterns appropriately, to do it double-click the swatch and rename it. Another option for saving a pattern is to select objects and go to Edit > Define pattern, this way you can name it right away.

2. Restrictions

Actually, it's possible to create patterns with all kinds of objects, including symbols, gradients, brushes, blends, and mesh. However, you must
not save a tile containing guides. Because we use guides very often when creating a pattern, don't forget to delete them prior to saving. Patterns
must not include objects with patterns applied to it, unfortunately. Also, try to not use complex effects within a pattern tile, as it may lead to unpredictable results sometimes.

3. Cropping a Tile

Before we learn the process of seamless pattern creation, I think we must remember techniques of cropping the tile. As the objects we create mostly do not form a perfect rectangle or square, there are ways of defining exact pattern borders to avoid incorrect results. There are three main cropping pattern tile methods:

1. Background Rectangle - In this method, the rectangle is placed below all other objects, so that all elements stay within its borders.

2. Dividing Objects - To crop the pattern, create a rectangle on top of all objects to match the tile. Now you have two options: either select all objects and press the Crop button in the Pathfinder panel, or select the top rectangle and go to Object > Path > Divide objects below and delete the leftovers. Now you can save the perfectly cropped pattern.

3. Invisible Borders - This method is the most advanced and popular. Create a rectangle matching the tile borders, make it NO fill and NO stroke (dark rectangle on the image below) and send it to back of the entire stack (Shift + Command+ [). This invisible shape will define the pattern borders, this way you can avoid dividing objects.

4. Transparency and Blending

If you use blending modes or opacity for objects in your tile, the future pattern will inherit them, and the object with such pattern applied will
look good only on particular background color. You may want to leave it as is, if it's the effect you want.

Still, if you want to correct it, I suggest that you either use a solid-colored background included in the pattern itself, or turn all objects to flat-color or 100% opaque ones. To do it, select your tile objects and go to Object > Flatten Transparency and adjust settings.

You may want to check Preserve alpha transparency, converting objects with blending modes to flat-color but preserve their opacity level, or check Preserve Overprints (works for 100% opaque shapes) to keep blending modes intact, converting elements to 100% opaque. This way yo may choose how to handle transparency to convert objects to flat-color or 100% opaque (or both) shapes.

As an example, I will use this option when creating patterns later in this tutorial. You can use whatever objects you like, but I want you to try one nice technique - I'll show it in case you want to recreate it. For the patterns created below I took multiple objects made with the help of the Tilde key (~) and the Snap to Grid (Shift + Command + ') option.

To make them, grab any shape tool, from the Rectangle to Star to Spiral, and start drawing an object pressing the Tilde key. This way we get multiple copies, and we can scale and rotate them while drawing. To make the result more pleasant, adjust your grid size by going to Preferences > Guides and Grid (Command + K), turn the Grid on (Command + ') and Snap to Grid (Shift + Command + ') on.

Then select the objects created, reduce their opacity, change the color, and change the blending mode to your liking. You can also try pressing other modifier keys when drawing along with Tilde, like Alt to draw from the center, or Shift to constrain the proportions (or both, if you have enough fingers) to get interesting results. Also, try the Spacebar to move shapes while drawing. You can then combine the resulted shapes in various abstract figures, duplicating and transforming them to your liking.

Practice: Creating Seamless Patterns

There are numerous methods for creating seamless patterns, from the easiest to the most complex ones. The first and foremost rule for correct pattern creation is to make it seamlessness. This means a tile should be constructed in such a way, that elements on its right border perfectly match ones on its left border, and top and bottom borders match as well.

This way, when a pattern is tiled horizontally and vertically it looks seamless. Below I use simple forms just for demonstrative purpose, you can apply these methods to create more complex patterns. I will explain all pattern techniques I know in the practical guide below, starting from the primitive one and moving to complex techniques involving precise calculations.

1. The Easiest Method.

It's obvious that any object or group of objects can be technically saved as a pattern, although it won't necessarily work well seamlessly. Still, we'll start from this primitive (and the least popular) way to create a pattern - drawing any object and dragging it to the Swatches panel. If the object has a rectangular shape, the pattern will be correct, as the pattern tile border will match the rectangle border.

If, however, the object isn't rectangular, the tile borders will be assigned according to the object bounding box. This way, if we simply save a star or circle as a pattern, the tile will still be rectangular with empty space added automatically. Of course, this is not what we usually want, but sometimes this method may produce interesting results.

2. Within the Background

As it follows from the previous step, patterns should be saved with rectangle borders to look correct. One good and simple way of doing it is creating
a background rectangle of the desired color to serve as a tile, and then drawing objects on top of it and position them within its borders.

The program takes the borders of the entire group as a tile, in this case they will match the background rectangle. To make sure the tile is formed correctly and the pattern will be seamless, position all the inner objects within the background. This method is used in the tutorial A Beginners Guide to Digital Textile Printing, demonstrating what nice results may be produced. Save the entire group as a pattern and see the outcome.

Note: if you need no color background for your pattern, you still can position objects to your liking and crop the tile with the Invisible borders
method. This way all elements will stay on a transparent background.

3. Reflection

Another method worth mentioning that produces very nice-looking results is mirroring. The idea of it is creating a symmetric pattern. Symmetry
is a harmonious composition technique, and reflected patterns are usually pleasant to the viewer, that's why we like symmetric ornaments.

To create it, draw a rectangle background tile and put the main objects onto it. Here I used simple shapes to create a digital sound wave just to illustrate the idea. Try to position objects so that they overlap one vertical tile border (in the image below it's the right border). Move and transform elements to get the result you like, then copy the background rectangle (Command + C) and paste it in front (Command + F), then bring it to front (Shift + Command + ]).

Select everything and crop all objects by pressing the Crop button in the Pathfinder panel (Shift + Command+ F9) - and you'll have one-half of the future pattern. To create a second half, select all elements and choose the Reflect tool (O), now Alt-click on the tile's right border and enter a Vertical axis, and click Copy. Both parts will perfectly match now (you may want to reflect the pattern again by the horizontal axis).

4. From the End

The methods above are quiet straightforward, and they are not enough at all for making more complex seamless textures. Sometimes you need to start from the end, creating not the only one tile, but rather the entire pattern of many tiles, and find the initial tile later.

To illustrate this, let's make the pattern made of hexagons. A hexagon, by the way, is a great shape for making seamless patterns with, as the objects perfectly match each others' borders, as well as an equilateral triangle (actually, most regular polygons form nice seamless patterns, starting from a square).

To create this type of pattern, we have to understand what the initial image is that will be tiled later. To do it, we can simply start building a model of
future patterns with repeated elements. One of the best examples of such technique is a demonstrated in the tutorial How to Create Seamless Watermark Patterns.

First, create the layered hexagon with the help of the Tilde and Snap to Grid option, give it low opacity and Multiply blending mode. You can, however, use a plain flat-color hexagon with stroke, but if you use this technique, you should read a note above about handling transparency and blending.

Now, with the Snap to Point option checked (Command + Alt + ") and Smart Guides turned on (Command + U), duplicate the group several times to form a few columns that exactly touch each other. You can check touching borders by switching to Outline mode (Command + Y). You are ready when you have enough elements to find a tile among them.

Now you must find the tile - the points where elements repeat indicate tile borders. Turn on rulers (Command + R) and drag two vertical guides that precisely intersect shapes in two similar points, now drag two horizontal guides (refer to the image). Smart guides will help find intersections.

Create a rectangle within the guides (see the image below, I've made it darker), and assign the tile borders using Divide or the invisible rectangle method. Now you can delete the guides and save the entire stack as a pattern and apply it to any shape.

5. Blending

Here is another modification of previous method. Oftentimes there is a need for patterns to contain a series of the same objects with different positioning, when elements overlap, and tile borders are not obvious at all, pretty much like with the hexagons above.

Still, whenever our elements must form a perfect sequence, there is a tool to help us significantly - the Blend command. Let's create a pattern similar to a parquetry floor ornament. Create a small rectangle (M) - mine is 50px by 10px. Fill it with any color you like and rotate it 45 degrees.

Now Alt + Shift-drag it to the right to copy and keep the baseline. Now select both shapes and go to Object > Blend > Options, select Specified steps and enter how many steps you want the blend to be. This number depends on the distance between two objects, I entered 10. Now just press Alt + Command + B to make the blend.

Here it is - the series of the same objects. You can modify blend parameters by selecting the blend group and going to the blend options again, or by clicking the Blend tool icon twice in the tools panel.

Now with the blend selected, choose the Reflect Tool (O) and Alt-click in its lower area, choose the Horizontal option and click Copy. You'll have a reflected copy of the original group. Position it so that it matches the corners of a first row. You can alter its color as well.

Now just copy the first top group and drag it down to match the second one (Alt + Shift-drag). Now it's time for adjustments - you can easily change blend parameters for all three groups. Select them and click the Blend tool icon twice.

When you are happy with the pattern, find the tile borders. Turn on the rulers (Command + R) and drag two vertical guides that touch the same corners of two neighboring rectangles. Now drag two horizontal guides that touch the same corners of the two rectangles of the top and bottom row. Draw an invisible bottom rectangle, hide your guides, and save the pattern. That is it.

6. Smart Guides

Sometimes, when we create a pattern out of several objects, we need the tile border to lie exactly on some element. Therefore, we need to have two copies of this element on both borders at exact positions. It is not hard to do with the help of guides. First, create a background rectangle for your pattern and fill it with the desired color (if you want a transparent background, create a rectangle and turn it into a guide by pressing Command + 5).

Now, create the objects you want for the pattern, in this case it's groups of objects. Turn on Smart Guides in the Preview menu or press Command + U. Now move the first object so that it's center sits exactly on the left rectangle border - smart guides will indicate it. Alt + Shift-drag the object to the right to copy it and keep the baseline until its center touches the right rectangle border. Now do the same with other objects - position them on the rectangle borders and make copies on opposite sides.

You can put the object in the corner, making sure it touches the object's center point and make three copies in every corner. You can also put some objects randomly within the rectangle. When you like the outcome, you can assign the tile borders.

Copy the background rectangle and paste it to back (Command + C and Command + B), or in this case you used a rectangle guide to turn it into a shape again (Alt + Command + 5). Make sure its on the bottom of the Layers panel, and give it no fill and no stroke. Now you can select all elements and define a pattern.

7. Calculations

Very often all we need from seamless patterns is just randomly scattered objects. Previous methods won't work for this, as it makes a visible tile because the rectangle borders overlap center points of objects rather than any random points. We can still make random seamless patterns with the help of precise calculations. First, we'll need a background tile with exact measurements - again, create a rectangle and either fill it with color or turn it into a guide.

You better create it by pressing Enter and inserting the width and height you want the tile to be. Now create the objects for your pattern. When they are ready, place the first objects anywhere on the rectangle's bottom border. Now select the object with the Move tool (V) and press Enter, now in the Vertical field insert the value for moving the object precisely - the height of your tile, and press Copy. If you forget the tile height or width, simply select the background rectangle and open the Transform panel - you'll see the numbers in the W and H fields.

Position the second object to another border and again copy it the same way. For the right and left borders, enter the value that equals the tile width in the Horizontal field of the Move window, while for the bottom and top borders enter a tile height in the Vertical field. You'll need to enter negative numbers (like -200px) while moving left or down. You can place objects in the corner, in this case duplicate it both horizontally and vertically to have 4 copies.

Also put some objects in the middle of the tile if you want. Now you can assign the tile borders using either the Divide objects method or Invisible bottom tile method, and save the pattern. This pattern technique is great for creating scattered elements like in the pattern created in this tutorial How to Make a Foolproof Flowery Wallpaper Pattern.

8. Dynamic Edit

While creating a pattern, we oftentimes lack the possibility to see how the final result will look. However, there is a method allowing not only to model the resulted effect, but also to edit it dynamically.

First of all, create the tile containing the background rectangle (with fixed width and height) and other pattern objects. Position all objects in the desired place, including those that overlap the tile borders (don't make copies for the opposite borders, however). Now, group all the shapes. With the entire group selected, go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform. Here, in the Horizontal move field, enter the rectangle width and for the number of copies enter 2, and apply it.

Again, go to the same Transform effect, you'll be prompted to apply a new effect - click Apply. This time enter the rectangle height in the Vertical move field (negative number), again enter 2 copies and apply the transformation. What you get now is a 3x3 square modeling a future pattern, with the original group positioned in the upper-left corner. Transform effects can be edited in the Appearance panel.

Now you can easily move or transform any object of the original group to achieve the desired result! To do it, choose the Group Selection tool (White arrow with the plus sign) that is hidden under the Direct Selection arrow, and select every element of the group separately - changes will dynamically apply to all 9 tiles.

If your elements are combined in groups, you might need to click twice with the Group selection. You can now find a perfect position for every object in this pattern, making sure they do not overlap. When you are happy with how the pattern looks, you can define tile borders and save it.

You don't even have to expand the effect! All you have to do now is create a rectangle the same size as your initial tile, position it somewhere inside your pattern model, send it to back and make it invisible. Save the pattern and apply it to see the result!

9. Random Texture

I want to share another method that can be very helpful for creating a random texture, like concrete, paper, or rock surface. We'll use raster filters to make this type of pattern.

Create a rectangle with a flat-color or gradient fill, depending on your needs. Select it and go to the Filters menu, choose the raster filter that suits your needs (good effects can be achieved with the Texture section, like Grain or Texturizer filter), adjust the filter settings to your liking and apply it. Now expand it (Object > Expand appearance) and live trace the group (Object > Live trace). Adjust the Live trace parameters and expand it to get a group of vector objects. Now you can ungroup it if you want, or simply assign tile borders with an invisible rectangle and send it to back (Shift + Command + [), and save the pattern.


In this tutorial we've learned all about patterns in Adobe Illustrator - what they consist of, how to save them and assign borders properly, and, more importantly, how to create custom seamless patterns.

We used simple objects to understand all basic methods of pattern creation, but once you know all these techniques, you can try them on more complex images. You can also combine described methods together inventing your own unique techniques!

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