How to Make a Repeat Pattern in Illustrator
Repeat or seamless patterns look great on posters, textiles and iPhone cases. They lend themselves to a number of mediums including printmaking, illustration, graphic design and typography. So in the grand old RB tradition of learning about stuff, we’ve whipped up a tutorial showing you how to create a repeat pattern in Adobe Illustrator.
Top: A selection of patterns by artists on RB. Click on the images to see the original works.
Above: iPhone cases by Ekaterina Panova, Kotopes, Socialite and Ella Tjader.
Step One: Setting Up Your Document
Open a new document in Illustrator. The size of the document isn’t too important as long as it’s not tiny. We’ve made ours 600 px x 600 px. Go to your view menu and turn on ‘show grid’ (⌘* for the shortcut lovers). Now you need to create a 300 px by 300 px square by selecting the rectangle shape, clicking anywhere on your canvas and typing in the values. Give this square a fill color which will temporarily act as your background color. When we create the pattern swatch we’ll give it a transparent background but at this stage a solid background helps with placing your images and working out the best colors for the elements that make up your pattern.
A couple of riveting screenshots. The values for your square and – taa daa! – the square with a black fill color.
At this point it’s worth locking this shape to the grid. Select view > snap to grid and position the square in the center of your canvas, aligned with the vertical and horizontal grid lines. With the rectangle still selected, go to your object menu and select lock > selection (or ⌘2). This will stop you accidentally moving it at any point and then kicking the cat when your elements don’t line up properly at the end.
Step 2: Placing Your Elements
Firstly you’ll need a bunch of elements to make up your pattern. You can choose to create these using Illustrator or hand draw them, scan, convert to vector and then place them on your canvas. Most importantly, they need to be vectors so you’re able to scale them in size. We’re going to use some vector images we created earlier in Illustrator.
The aim is to perfectly duplicate the elements on the edges of your colored square. If an element appears on the top edge of your canvas, it needs to appear in exactly the same position on the lower edge. And the same applies to the left and right edges. Any element placed in the corner needs to be perfectly replicated in all four corners.
The two single most useful tricks when using this method to create a repeat pattern are your ⌘f shortcut and your transform tool. Everyone knows the old ⌘c, ⌘v – your copy and paste shortcut. ⌘f is a shortcut for ‘paste in front’. It allows you to place a duplicate copy of your element precisely in front of the original, and when combined with the transform tool, this is pretty handy.
Remember how we made the black square exactly 300 px by 300 px and locked it in position? By adding +300 or -300 to the x or y values in your transform box, you can move your copied image precisely 300 px in either direction, so it’s in exactly the right position for your repeat pattern.
Using the Transform Tool to Position Your Elements
Go to your window menu and make sure transform is ticked. If it helps, you can drag the transform box on to your canvas so it’s in clear view. The transform box will give you the x and y values (exact position on the canvas) for any item selected. You don’t need to pay much attention to these. You just need to remember you can add +300 or -300 to them to move your copied images precisely.
Armed with that information, it’s time to position your elements. We’ve started by placing elements around the outside of the square and making sure they’re properly duplicated. Take your first element and place it on the top edge of the square. With the element still selected, type ⌘c then ⌘f (copy and paste in front). The image in front will now be selected.
Go to your transform box and type -300 after the y value and press enter.
Like magic, the copied version will move to the exact position required on the bottom line of the box.
Place your second image on the left hand edge of the square. Type ⌘c then ⌘f (copy and paste in front) and then type +300 in the transform box after the x value and again, the duplicate will move to the exact spot required. And repeat until you’re happy with the placement of the elements on the outer edge of your square.
The elements inside the square don’t need to be duplicated or precisely placed so you can fill these in and tweak their positions once the outer elements have been placed. Once you’re completely happy with your design, it’s time to turn it into a pattern swatch.
Step Three: Creating the Pattern Swatch
Now we want to create a pattern swatch with a transparent background, so we need to get rid of the large black square but Illustrator needs something to tell it where the edges of the pattern start and end. Instead of deleting the square completely, we need to select it and remove the stroke and fill.
Now select all your elements, including the now transparent square. Go to your edit menu and select ‘define pattern’. Give it a name and hit ok and you’ll see it appear in your swatches box. If you’re feeling like a bit of a whiz kid at this stage, you can also just select all the elements and drag them into the swatches box to create your new pattern swatch.
Congratulations! You’ve just created your first repeat pattern.
If you’d like to check for any alignment weirdness or details you may want to go back and tweak, fill a rectangle with a color, hit ⌘c then ⌘f to duplicate it then fill the new square with your pattern swatch.
If you need to change the size of your pattern, right click (⌘ click) on the pattern in the new rectangle and select transform > scale. Make sure you just have the pattern option selected (untick the object box) then add the value you want to increase or decrease the pattern by. And you’re done.
Now go and try your marvelous new pattern out on an iPhone case or a poster! And if you give this tutorial a try, we’d love to see the results in the comments below.