How to Make Repeat Patterns in Adobe Illustrator

How to Make Repeat Patterns in Adobe Illustrator

When you know how to make simple designs in Illustrator it's easy to create eye catching patterns. Learning how to make seamless patterns is a great way to repurpose existing work in branding, licensing, and package design.

Some designers make a full-time living selling patterns on sites like Spoonflower.

Illustrator has tools that make pattern making mindless. But in this tutorial we're going to go old school and show you how to plan a pattern in Illustrator analog style.

Why?

Because understanding how to make patterns is an important design skill. It will help you make better patterns in Illustrator and any software as well as your sketching and concept work.

In this simple tutorial we'll show you the best tips and tricks to start making patterns in Illustrator fast.

Document Setup

For this tutorial, I will be creating a seamless pattern in Adobe Illustrator without using Adobe’s Pattern Maker tool. I begin with a 12 × 12 inch artboard at 300dpi and CMYK color mode. See Fig. 1

NOTE: Seamless repeat pattern swatches do not have to be made on a square artboard made as a square tile. You can make pattern swatches on a rectangular artboard as well, provided you apply the same basic principles when placing your motifs.

Figure 1 the New Document panel of Adobe Illustrator.

Bounding Box

On a new layer I create a square bounding box that matches the size of the artboard, in this case 12” x 12”. Make sure that the 12” square bounding box has no stroke and no fill. Align the bounding box so that it lines up perfectly to the confines of the artboard. Lock the layer.

The bounding box will essentially work as a clipping mask and will confine your artwork to the artboard when exporting out your file. See Fig. 2A.

Figure 2A a square white artboard. To the right is the layers panel with a layer highlighted reading

Background Color

I create a new layer for the background color and make a 13” x 13” square that extends beyond the artboard edges. Align this square (both horizontally and vertically) with the artboard and lock the layer. See Fig. 2B.

Figure 2B a square Illustrator artboard with a cream background. To the right is the layers panel.

Create your Motifs

Draw your motifs using the Pen tool, the Pencil tool, Shapes or the Blob Brush tool. Create a new, separate layer for each of your motifs. This will make it easier to create repeats of each motif later on, should you need to. See Fig. 3.

Figure 3 a cream square woodland and camping motifs.

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Arrange your motifs

Have fun placing your motifs in a random pattern in and around the artboard until you find a pleasing composition.

You can resize some of them (hold down the Shift key to scale them up and down in size proportionately). Mirror/reflect (Object > Transform > Reflect) and rotate (Object > Transform > Rotate) others.

Some of your motifs will overhang the artboard, don’t worry we will deal with that in the next few steps. See Fig. 4.

Figure 4 a square artboard with forest and camping motifs in Adobe Illustrator. To the right is the layers panel.

NOTE: There are many types of pattern layouts - Block, Brick and Half Brick, Drop, Tossed, Random, Ditzy to name just a few.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when creating a seamless pattern in Illustrator is that any object or motif that travels outside the edges of the artboard must have the extending pieces repeated within the artboard area in order for the pattern to be seamless.

For example if the motif is in the top left corner, but overhangs the edges of artboard and gets “cut off”, the “cut off” piece must be repeated on the right hand side of the artboard at an equal distance inside the artboard. Because we are using a 12” x 12” artboard, any “cut off” motifs will be repeated at 12” both horizontally and vertically.

See Fig. 5: To do this properly you will create copy of the extending motif and paste it in place. CMD C (to copy), CMD + Shift V (to paste in place).

Use the Transform tool to move the copy. Put a + symbol and type in the number 12 on the X: axis.

Figure 5 Illustrator forest and camping motifs. The transform window copies a branch along the x-axis.

SeeFig. 6: This will move the copied motif over 12 inches and it will now overhang the edges of the artboard on the opposing side.

Because the two motifs in Fig. 6 overhang the upper edges of the artboard they need to be repeated vertically.

Figure 6 forest and camping motifs on an Illustrator file. A branch is copied along the x-axis using the Transform tool.

See Fig. 7: Select both motifs in the top left and right hand corners, copy and paste them in place. CMD C (to copy), CMD + Shift V (to paste in place).

Use the Transform tool to move the copied motifs. Put a + symbol and type in the number 12 on the Y: axis.

See Fig. 8: This will move the copied motifs downwards 12 inches and they will now overhang the bottom left and right hand edges of the artboard.

Continue to copy and paste your motifs until all overhanging motifs have a repeat on the opposing side. See Fig. 9.

NOTE: Using the + andsymbols in the Transform panel

X: axis, using the + symbol – Moves the copy horizontally to the right,

X: axis, using the - symbol – Moves the copy horizontally to the left,

Y: axis, using the + symbol – Moves the copy downwards vertically,

Y: axis, using the - symbol – Moves the copy upwards vertically.

Figure 7 an Illustrator file with forest and camping motifs. Two top branches are copied with transform tool at the y-axis.
Figure 8 an Illustrator file with forest and camping motifs. A branch is copied on all four corners with the transform tool.
Figure 9 vector forest and camping motifs in Illustrator. Shapes touching the border are selected.

It’s time to create the Pattern Swatch

Start by unlocking all of your layers. Select all (CMD + A) and drag everything into the Swatches panel. See Fig. 10A and 10B.

Figure 10A an Illustrator artboard of forest and camping motifs which are all selected. To the right is the Swatches window.
Figure 10B an artboard in Illustrator with forest and camping motifs next to the Swatches panel.

Test your Pattern Swatch

Sometimes pattern swatches don’t repeat properly. It could be an accidental nudging of one motif that throws it off, or you may have missed making a repeat of a motif. That’s why it’s always a good idea to test your pattern swatch to make sure it repeats properly before you use it elsewhere.

To do this, create a new layer and make a new square (I make mine 24” x 24”), but any size that’s larger than the pattern swatch will do. Fill the square with the newly created pattern swatch. See Fig. 11.

Figure 11 a pattern with forest and camping motifs, an Illustrator file featuring the same motifs, and the Swatches panel.

To see your pattern at a smaller scale go to Object > Transform > Scale.

Set the Scale to Uniform, pick the Percentage you would like to see your pattern scaled to, under Options check the box next to Transform Patterns, check the box next to the Preview button. See Fig. 12.

Figure 12 a repeat pattern with forest and camping motifs, the pattern is altered using the scale tool in Adobe Illustrator.

Export your Swatch

If you are happy with the results of your new seamless pattern swatch you can now export it out of Illustrator. That’s it... have fun making your own swatches!

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