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Mastering Vector Design: How to Create Illustrator Patterns

Article Description

David Karlins dispels some of the myths about using patterns in Adobe Illustrator. With some very simple techniques, you can create and use fascinating patterns for strokes and fills.

Scaling, Rotating, Moving, and Stacking Patterns

So far, we’ve reviewed the basics of creating a pattern fill that can be applied to any shape—a useful skill, but we’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with Illustrator pattern fills. At the beginning of this article I promised that I’d show you how to apply pattern fills to strokes, rescale pattern fills within a shape, move a pattern within a shape, and stack multiple patterns in a single shape. Now let’s do all that!

Applying a Pattern Fill to a Stroke

There’s an urban myth that pattern fills can’t be applied to strokes in Illustrator. Maybe that’s because applying patterns to strokes in Illustrator requires a step or two more than it should. In any event, you can apply a pattern fill from the Swatches panel to any stroke:

  1. Making the stroke nice and thick helps. Select the stroke you want, and choose a weight of 20 points from the Illustrator control panel.
  2. Select the stroke with the Selection tool.
  3. Make sure that the Stroke is selected at the bottom of the Illustrator toolbox and then click a pattern fill in the Swatches panel to apply the pattern to the selected stroke (see Figure 3).
Figure 3

Figure 3 Applying a pattern fill to a stroke.

Rescaling or Rotating a Pattern Fill Within a Shape

Rescaling patterns (while not rescaling the object to which the pattern fill has been applied) is one of my favorite techniques for creating unique patterns. It’s amazing how much rescaling a familiar-looking pattern can pump some energy into an illustration.

To rescale a pattern fill that has been applied to a shape, follow these steps:

  1. Select the object with the pattern fill.
  2. Double-click the Scale tool in the toolbox to open the Scale dialog box.
  3. Deselect the default Objects check box, and instead select the Patterns check box (see Figure 4). With this setting, the scaling you define will not apply to the size of the object, but will stretch the pattern fill. You also can distort a pattern by changing the values in the Non-Uniform section of the dialog box.
Figure 4

Figure 4 Rescaling a pattern fill.

You can rotate a pattern in a similar fashion:

  1. Select the object with the pattern fill.
  2. Double-click the Rotate tool in the toolbox to open the Rotate dialog box.
  3. Deselect the Objects check box and select the Patterns check box. Then enter a value in the Angle box to rotate just the pattern within the object (see Figure 5).
Figure 5

Figure 5 Rotating a pattern fill.

Moving a Pattern Within a Shape

You also can move a pattern within a selected object:

  1. Select the object with the pattern fill.
  2. Click the Selection tool in the toolbox.
  3. Click-and-drag while holding down the grave accent (´) key on your keyboard. (Don’t hold down the Shift key that you usually use when pressing that key to get a tilde.)

Stacking Multiple Patterns

To create some really complex fill effects, stack more than one pattern fill on top of another. You can stack patterns over patterns, or (probably more typically) create a pattern fill and stack it on top of a solid color (or gradient) fill, and apply both fills to the same path. You do all this using the Appearance panel.

To create a set of stacked fills in the Appearance panel, follow these steps:

  1. Select a path to which the fills will be applied.
  2. Choose Window > Appearance to display the Appearance panel.
  3. Select the Fill row in the Appearance panel. Choose a pattern fill for this path from a swatch panel.
  4. From the Appearance panel menu, choose Add New Fill. Select this second path in the Appearance panel and apply a fill from a swatch panel or the Color panel. A solid color fill or a gradient works well as an underlying fill (see Figure 6).
    Figure 6

    Figure 6 Adding a second fill to an object that already has a pattern fill.

  5. Click-and-drag in the Appearance panel to change the stacking order of the fills (see Figure 7).
Figure 7

Figure 7 Changing the stacking order of fills in the Appearance panel.

Now that I’ve shown you how to stack multiple fills in the Appearance panel, the possibilities for creating fascinating textured pattern fills are unlimited. Experiment with overlaying horizontal striped patterns over vertical stripes to get started, and take off from there.

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