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Mastering Vector Design: How to Create Illustrator Patterns

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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.
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Ready to learn some insider Illustrator techniques for managing pattern fills? Buried in Illustrator’s overwhelming array of features are some tricks for manipulating fills that I think you’ll really enjoy.

Did you know that you can do all of the following?

  • Apply pattern fills to strokes
  • Rescale a pattern within a shape
  • Move a pattern within a shape
  • Stack multiple patterns in a single shape

In this article, I’ll explain how to perform all of these techniques. But first, let’s examine how patterns are created in Illustrator, and how they’re applied to shapes.

You use Illustrator’s omnipotent Swatches panel to collect, store, save, and apply patterns as object fills. Those pattern fills can be applied to closed paths (in which the first anchor is also the last), or open paths (in which the first and last anchors differ). Have you adopted Illustrator’s alternative Live Paint logic? The Swatches panel is used here as well to apply pattern fills.

Creating and Applying a Simple Pattern Fill

The following procedure shows how to generate, save, and apply pattern fills. I’ll use the technique of borrowing one of the preset symbols that ship with Illustrator as a pattern.

  1. Select Window > Symbol Libraries, and choose any of the sets of pre-made symbol libraries from the submenu to open a panel with a set of symbols.
  2. Drag any symbol from the Symbol panel onto the Illustrator artboard. Drag other symbols (or more copies of the same symbol) onto the artboard to create a pattern. Keep the symbols you drag onto the artboard close to each other (see Figure 1).
    Figure 1

    Figure 1 Dragging symbols onto the Illustrator artboard.

  3. Select Window > Swatches to display the Swatches panel. Select all the objects to be included in your pattern, and then drag them onto the Swatches panel as shown in Figure 2.
    Figure 2

    Figure 2 Dragging artwork onto the Swatches panel to create a pattern.

  4. With your pattern created and safely stashed in the Swatches panel, you can apply the pattern to any selected shape as a fill. Simply select the path and then click the desired swatch in the Swatches panel.
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