Fun with Illustrator Pattern Fills, Part 1

September 17, 2007 - 2:00am ||| 0 Comments | Add new

A new Illustrator user recently asked me if Illustrator had any basic pattern fills, something less gaudy than the default ones in the Swatches panel. Truthfully, I haven't investigated the state of pattern swatches in Illustrator since about version 3. I remember how they used to choke my old Apple LaserWriter, though!

So I opened Illustrator CS3 to remind myself of the exact path to the pattern swatches and see if there were any simple ones he could use. You know, just do a quick check so I could e-mail him a how-to.

One hour later I came up for air. Man, they are fun to play with!

Creating and modifying pattern fills in CS3 is a lot easier than I remembered, and also a lot more interesting, especially when you combine them with Illy's live Effects like Warp and Twist.

Note I'm not talking about Pattern Brushes; the kind you apply to a path and which are even more fascinating to work with. I'll leave that for another day. Let's just stick with basic pattern fills — there are plenty of techniques here for you to experiment with to liven up your Illustrator artwork.

In fact, I'm splitting this into a two-parter. In this issue I'll give you the basics, in the next issue I'll discuss how to include the pattern fills in your transformations and distortions.

Pattern Swatch Libraries
First, let's answer my friend's question: Are there more built-in pattern swatches than appear by default?

Si senor. In CS3, go to Window > Swatch Libraries > Patterns. You'll see three additional fly-out categories there: Basic Graphics, Decorative, and Nature. All told they hold eleven different pattern libraries, and each library has ten to twenty different swatches. Choose any library and it opens up in its own panel, with its pattern swatches available for use.

Now I don't know if it's just my machine, but I couldn't find the pattern libraries in CS2 using this method. The "Patterns" category didn't appear in the Window > Swatch Libraries fly-out (nor in any of the other library types). But I found I could open the pattern libraries by scrolling to the bottom of the long Swatch Libraries list and choosing Other Library. That jumps to the Presets folder in the Illustrator CS2 application, and here I found the Patterns folder with the same sub-folders (Basic Graphics, etc.) and libraries. Opening any of these files opens that library's Swatches panel in Illustrator CS2.

To use one of the pattern swatches, just select an object, make sure the Color panel's Fill icon is in front, and click the swatch. The object fills with the pattern, and the swatch is added to your main Swatches panel. You could also drag pattern swatches directly to your Swatches panel without applying them, just make sure nothing is selected before you do so.

If you want to change the pattern's colors or adjust its elements, hang on, that's coming up.

Make Your Own Patterns
Oh, so complicated! Here's how:¬†

1. Draw something.
2. Drag it to the Swatches panel.
3. The end.

Amazing, no? Any selection you drag and drop into your Swatches panel becomes a pattern automatically. To test your new swatch, select an object — anything that can take a fill, even type — and choose your pattern from the Control panel's Fill menu. (Or, make sure the Fill icon is in front in the Colors panel, and click your pattern swatch in the Swatches panel).

Your original artwork fills the shape in a repeating, tiled pattern. Each "block" of the pattern fill is the same size as your original artwork, so if you want a small pattern that repeats a lot by default, be sure to scale it down before dragging it into Swatches. (You can also scale a pattern independent of the object it fills; that's in Part 2.)

You can make a single piece of artwork into a pattern, or shift-click multiple objects — they don't have to be touching — and turn it into a pattern by simply dropping the selection into Swatches. Even a block of live text can be a pattern! As long as you don't nest patterns (Illustrator won't let you drag a pattern-filled object into the Swatches panel), it'll work. There are likely other limitations, but I haven't found many.

I even imported a raster file, the Photoshop Rubber Duck (from the Photoshop Samples folder), scaled it down to about a half-inch square, and dragged that into Swatches. Voila, I could fill shapes with tiny duckies. The image has to be embedded, not linked, for this to work. I don't recommend this though unless you have lots of RAM and a fast machine, as each instance of the repeating raster is added to your file size and to the Links panel as multiple embedded images.

Now, if you want to create a pattern that's seamless — for example, where the end of a curved line in one pattern tile merges with the other end of the same line in an adjacent tile, so it looks like one continuous line … then there's more work involved. Not that much more work, though. Illustrator's online help pages have step-by-step instructions for creating intricate seamless pattern tiles, check it out if you're so inclined.

Turn Symbols into Patterns
Illustrator comes with an incredible number of imaginative pieces of artwork disguised as Symbols. There are only a few in the default Symbols panel, but try browsing through the hundreds of others that live in all the additional Symbol libraries (Window > Symbol Libraries).

To turn a symbol into a pattern, drag the symbol out of the Symbols panel or one of the Symbol libraries you've opened, and drop it onto the artboard. Then drag it from the artboard to the Swatches panel. It's no longer linked to the original symbol, now it's a pattern tile.

Many of the symbol libraries contain variations of the same basic artwork, like tree leaves or patches of grass. You can pull from these libraries for interesting pattern effects. For example, open the Symbol library called Hair and Fur. Each symbol is a slightly-different tuft of hair or bit of fur. (No animals were harmed, I've been assured.) Drag out three or four of these, arrange them somewhat randomly, near each other on the artboard, then shift-click to select them all and drop the selection into your Swatches panel.

Test it out by filling a shape with your new swatch. Now that's what I call one hairy pattern, by gum.

Change a Pattern's Colors
Once a you've filled a shape with a pattern, you can't change the color of any of the pattern's elements. If you try choosing a Fill color you'll see the color just fills the shape, replacing the pattern. (I wish pattern fills had a "Colorize" attribute like pattern brushes do, but they don't.)

Instead, you'll need to edit the pattern source itself. Just drag the pattern swatch from the Swatches panel onto your artboard. Zoom in so you can see what you're doing, and use the usual tools to select elements of the pattern and change fill and stroke attributes. You may need to choose Object > Expand and/or use the Direct Selection tool to select individual elements.

Of course, while you're editing a pattern, you're not limited to changing its colors. You can edit anything you want — add or remove elements, scale things, change the stacking order, and so on.

When you're done, select all the elements and drag the modified pattern swatch back into the Swatches panel. It gets added as another pattern swatch. If you want to replace the old pattern with the one you just modified (updating all the artwork you had filled with the pattern), hold down the Option/Alt key as you drop it directly on top of the original pattern swatch in the panel.

Coming Up in Part 2
In the next issue of DesignGeek, I'll talk about tips for transforming pattern fills (scaling, rotating, etc.), and how to apply cool distortions and effects to them. In the meantime if you have any favorite pattern tips, e-mail them to me so I can include them!

Read Part 2:

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