Fun with Illustrator Pattern Fills, Part 2

October 12, 2007 - 2:00am ||| 2 Comments | Add new

Last month, investigating a new user's single, innocent question about Illustrator ("Does it have any patterns other than the ones in the default Swatches palette?") led me to hours of playing around with patterns in Adobe Illustrator CS3 and tons of new discoveries. There was so much I wanted to share with you, I had to break the article up into two parts.

In the previous issue's Part 1 of the story, I covered Illy's Pattern Swatch Libraries (the answer to the user's question); Making Your Own Patterns; Turning Symbols into Patterns, and Editing and Updating Patterns.

You can read all that in DesignGeek 65:

Since then I've been compelled to show users how easy it is to create patterns (just drag and drop a selection of artwork into the Swatches panel) to fill other shapes with, and really enjoy seeing their jaws drop, even seasoned Illustrator users like myself who haven't paid much attention to patterns.

I'll get to Part 2 topics in a second. First, I want to share some reader feedback from Part 1.

Donna wrote in to suggest that I mention (if I hadn't been planning to already, she said … so diplomatic! heh … thanks…) that users keep in mind that pattern fills may cause output problems, because they're so memory- and processor-intensive. In other words, patterns can be a lot of information for a RIP to handle; and sometimes you — or worse, your print provider — will end up with a PostScript error. (And, as Donna points out, how many billable hours will it take the pre-press guys to figure out the glitch is caused by a pattern fill?)

So true, Donna, and thanks for reminding me. Adobe covers pattern fills in a great TechNote, "Creating efficient files and improving print performance (Illustrator CS2 and CS3):"

The TechNote recommends that if you think a pattern is going to cause a problem, you should expand it (Object > Expand) in the final artwork before saving it. See the section below (where yes, I had been planning on talking about it) on Distorting Pattern Fills for more info.

My friend David Creamer, owner of IDEAS Training in southern California, also e-mailed me after reading last month's issue, to alert me that CS3's new Live Color feature works on pattern fills. That means you can recolor patterns without needing to edit the base pattern tile (as I had mistakenly explained was the only way to change the colors in a pattern fill).

Man, how could I miss this? After reading David's e-mail, I immediately opened the Illustrator file I had been using to test patterns with, and checked it out. Very cool! I'll cover that first.

Recolor Pattern Fills (CS3 only)
If you've seen any Illustrator CS3 demos, I'm sure you'll remember the uber-cool Live Color feature. That's the new dialog box that lets you recolor artwork on the fly via a fascinating interface and breakthrough tools, all based on color groups and harmony rules. To my mind Adobe could've sold it as a separate product all together, but I'm happy that they chose to introduce it by integrating it throughout Illustrator CS3.

To use the Live Color dialog box, select your pattern-filled object(s) and choose Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork, or choose Edit Colors from the fly-out menu in the new Color Guides panel. Make sure that the Recolor Artwork check box at the bottom of the dialog box is enabled, and start adjusting the colors.

Now, explaining exactly *how* to adjust colors with Live Color is another matter. There are an overwhelming number of options. I suggest you begin by watching Brenda Sutherland's five-minute video tutorial, free on Adobe's web site:

Using Recolor Art to Change Colors in Illustrations

Brenda uses a clip-art illustration as an example, but everything she shows can also be done to the colors contained in a pattern-filled object.

Pattern Transform Preference
When you fill something with a pattern, what Illustrator actually does is fill the entire document with the pattern but uses the object's shape as a kind of clipping path or mask. So as you drag the filled object around on the artboard, it's like moving a window around … the pattern is stationary, just different parts of it are revealed as you move the clipping path around. When you scale an object with the Scale or Free Transform tool, the pattern doesn't scale.

If you don't like that, and would prefer that the pattern move and transform with the object, open Illustrator's Preferences dialog box and in the General section, turn on Transform Pattern Tiles. This might be on by default already … but now you know that if you *don't* want the pattern to scale or rotate when you use one of the transform tools, you should turn this preference off. It won't change anything in existing pattern-filled artwork, just things you do from now on, until you change the preference again.

Manually Transforming Pattern Fills
Regardless of the state of this preference setting, you can always override it by using the Transform dialog boxes (instead of the tools) in the Object menu. Each of these dialogs — Move, Rotate, Reflect, Shear and Scale — has a checkbox that lets you specify if you want the transformation to be applied to the object and the pattern, or just the pattern, or just the object. The Preview checkbox lets you see the results as you play with the settings.

By turning off the "Object" checkbox and leaving "Pattern" enabled, you can use these dialog boxes to transform *just the pattern* and not the shape. For example, if you want to vary the size of the pattern tiles from one pattern-filled object to the next, select one of the filled shapes and choose Object > Transform > Scale. Enable just the Pattern checkbox here and you can scale the fill until it looks just right. Ditto for the other transform commands in Object menu.

Not into dialog boxes? You can use the transform tools to transform just the pattern of a filled shape, if you can remember to hold down the Tilde key (right below the Esc key) as you use them on a selected object.

Distorting, Warping, and Other Perversions
Going beyond the basic transforms, the easiest way to have a pattern distort in concert with distorting the object shape is with one of the Object > Envelope Distort commands.

First, make sure that you turn on the Distort Pattern Fills checkbox in the Object > Envelope Distort > Envelope Options dialog box. Otherwise it won't work.

Then select the pattern-filled object and choose one of the Envelope commands, like Warp or Mesh. Nice and simple, and the pattern's still "live" so you can edit and update it, as I detailed in the previous issue. This does tax Illustrator's processing power, though, and when you try to print it, your local laser printer may get up, walk over to you and say, "You have got to be kidding me" as it dumps the PostScript code in your lap and leaves in a snit.

We don't want that to happen. So I'd recommend that when you're happy with the final distortion, copy it to another document for safekeeping (in case you need to tweak it later) and in the actual file, expand it (Object > Expand). The artwork retains its appearance and its paths and fills are editable, but it's no longer an editable effect or pattern fill, so it should print much more easily.

Now, Live Effects (those cool things from the Effects menu like Twist, Pucker & Bloat, and so on) are another matter. Technically, these are actually *path* effects, not *fill* effects. So they'll work on pattern-filled shapes, but the fill won't be "effected" (ouch) only the shape containing it.

I double-checked this with Illustrator guru Mordy Golding, author of the recent Real World Illustrator books (CS3 just came out), who maintains a enjoyable companion blog and videocast:

Real World Illustrator

Mordy confirmed this, though he added that the 3D Effects (Extrude and Bevel, Revolve, Rotate) will distort pattern fills because it flattens (expands) the fills as it renders the 3D image. Better get a very fast computer, though, to experiment with it!

If you really need to Twist or Bloat the pattern as well as the shape, you'll have to expand it first (Object > Expand) before you apply the effect. The problem is that when you expand a pattern fill, it turns into a mountain of selected objects, so it's almost impossible to judge when the Effect settings are just right. You have to apply the Effect and then wait a few seconds (or minutes) while Illustrator works on it, then deselect the shape to see the results.

When you're satisfied with the artwork, be sure and Expand it one more time to convert the live effect into permanent artwork, as explained above, to avoid output problems.


Comments (Subscribe to Comments RSS)

1 August 17, 2011 - 12:19am by Tobias (not verified):

Thanks for the useful tutorial, could use it well, long live the Envelope Warp!


2 October 31, 2011 - 12:59pm by aaron (not verified):

I created a seamless tile with Illustrator CS3. When using the pattern fill, you can see the original tile like it is overlapping just a tad. Looks like this on screen and print. Looking for suggestions for avoiding this. I realize I could just take it into photoshop. Oh, there is a layer “multiply” mode applied in the tile, but it should not be overlapping anyway.Any suggestions?

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