Building and Editing Patterns

Building and Editing Patterns

Using patterns can be as simple or complicated as you want. If you become familiar with the basics, you can take off in all sorts of creative directions. To build a simple pattern, start by creating the artwork that you want to use as a pattern on your artboard — polka dots, smiley faces, wavy lines, whatever. Then select all the components of the pattern and drag them to the Swatches palette. That’s it, you made a pattern! Use the pattern by selecting it as the fill or stroke of an object.


Gradients and patterns cannot be used in artwork that is then going to be saved as a pattern. If you have a gradient or pattern in your artwork and try to drag it into the Swatches palette, Illustrator will kick it back out with no error message. On a good note, text can be dragged right into the Swatches palette to become a pattern.

You can update patterns that you created or patterns that already reside in the Swatches palette. To edit an existing pattern, follow these steps:

  1. Click the pattern swatch in the Swatches palette and drag it to the artboard.

  2. Deselect the pattern and use the Direct Selection tool to change its colors or shapes or whatever.

    Keep making changes until you’re happy with the result.

  3. To update the pattern with your new edited version, use the Selection tool to select all pattern elements and Alt+drag (Windows) or Option+drag (Mac) the new pattern over the existing pattern swatch in the Swatches palette.

  4. When a black border appears around the existing pattern, release the mouse button.

    All instances of the pattern in your illustration are updated.

Cool little pattern extras

If you want to add some space between tiles, as shown in Figure, create a bounding box using a rectangle shape with no fill or stroke (representing the repeat that you want to create). Send it behind the other objects in the pattern and drag all objects, including the bounding box, to the Swatches palette.

Click To expand
Figure: A pattern with a transparent bounding box.

Transforming patterns

We cover transformations in detail in Chapter 25 of this minibook, but there are some specific transform features that apply to patterns. To scale a pattern, but not the object that it is filling, double-click the Scale tool. In the Scale dialog box that appears, type in the value that you want to scale, but deselect all options except for Patterns, as shown in Figure. This works for the Rotate tool as well!

Click To expand
Figure: Choose to scale and rotate only the pattern, not the object it’s in.

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