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How Patterns Work

A reapeating pattern is based on a transparent tile behind your artwork. It can be square or rectangular. If you want some of the art to span across two tiles, it needs to appear partially in the first, then proportionally on the opposite side of the tile. This is the process for making a tile manually.


Once you’ve created your final tile, make sure the square in the background has no fill and no stroke. It also needs to be behind all the pattern artwork. Drag the whole thing into the Swatches panel. You can then apply the pattern to your artwork. I prefer to do it via the Appearance panel.


Rather than creating a background colour as you create your pattern tile, do it in the Appearance panel. Create your initial pattern with no background. Once you apply the pattern to an object, create a new fill behind it in the Appearance panel.

Additional reading: Adobe’s Support Doc

Patterns we create live in the Swatches panel. But the Swatches panel contains other types of swatches, too: process colours, spot colours, gradients and colour groups. If we’re working exclusively on patterns, we can filter the content of the panel Swatch Kinds button in the panel.


If you choose Show Pattern Swatches, that’s all that will show in the panel.

Patterns with Effects

This technique is really an alternative to using the Pattern panel. It can come in handy, depending on your design. Really, you should default to the Pattern panel in most cases.

We can make wonderfully creative patterns with Illustrator’s Appearance Panel. All we need to do is draw our initial artwork to tile, then repeat it using the transform effect twice. The first time, the initial tile repeats horizontally. The second time, the whole row repeats vertically.

This makes it that when we edit the original, all the instances of the tile change too.


Create your first tile. Position it at the top-left of the pattern you’re going to create. Select the tile, go Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform… Turn on Preview. Increase the Move Horizontal number until the tile moves over far enough. Enter a value for Copies. It will repeat X number of times.


All we need to do now is to repeat this process again to repeat the tile downwards. Select the initial tile again. Use the same Transform effect again.


When you apply an effect to artwork that already has the same effect on it, Illustrator posts a warning. We usually want to go to the Appearance panel to edit the existing effect. In this case, we actually do want to add a second effect to the first one.


Now we can apply the Transform effect to move the artwork vertically. Use the tranform settings you need for your artwork.

Once you’re done, you can always edit the pattern by clicking on the Transform entry in the Appearance panel.


If you want to edit individual instances of your pattern, you’ll need to expand the artwork. This will break it up into its constituent pieces. Only do this if it’s necessary.

Object > Pattern > Make

Illustrator has a built-in tool for creating a pattern. There’s a whole panel devoted to it. This is dead-simple to use. Create the artwork for one tile of your pattern. Drag it to the Swatches panel. This will automatically create a pattern swatch.


The initial artwork dimensions will dictate the tile’s size, so make that size what you want it to be before adding it to your Swatches panel. Once the swatch is in the panel, you can double-click on it to edit it in the Pattern Options panel. This is where things get interesting.


The settings here will depend on the type of pattern you’ve made. Note that you can edit the pattern, then choose Save a Copy in the isolation bar. This is really great for iterating or making variations on a pattern.

The Pattern Panel

The Tile Type sets how the tiles are positioned relative to each other.


The tiles are placed in a square grid. The centers of the tiles align vertically and horizontally. This works well with square initial art.
Brick by row
Tiles are rectangular. Horizontal centers are aligned. Tiles are vertically offset.
Brick by column
This is the same as Brick by Row, but in a vertical arrangement. The tile is vertical.
Hex by column
Tiles are hexagons and arranged in columns. Tiles in the columns are aligned.
Hex by row
Tiles are hexagons and arranged in rows. Tiles are aligned.
Brick Offset
Determines the offset either vertically or horizontally, depending on the Tile Type you’ve chosen.
Width / Height
Determines the size of the tile. You can create gaps between tiles, or make them overlap.
Size Tile to Art
This attaches the size of the tile to the artwork. As you edit, if you scale the artwork, the tile will scale, too.
Move Tile with Art
Attaches the tile to the artwork. If you move the artwork, the tile moves with it.
H Spacing / V Spacing
Determines the size of the spacing between tiles.
When tiles overlap this determines which tiles appear in front.

The bottom part of the panel has nothing to do with the actual pattern production. It sets what the preview of the pattern looks while you’re producing it.


Determine how many rows and columns of tiles are visible while modifying the pattern.
Dim Copies
Determine the opacity of copies of the artwork tile previewed while modifying the pattern.
Show Tile Edge
Select this option to display a box around the tile.
Show Swatch Bounds
Select this option to display a unit portion of the pattern that is repeated to create the pattern.


In the grey bar below the Control Panel, choose to save or discard changes to the pattern.

Start From Nothing

You can use the Make Pattern function starting from no artwork. This is pretty cool. Go Object > Pattern > Make… The panel will come up, with a tile preview on the page. Now you can draw in the square. Illustrator will generate a live preview of your pattern as you draw it. I told you it was cool.

Transforming Patterns

There are two options when scaling an object that has a pattern in it. You can have the pattern scale or not.


All you need to do is double-click on the scale tool. Choose the options you want. Most of the time, we want patterns to scale with the shape they’re in.

Formative Activity

Create five different types of patterns. Your patterns need to take advantage of the various tile types. For example, there’s Grid, there’s Brick by Row, Brick by Column then there’s Hex by Row and Hex by Column.

Your patterns should have a strong, obvious theme. Examples could include Valentine’s Day, Fall leaves, tartan, argyle, etc… You need five different themes – one for each pattern.