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How to Make Seamless Repeating Patterns in Illustrator

In the past, I’ve done the bulk of my illustrating in Illustrator, then moved to Photoshop to turn the illustrations into repeating patterns, but that’s clunky. I wanted a method that didn’t require switching between programs.

It turns out this was much simpler than I imagined it would be, so I thought I’d document my process in case it’s helpful to others!

Start with the drawing you want to become a pattern. Here’s the example I’ll be working with:

Start with a drawing

Next, size your artboard (File → Document Setup → Edit Artboards) such that it fits your art, and has memorable dimensions. I’m working with an 800 x 600 artboard.

Select your entire art and Group it (Object → Group) for easier manipulation.

Select your grouped object and go to Object → Transform → Move. Set the Horizontal and Vertical values to negative half the width and height of your Artboard (in my case, this means -400 for Horizontal and -300 for Vertical), and hit Copy.

Object -> Transform -> Move

You should now have your original piece of art in the center, and a copy in the upper left corner:

After 1 transform

You’re going to do this three more times — one for each corner, using different combinations of positive/negative halved values for Horizontal and Vertical.

Select your original (middle) object, and go back to Object → Transform → Move. Set the Horizontal and Vertical values to half the width (positive) and half the height (negative). In my case, that’s 400 for Horizontal and -300 for Vertical. Again, hit Copy.

Object -> Transform -> Move

Now you should have three copies of your artwork, including the one in the center.

Repeat twice more, changing the Horizontal and Vertical values (in my case, they were -400 and 300, 400 and 300) until you have one copy of the art in each of the four corners.

For the last one, you don’t need to copy it, just move it. Or you can copy it and delete the original (middle) copy. You’ll have a blank, cross-shaped area in the center:

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Now for the fun part! Fill out the blank areas, avoiding the artboard edges.

I found it’s helpful to lock (Object → Lock) three of the copies, and leave one unlocked so I can copy/paste elements into the blank area.

Don’t move any of the copies, or your repeating pattern won’t line up!

Here’s my filled-out version:

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Once you’ve filled out the middle, you’re basically done. Yay!

You can export the drawing at any size you like under File → Save for Web, making sure Clip to Artboard is checked, and use the resulting file as a repeating pattern. Or, open your Illustrator file in Photoshop to continue working with it there.

Save for Web, Clip to Artboard

For extra credit, I’ll clean up by trimming off unnecessary shapes to cut down on file size. Ungroup/unlock each of the copies, and remove any shapes that fall completely outside the artboard, leaving anything that touches an edge alone. Here’s my trimmed file:

Trimmed

If you want to get fancy and re-use your pattern in Illustrator, you can add a Clipping Mask and make a swatch from your pattern.

To do this, ceate a new Layer from the Layers panel:

Create a new layer

Draw a rectangle shape on the new layer, exactly the same size as the artboard, and align it perfectly to the artboard:

Draw a rectangle the size of the artboard

I’ve given mine a fill color so it’s easy to see:

Filled rectangle

Now, go back to the Layers panel and select the rectangle layer, then click Make a Clipping Mask (at the bottom of the Layers panel):

Make a Clipping Mask

Drag and drop the first layer with your pattern into the second to apply the rectangle layer as a Clipping Mask to the artwork:

Successful clipping mask

You should now see your pattern trimmed to the artboard:

Artwork clipped

Go to Object → Pattern → Make to make a new swatch. Test it out by creating a new document and filling the contents of a shape with your new pattern:

Pattern complete!

That’s all there is to it! I hope you found this helpful. Have fun experimenting with new vector patterns. 🙂