Making of… Complex Seamless Pattern in Illustrator

julie@julie-matthews.com   July 17, 2011   No Comments

It’s been a while… May & June were devoured up by family stuff.  Lots of birthdays and such.  Anyway, today I’ve got a project I’ve been working on for quite a few weeks.  It’s a complex seamless pattern in Illustrator, with just a tiny bit of help from Photoshop. Here goes!

My initial image:

I started with a drawing I’ve had hanging around for a while.  I thought it might make a fun pattern, but not in its current state.  I needed the edges to be filled in and the ideal way to do that is in Photoshop using the Offset filter.  I used my digital camera (a scanner would, of course, work) and snapped an image to work with.  Doesn’t have to be perfect because I’m tracing EVERYTHING in Illustrator later.

The Offset filter can be found under Filter>Other>Offset.  The key here is that the horizontal and vertical values need to be exactly half of their totals.  If your image is 1000 by 500, make sure your offset is 500 and 250 respectively.

If your offset worked correctly, you’ll end up with an image similar to the one above.  I printed this, placed it on my lightbox, and filled in the center with more vines and shapes.  I did this on a separate sheet of paper to make photographing (or scanning) and tracing easier later.

This shows the new center drawing superimposed on the offset image.  It’s ok that it doesn’t all line up correctly.  I’ll be working with this in Illustrator as well and this is really only a guide. Save this for later — it’s going to be very useful towards the end of the process.

I now bring the original image into Illustrator and begin the (tedious) process of tracing each and every element.  I used a color code to keep track of what I was working on at any given moment.  Makes things less confusing later.  Here, I traced out the vine swirls using the pen tool set to 3pts with rounded ends and rounded corners.

Once the vines are drawn, select all and go to Object>Expand. Select Stroke.  Now all those lines are interconnected shapes without a stroke & I can add the terminal leaf images.

To make this step a little easier, I drew one leaf and used the Transform>Reflect>Copy option to reverse the shape, or Option-Left Click-Drag to make identical copies.  Preserve at least on leaf image for later, just in case you need it.  It’s easy to get lost in the tracing and skip over a leaf! Add the leaves then use the Pathfinder>Unite tool to add the leaves to the existing red lines.

Here are the vines & leaves with the leaves added.

The above images show the progress of tracing, with and without the initial image.  The image on the right is the completed tracing.  For the yellow shapes and the green swirls, I traced these all with the pen tool.  For the circles I used (obviously, I’m sure) the circle tool.  Once this is completed, select all & group (Cmd-G).

This is where things start getting tricky.  First, edit the dimensions of your artboard so that they are easily divisible numbers.  I don’t remember exactly what mine were and it’s not really relevant.  What matters is the ease of division.  You’ll be using these numbers to position your images.  Second, create a shape with NO fill and NO stroke that is exactly the same size as the artboard.  Align this perfectly to the artboard, send to the back, and lock in place.  This enables accurate seamless patterning later. Third, open the superimposed image onto a new layer between your vector outlines and the tracing image.  We’ll be doing two things here: comparing the position of our multicolored tracing to the superimposed image as well as tracing the center elements of the superimposed image to add to the grouping.  This should all make sense soon….

Here’s a diagram of what’s pictured above:

First, Change your artboard preferences in Document Setup so that the the X and Y coordinates both read 0.  Take the grouped image and align it so that the vertical and horizontal centers align with the artboard.This will help with alignment later. For example, if your artboard is 100px, set the X and Y coordinates (circled in green in the above image) to +50px and +50px to get the top right corner, +50px and -50px for the bottom right, -50px and +50px for the top left, and -50px and -50px for the bottom left.

At this stage, select your entire image and drag it into your swatches palette.  Draw a shape and test the repeat.  If everything is aligned correctly, it will be seamless with a center gap where we haven’t finished tracing the image.  If it is NOT aligned correctly, there will be obvious white lines.  Just tweak & test until everything lines up.  EVERY pixel matters!

Now that the hard part is done, go in and fill the center space.  All of the elements for a repeating pattern are here now: an empty shape at the very back (see above), perfectly aligned images in the corners, and a filled-in center.  At this point, select all and drag into the swatches palette to test again.  Everything should align perfectly.  Tweak it until if does.

Now we need to make this mess look pretty! Create a box slightly larger than the artboard in a color that is different from all the others.  Set it below the tracing but above the no fill/no stroke shape.  This will become the background color of the pattern.  Then, select all and click on the Add Color Group button on the Swatches palette, with Selected Artwork checked.  This will help recolor the image later. Finally, select all and drag into the swatches palette again for the final pattern swatch.

Here’s how I recolor the image.  First, look at how many colors you have. My image has 5 colors so I add several color groups with 5 colors each to my swatches palette.  Then, select the item you’re recoloring (our pattern swatch).  Click on the color wheel on the menu bar: it’s the Recolor tool.  In the Recolor menu, select the color group you want to switch to and (if you choose) randomize the colors until you find the order you like.  It’s the first button on the right side under the Current Colors portion of the panel.  It will ask you to save the changes, click yes.

And this is it!  Recolor and drag into the swatches palette as much as you choose.  This whole process was much more difficult to write up than to actually do.  Good luck & I’ll try to help with any challenges!

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