Using Patterns in Illustrator

Pattern fills can liven up objects and text, and patterns in Illustrator are easy to use. They can be applied to fills, strokes, and even resized, rotated, or repositioned within an object. Illustrator comes with a large variety of preset patterns, and you can make your own from symbols or your own artwork. Let's look at applying patterns to an object, then see how easy it is to resize, reposition, or even rotate the pattern within an object.

Pattern fills are accessed from the Swatches panel, Window > Swatches. There's only one pattern in the Swatches panel when you first open Illustrator, but don't let that fool you. The Swatch Libraries menu is at the bottom of the Swatches panel. It contains numerous preset color swatches, including commercial palettes like Trumatch and Pantone, as well as color palettes reflecting nature, kid stuff, celebrations and much more. You'll also find preset gradients and pattern presets in this menu.

You'll need Illustrator version CS3 or higher to successfully use patterns. 

Choosing a Pattern Library

Choosing a Pattern Library

Choose Patterns from the Swatch Libraries menu with any object on the art board selected. You can choose from three categories:

  • Basic Graphics, which consists of line, dot or texture pattern libraries
  • Decorative, which consists of classic, geometric, ornament or primitive pattern libraries
  • Nature, which consists of animals skins or foliage pattern libraries

Click on the library in the menu to open it. The swatches you open will appear in their own floating panel on your workspace. They're not added to the Swatches panel until after they're used on an object in the illustration. 

To the right of the Swatches Library menu icon, at the bottom of the new Swatches panel, you'll see two arrows you can use to scroll through the other swatch libraries. This is a quick way to see what other swatches are available without having to choose them from the menu.

Applying a Pattern Fill

Applying a Pattern Fill
Sara Froehlich

Make sure the fill icon is active in the fill/stroke chips at the bottom of the toolbox. Click any pattern in the panel to choose it and apply it to the currently selected object. Changing the pattern is as easy as clicking on a different swatch. As you try different swatches, they're added to the Swatches panel so you can easily find them if you decide to use one you've already tried.

Scaling a Pattern Fill Without Resizing the Object

Scaling a Pattern Fill without Resizing the Object
Sara Froehlich

Patterns will not always be scaled to the size of the object you're applying them to, but they can be scaled. Choose the Scale tool in the toolbox and double click on it to open its options. Set the scale percentage you want and make sure that "Patterns" is checked and "Scale Strokes & Effects" and "Objects" are not checked. This will let the pattern fill scale but leave the object at its original size. Make sure "Preview" is checked if you want to preview the effect on your object. Click OK to set the transformation.

Repositioning a Pattern Fill within an Object

Repositioning a Pattern Fill within an Object

Choose the Selection arrow in the toolbox to reposition a pattern fill within an object. Then hold the tilde key (~ under the Escape key at the top left side of your keyboard) as you drag the pattern on the object.

Rotating a Pattern Within an Object

Rotating a Pattern within an Object

Double click on the rotate tool in the toolbox to open its options and to rotate a pattern fill within an object without rotating the object itself. Set the angle of rotation desired. Check "Patterns" in the Options section and make sure "Objects" is not checked. Check the preview box if you want to see the effect of the rotation on the pattern.

Using a Pattern Fill With a Stroke

Using a Pattern Fill with a Stroke

To add a pattern fill to a stroke, first make sure the stroke icon is active in the fill/stroke chips at the bottom of the toolbox. This works best if the stroke is wide enough to see the pattern. our stroke on this object is 15 pt. Now just click the pattern swatch in the Swatches panel to apply it to the stroke.

Filling Text With a Pattern Fill

Filling Text with a Pattern Fill

Filling text with a pattern fill takes an additional step. You must create the text, then go to Type > Create Outlines. Make sure you're certain of the font and that you won't be changing the text before you do this! You can't edit text after you've created outlines from it, so you won't be able to change the font or spelling after this step.

Now just apply the fill the same way you would with any other object. It can also have a filled stroke if you like.

Using a Custom Pattern

Using a Custom Pattern

You can make your own patterns, too. Create the artwork you want to make a pattern from, then select it and drag it to the Swatches panel and drop it in. Use it to fill any object or text after using the Create Outlines command. You can also use seamless patterns created in Photoshop. Open the PSD, PNG, or JPG file in Illustrator (File > Open), then drag it to the Swatches panel. Use it as a fill the same as you would with any other pattern. Start with a high-resolution image for best results.

Layering Patterns

Layering Patterns

Patterns can be layered using the Appearance panel. Click the Add new Fill button, open the Swatch Libraries menu, and choose another fill. Experiment and enjoy! There's really no limit to the patterns you can create.

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