5 Adobe Illustrator Techniques To Add Life To Your Surface Pattern Designs

Struggling to improve your Adobe Illustrator skills, or wondering how professional surface pattern designers use Illustrator to create unique and eye-catching print designs? Textile designer Kelsie Makes Patterns explains her top 5 Illustrator techniques to develop your skills and add life to your designs.


Adobe Illustrator can be a bit overwhelming for beginner surface pattern designers. Your first thought might be to research and watch tutorials, but after watching 20 videos describing the same 5 Illustrator tools it’s hard to know how to improve. Most tutorials will teach you enough about a subject to help you get started, but it’s hard to learn past the basics. So what do you do if you want to improve your designs? Well, here are 5 Adobe Illustrator tools that I find useful to add depth to your surface pattern designs.


Simple Shading

Shading is one of those techniques that can be hard to accomplish. With a little experience you can use the gradient tool, however many different factors can affect how your gradient prints. A solution is to create a simple two-toned shade with your knife tool. Take this simple circle for example:

I want to turn this circle into a sun but right now it is looking a little flat. To make it stand out more, I like to take the knife tool and separate the circle into two pieces. The knife tool is hiding underneath the eraser tool and can be accessed by clicking/holding down your mouse on the eraser tool to reveal more options and navigating to the knife tool. Since we are working with something that is round I typically like to cut the circle following the circles curve:

The key to using the knife tool is not to second-guess yourself. If you are unsure of yourself or too slow you will start to get wavy lines and you want your lines as smooth as possible. It helps to select the object you want to cut first so you are only cutting that object and nothing else.

Also, where you cut the circle is important. For this circle you don’t want to cut directly down the middle because then you have just created a circle that is half one colour and half another. Figure out where you want the light to be coming from and then cut about a centimetre to half a centimetre inward.

Take the smallest section of your circle and slightly darken the colour. To do this, navigate to your left side toolbar and click on the ‘fill colour box’ to open your colour options. You’ll end up with a circle that looks like this:

It’s a minor change but it can add a lot of interest to your patterns.

If you hold down alt while using your knife tool you can cut your vectors using a straight line which is good for creating a glare affect on things like electronic screens, sunglasses, etc.

Here is an example of how a tablet illustration can look shaded vs non-shaded:


Applying Simple Patterns to Your Existing Elements

Creating simple repeating patterns to overlay on top of different elements in your pattern is clever way to elevate your patterns to the next level. To achieve this, you need to know a little bit about repeat patterns. If you’re unfamiliar with creating repeat patterns, Teela Cunningham has a great tutorial on YouTube to help. Illustrator also has its own simple textures you can use if you don’t want to make your own patterns. You can access these by navigating to the ‘Swatch Library’ in the swatches panel, >’Patterns’ > ‘Basic Graphics’ > ‘Basic Graphics_Textures’.

Now you know how to create basic patterns, here comes the fun part!

So you have a graphic you want to add a little more interest to. With a pattern selected, use your blob brush tool to paint over your graphics. Here are some balloons I created using this technique:

The final thing you need to do to make sure Illustrator is able to create a pattern out of your designs is grab all of the patterns you just applied to your graphics and go to ‘Object’ > ‘Expand’. Essentially, you’ve created a pattern within a pattern and Illustrator doesn’t like that, so you have to expand the pattern so Illustrator can convert it into a reusable swatch. Once you have clicked ‘Expand’, drag your pattern over to the swatches panel and that’s it.


Using the Roughen Tool

The Roughen Tool is pretty straightforward. You can find it in ‘Effects’ section of your top toolbar in the ‘Distort & Transform’ section. To use the Roughen Tool, select your object and open the roughen options popup.

Make sure preview is selected so you can see your graphic being manipulated live and then mess with your size and details. I usually make sure ‘Absolute’ and ‘Smooth’ are selected because I like the look of them best, but you can play around with the different options and find which combinations you prefer.

TIP: If you’re having trouble seeing the results of the Roughen Tool as you’re manipulating it, click out of the roughen popup and press control-H. Then you can go back into the roughen popup and start over.

I created an edge with a size of 3 and a detail of 10, which makes a subtle wave at the edges of my vector graphics. If you want to create a more noticeable wave, just increase the size.


Creating Negative Space

There are so many ways you can also use negative space in your patterns. My favourite thing to do is take a vector graphic and add strokes to all the elements. For this tutorial I used a pencil:

I wanted the pencil to look like it had been cut out of the background, so I made the background black and added a stroke. For those unfamiliar with Illustrator you can find both the ‘Fill Colour’ box and ‘Stroke Colour’ box in the left-side toolbar. To change the fill colour, double click the top square box. To change the stroke colour click on the box with a square hole in it that is usually underneath the fill box.

The key is to make the stroke the same colour as the background. In this case, the stroke needed to be black. I then changed the fill colour of the pencil so that the whole fill colour of the pencil was one colour. At this point, you can make the fill be any colour that you want. You might end up with something like this:


Creating Off-Centered Stroke Outlines

I probably use this technique the most since it is so easy to accomplish. The other day I created this pencil pattern:

I think we can all agree that it’s a little flat. To fix this, select all of your graphics, in this case the pencils, and copy (control-C) and paste in front (control-F). Remove the fill colour of your graphics by pressing the white box with a red line in it underneath your fill box, and add a stroke of any colour. I find that black is often the best for this technique.

Take your top layer of only strokes and drag them slightly diagonal in any direction and you’re done:


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I hope you like these Illustrator techniques that I use to liven up my patterns. Do you have any other favourite techniques to use on your patterns?


About Kelcie

Kelcie is a Surface Pattern Designer and blogger at kelciemakespatterns.com, where she provides in depth tutorials on Adobe Illustrator and Surface Pattern Design. In her free time you can find her attempting to make fonts and singing terribly to classic rock music. Follow Kelcie on social media:


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