Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create quirky repeating patterns

Delve into your imagination for kooky maps with Imakethings


In this tutorial, Imakethings (known to his mum as Andrew Groves) shows you how to make a repeat pattern based on map-like imagery. He uses simple shapes and icons to illustrate geographical features from a bird’s-eye point of view similar to those used in OS maps.  

However, unlike in an official map, Imakethings uses bright colours and adds a few creatures here and there to create a whimsical, magical landscape. The map tiles to make a recurring image that could be applied to any number of surfaces. 

The techniques you’ll pick up here can be applied a wide range of other images to conjure up patterns for textiles, T-shirt prints or anything else you put your mind to.

Time to complete 

2 hours


Adobe Illustrator

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

Step 1


As we’re making a pattern based on maps we need to start with some research. Take a look at old maps created by early adventurers and explorers or the maps that accompany storybooks. Even better, go for a walk and make a map of the things you see. However you do your research, it’s very important that you make some sketches before you get started on the computer.

Step 2


Once you’ve got your sketches, have a think about what you want your finished pattern to be used for. I’m making mine into a print. I find it much easier to make repeat patterns using squares, so let’s start by making a new square document in Illustrator. Create a square in the corner of your screen that’s a quarter of the size of the document using the Rectangle tool. Fill it with the colour you want the background to be. Split the document into four quarters using the guides.

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Step 3


With patterns it’s important to make things flow nicely, so I’m having a seemingly never-ending river running diagonally across the design. Working diagonally also helps when lining things up. Draw the river roughly using the Pencil tool (N) or the Pen tool (P) from corner to corner – or open from the project files.

Step 4


Because the pattern needs to tile, any objects that go up to the edge of the square need to match up on the other sides. To do this, copy and paste the original and place the copy in the bottom right hand corner. You’ll see that the two ends of the river don’t line up so we need to change this to get the pattern to flow.

Step 5


Join the two ends of the river by selecting them with the Direct Selection tool and press Cmd/Ctrl + Alt/Opt + Shift + J. Select the Smooth option. Play around with the anchor points to get a smooth line. Outline the whole stroke: Object > Path > Outline Stroke.

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Step 6


Now we need get rid of any pieces that extend beyond our square. Select all (Cmd/Ctrl + A). Click the Divide button in the Pathfinder palette. This will make each shape a separate object.

Step 7


To finish the tile so that the river infinitely repeats, you need to join the matching pieces up. Delete the parts you don’t need, leaving the parts you do.

Step 8


Next, rearrange the parts that are left to create the tiling image. Re-draw the background tile.

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Step 9


Now we’ve finished the river – the focal point of the pattern – we can start adding the details. Stick to the middle of the tile at this point – this saves you from having to worry about making things match up. I’m using simplified natural shapes or icons, but how you choose to illustrate your map is up to you.

Step 10


I like to use patterns within patterns. This is something commonly used in maps – for example, in OS maps, forests are marked with a tree design. I’m using a brick pattern to add some texture to my mountains. To do this, use the Pattern Swatches palette.  Draw the shape you want repeated, in this case some bricks. Then select it and go to Edit > Define Pattern. This creates a new pattern swatch, which you can then use to fill any object.

Step 11


Keep adding more detail, referring to your sketches as you go. I’m adding little areas of birch trees, some stepping-stones and a few camp fires. It’s a good idea to occasionally tile your pattern to see how it’s looking by copying and pasting the original. You can then spot any gaps in the pattern and move things around.

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Step 12


Now we’re really getting there. To finish off I’m adding a few wavy lines over the edges of the tile to help the pattern flow a little better, using the same technique that we used on the river. Select the area that falls outside the tile with the Direct Selection tool (A) then Cut (Cmd/Ctrl + X) and paste (Cmd/Ctrl + V) this on the opposite side of the tile, using the smart guides to line it up. Now when you place two tiles they will align.

Step 13


To make the artwork really sing, it requires a bit more personality – literally. I’ve added some of my signature characters to add charm to the piece. Add creatures of your own here.

Step 14


Now you have your finished tile, copy and paste the original and line up the corners to match. You now have a pattern that tiles indefinitely and can be made as big as you like, ready for use as a poster, fabric print or anything you fancy.

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