Photoshop tutorial: Design repeating patterns for T-shirts

Get stuck on repeat with these great Photoshop T-shirt design techniques from Ollie Munden.

Intro


This tutorial guides you through the process of creating a repeating pattern for a T-shirt print. We’ll focus on creating one main element that will function as the key character of the pattern. We’ll then create elements that will make up the linking imagery – or ‘glue’ – that holds it together.

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This tutorial also shows you how to create shading and turn this into a bitmap shading effect, and how to duplicate drawings and reflect them, to create bold graphic designs.

While this design has been created with a T-shirt in mind, you can use the techniques to create everything from desktop wallpaper to textile designs.

Software

Adobe Photoshop

Time to complete

6-8 hours

Step 1

STEP 1

Before getting stuck into the design stage, it’s a good idea to scout about through books and websites to gather some reference imagery. In this case, inspiring tattoo art samples and good-quality photos of the human skull are what we’re after.

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Step 2

STEP 2

After collecting enough imagery to get inspired and deciding what element is going to feature as the main item of the repeat (in this case, a decorative skull), we’re ready to create a Photoshop mockup for tracing. You may need to combine more than one photo in Photoshop to get the skull just right. Print out the skull in black and white, at A4.

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Step 3

STEP 3

Now using the skull print-out as a guide, go to town with creating lots of pattern work over the skull’s face, making sure you draw the outlines of the face so we recognise it as a skull. Only trace half of the skull, as later we will mirror it in Photoshop.

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In this case, I’m tracing in pencil, as I love the way the rougher marks look when repeated. Now scan your drawing.


Step 4

STEP 4

Once scanned, open the image in Photoshop and convert it to grayscale (Image > Grayscale). Using Image > Adjustments > Levels, tweak the levels to make the image punchier.

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Step 5

STEP 5

Using the Dodge tool, set to Highlights and around 50% exposure, clean the linework up. The one disadvantage to using pencil when drawing is that a lot of smudges can occur, and may need to be cleaned up if you want to maintain a clean feel in your piece.

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Step 6

STEP 6

Once you’ve cleaned the half skull up completely, make the canvas roughly twice as wide (Image > Canvas Size). Then right-click (Ctrl + click) on the half-skull layer in the Layers palette and select Duplicate Layer from the options. Now use Free Transform on the new layer (Cmd/Ctrl + T) and then right-click (Ctrl + click) on the image of the half-skull, and select Flip Horizontal from the menu options.

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Set the layer’s blending mode to Multiply and align the new skull-half with the original to make the complete face. Make a new A4 print of this image.


Step 7

STEP 7

Merge the two skull layers (Shift + click on both layers then hit Cmd/Ctrl + E). To add depth and fierceness to the skull, draw some flames coming out of his mouth and from behind his head. Again, you only need to do this on one side as we’ll mirror it later. At this point, I also drew some spare flames in case I need them later. Scan and clean up the flames using the same tools as before (the Dodge tool and Levels palette).

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Step 8

STEP 8

Once you’ve cleaned the half skull up completely, make the canvas roughly twice as wide (Image > Canvas Size). Then right-click (Ctrl + click) on the half-skull layer in the Layers palette and select Duplicate Layer from the options. Now use Free Transform on the new layer (Cmd/Ctrl + T) and then right-click (Ctrl + click) on the image of the half-skull, and select Flip Horizontal from the menu options.

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Set the layer’s blending mode to Multiply and align the new skull-half with the original to make the complete face. Make a new A4 print of this image.

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Step 9

STEP 9

Turning the skull layer’s opacity down allows you to see where the two layers overlap. Now use the Polygonal Lasso tool to select the areas
of the skull that need to be removed – you want the flames that are on top of the skull (such as the ones coming out of his mouth) to appear solid. Delete the linework on the skull layer where it overlaps the flames.

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Step 10

STEP 10

Once you’ve removed the necessary linework, duplicate and reflect the flames, as you did in step 6. To complete the skull, go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold and use the slide bar to make the image solid black and bold. Using Threshold gives the linework a solid black fill. Now the skull linework is complete. As this design is intended to sit on a black T-shirt, we need to invert the illustration so the linework appears white and will show up on black – hit Cmd/Ctrl + I.

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Step 11

STEP 11

Now let’s add some bitmap shading. Using the Magic Wand tool, pick out areas of the skull you want to shade – perhaps begin with the top crown area and work your way downwards. Once you’ve selected an area, create a new layer and select the Gradient tool. You need to make sure the gradient is set to fade from white to 0 opacity (see the screenshot), then fill the area with gradient. Each gradient area should be on a separate layer.

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You can experiment with this; I decided to shade the helmet on the skull’s head more solidly than the jaw and eye areas. This makes the crown feel more solid and distinguishes it from the face.

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Step 12

STEP 12

To complete the shading add a new layer (called ‘Highlights’) and, using the Magic Wand, select areas like the eyes and teeth – we’ll add more shading to further define the areas. Once these areas are selected, grab a small white paintbrush, set to 50% opacity, and paint around the areas you want to highlight, to add some gentle shading. This will help these areas really pop.

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Step 13

STEP 13

Merge the various gradient shading layers; this should leave you with gradients on one layer, and the highlights on another. Create a new greyscale document to the same dimensions as your working document, and drag the gradient layer into it. Select Image > Mode > Bitmap and click OK if it asks to flatten layers. Make sure the output is set to 300dpi and that the method is set to Halftone Screen.

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In the next palette, set the angle to 45º and the frequency to 40. Convert the document back to greyscale and drag the layer into your main skull image. Repeat this for the Highlights layer.


Step 14

STEP 14

Now set both shading layers to Screen and make sure the old shading layers (non-bitmapped) are invisible. Position them correctly and merge the new shading layers with the linework layer. Now we need to set up the final document, in which we’ll repeat the skull and then fill and complete the pattern using other elements.

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Select File > New and create a 35-x-25cm document for print. Drag the skull into the new document and position it centrally. Use View > New Guide then set guides to 50% vertically and Horizontally. Now use the Free Transform guides to align the skull centrally.

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Step 15

STEP 15

We’re going to have a main central skull with four smaller ones around it. Duplicate the central skull and Hit Cmd/Ctrl + T. Move it to the top left and using the central circle that appears in Free Transform mode, align its centre to the top left of the document. Repeat in the remaining corners.

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At this point, you can add in other elements to finish the design. I added diamonds, lightning, raindrops and reflected geometric shapes. Add some of your own as well. 


Step 16

STEP 16

Add a colour overlay to finish the piece: check your document is set to CMYK, then add a new layer at the top of your Layer palette and fill it with the colour of your choice. Set the blending to an appropriate option depending on what colour you choose, and you have a completed design.

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If you duplicate this image it will tile perfectly. As this design is intended for a T-shirt I duplicated it a few times and then deleted areas of the design to make it work on a garment.