How To Design A Hand-Drawn Vector Pattern Using Pencils, Photoshop And Illustrator

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about seamless patterns. Specifically, I’ve been working on various techniques for creating them. Obviously, there are a number of different ways you can go about this, and in this tutorial I’m going to show you how to take a single hand drawn element and transform it into a highly flexible and editable seamless vector pattern.

Before really getting into the details, though, just be aware that the actual process can be pretty intensive. In addition to the time I spent writing this tutorial, I also invested several hours just in sketching and drawing.

Now, before I scare you off, here’s a preview of what we’re going to be creating:

Step 1

As you can see, this is a highly detailed vector pattern, and we’re going to make it highly editable too, allowing you to use up to five different colours! So let’s get started!

Step 1

The first step is to get yourself a nice sharp pencil and some paper and just start sketching. For me, this is by far the easiest way to get my ideas out, and to play with various concepts. I also find the real pencil to be more fluid and organic that my stylus and tablet.

If you do like to do this kind of work with your tablet, then just do your best to emulate the steps digitally. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

Either way, just start sketching. Don’t try to create a masterpiece right off the bat, though. If you have a vision in your head, I would encourage you to try and realize it, but remember that this stage is really very experimental.

Here is the design that I finally settled on:

Step 2

Notice that there is nothing seamless about this swirly design. Don’t worry about that. All we’re looking for is an element to use as the fundamental basis for our pattern. Making it seamless will come later.

Step 2

Now that we have our sketched element, we want to create a grid upon which to repeat it. Personally, I created my grid in Illustrator, then printed it off on a blank piece of paper. Fortunately, this is really easy to do.

Since we are going to be printing this one off, create a new document with the dimensions of a standard page size – 8.5” x 11”. With the document created, select the Rectangular Grid Tool (hidden beneath the Line Tool). Now, instead of drawing, just click on the artboard. This will bring up a dialogue box, which will give you very precise controls over your grid. I chose to create a 3 by 3 grid, with the following settings:

Step 3

Click the OK button and your grid will be created automatically. Now, just align it to the centre of the page. It should looks something like this:

Step 4

Alternatively, you can also just draw your own grid with a ruler and pencil.

Step 3

Regardless of how you ultimately decide to create your grid, it’s still an important step because we’re going to use this grid to position several copies of our designed element together, using a simple trick that I learned when I was just a kid.

If possible, take a photocopy of your design. You can work with the original here if you want, but we’re going to be doing some significant tracing, so I strongly suggest working with a copy.

Then take a dark pencil (like a 6B) and draw all over the back of the page, behind your design. Place the sheet over your grid and trace the with a sharp pencil. This will transfer the graphite on the back of the sheet onto the grid, creating a copy of your design.

Repeat this process several times, rotating the element for greater visual interest. Also, do your best to approximate seamless edges. Wherever the element runs off the edge of your grid, try to line up a continuation on the opposite edge. Here is what I came up with using my design:

Step 5

You may be able to notice that my seams aren’t quite perfect. They’re close though, and will allow for a reasonable starting point when it comes time to erase our seams.

Tip: If you have access to a lightbox, you might consider using that to do your tracing. It will likely be a bit more precise. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lightbox, so I just used the tracing trick I just outlined.

Step 4

Next, we want to fill in the detail. We’ve placed our element onto the grid several times, and it’s starting to create an interesting looking design, but it still looks a little sparse. To fill it in, just start drawing freehand.

Use the same kind of lines and strokes that you used when designing the element in the first place. In my case, I used more swirls and leaves. Also, look for ways to connect your different elements. My element had one open ended swirl, which I was able to extend into some of the empty areas, or use to connect one element to another.

Step 6

I also made sure that I filled in each of the blank areas differently. This works to establish uniqueness within repetition. The main element is the ultimately similar, but each repetition is actually quite unique.

Another way to achieve this is by slightly altering each repetition of the element. For example, you could add some extra swirls that connect to other parts of the pattern, or you could erase a small part of the design and re-draw it to make it fit a bit better.

Once you have completed your pattern, I recommend drawing over all your traced lines, just to strengthen them a bit by making them more defined. This is yet another way that you can add more uniqueness to the pattern. Because tracing is far from a perfect science, each repetition of the design element should have slightly different lines. They will be very similar, without being perfect clones of each other.

This is my finalized, hand drawn pattern.

Step 7

Step 5

Okay, it’s time to go digital and, while the ultimate goal of this tutorial is to create a hand drawn vector pattern, we’re actually going to do a bit of work in Photoshop first, to help prepare the pattern for vectorization.

Scan your drawing into Photoshop and save it as a PSD right away.

Next, draw a selection around the edge of the grid and crop the image down to that size. All that extra stuff beyond the edge of the grid won’t really be needed.

Select Image » Image Size from the menu. You’ll probably notice that your image is not a perfect square (if it, congratulations on your keen pixel-eye). Resize the image into a perfect square. In my case the dimensions were 2088 x 2120, so I simply resized the image to an even 2000 x 2000. This shifted the proportions of the drawing ever so slightly, but the overall effect was negligible and hardly noticeable.

Step 6

Now, we are going to throw down some digital ink. This will be much easier if you have a tablet, but you can still follow along using a mouse.

Create a new layer and call it “inks”. Select a small brush and set your foreground colour to black. Now, on the new layer, just paint over our pattern, making a much cleaner, digital version of it. Depending on the complexity of your design, this can become a pretty intensive process, but it’s an integral part of this design process.

So let’s get to work.

Tip: If your pencil lines scanned darkly, it could be difficult to see the black as you paint it onto your inks layer. To get rectify this, double click your background to convert it to a layer. Then add a new fill layer, set it to white and drag it beneath the scanned layer, which you can now set to about 25% opacity. This will dramatically lighten the background and make it easier to see your “inks”.

Here’s my pattern, fully inked after several hours of work (I am, admittedly, extremely slow at inking with my tablet):

Step 8

Step 7

Now that we’ve inked the outlines of our pattern, it’s time to start really working on making our edges seamless. With the inks layer selected, choose Filters » Other » Offset from the menu.

Because our pattern is an even 2000 x 2000, we’ll set both the horizontal and vertical offsets to 1000px. Also, make sure that the Wrap Around option is selected. This will take the parts of the image that are shifted off of the canvas and wrap them around, so that the four corners of our original image will meet in the centre, like this:

Step 9

The edges of the filtered layer will now be perfectly seamless (a natural effect of the Offset filter). However, we can now see seams crossing through the middle of the pattern (as highlighted in red). Many of the original lines come close to meeting up, thanks to our careful pencil work on the grid, but they’re not perfect and we’ll still need to do a bit of work.

Step 8

On your inks layer, use a small black brush and the eraser tool to go along and adjust the lines so that they all run into each other perfectly and seamlessly. In some areas this might mean just a little gentle touch up. In others, you might have erase entire sections and redraw them completely.

Regardless, the idea is to eliminate the obvious breaks, making the pattern completely seamless. Here is our revised pattern:

Step 10

Notice the distinct lack of seams. The basic design of the pattern is now complete. All that’s left to do now is to vectorize it.

Step 9

This is probably the simplest part of the whole process. Simply save your Photoshop document so that only the ink layer and white background layer are visible. Then, open the PSD in Illustrator. You will be prompted as to whether you want to flatten the image or not. In this case you do.

When the image opens, click on the pattern to select it. At this point it will be a simple bitmap or raster object. In the options bar, you should see a button labelled “Live Trace”. Directly beside that there should be a small black arrow. Click that and select Inked Drawing from the drop-down menu. If Illustrator warns you that this could be a slow process, go ahead and run the trace anyhow.

This is where all that Photoshop inking really shows its worth, because the Live Trace function will quite simply trace the outlines of our pattern and create beautiful, smooth vector paths out of them. Here is a preview:

Step 11

Our pattern is now a vector. From the preview, it seems that not much has changed, but we’re actually going to have to do just a bit more work to take care of the pesky seams!

Step 10

Before we can do anything, though, we need to expand our pattern. Currently, it exists only as a Live Trace object. To turn it into editable paths, simply select it and click the Expand button in the options bar.

Next, you’ll also want to make sure that everything is a complete path, not just a stroke. I usually just select the entire group and then glance at the fill colour. If it’s black, that means that everything has a black fill. If it is greyed out, that means that only some of the elements have a black fill and that some of them are probably just stroked paths.

Live trace tends to group things logically. In this case, almost the entire pattern was comprised of strokes, which were all grouped together nicely. I simply selected the group and chose Object » Expand from them menu. In the dialogue box, I made sure that only the Strokes option was selected before pressing OK. Now all of my strokes have been expanded into complete paths.

However, each stroke now exists in its own group, so the next step is to just ungroup everything, until you have only one, all-inclusive group.

Step 11

Now it’s time for a bit of alignment work. Check the size of the artboard. Despite the fact that our original Photoshop document was 2000 x 2000 pixels, Illustrator opened the document at 480 x 480 pixels. This is no big deal, but they are important numbers to know.

Next, select the pattern group and check it’s dimensions. Chances are that it won’t be quite perfect, so set it to exactly 480 x 480 pixels.

Finally, check the position of your artboard. If it’s not positioned at 0px and 0px, change the settings so that it is. This will help us with some additional alignment issues.

With everything set to it’s proper size, it’s time to repeat the pattern. Select the main group and, making sure that the reference point is set to the centre, set the coordinates to 240px and 240px, respectively. This will align the middle of our pattern to the top right corner of our artboard. Duplicate the pattern three more times and, using the same technique, align the duplicates to each of the other three corners. Just think of it like a Cartesian Plane, and use positive and negative numbers accordingly (high school geometry is proving its worth!).

Again, here is a preview:

Step 12

Now you will notice that those pesky seams are back (highlighted in red)! This occurs because, when Illustrator traced our inked lines, it tried to smooth everything out, and thus rounded the corners on our seams, meaning they no longer line up as well as we would like. Well now it’s time to fix them once and for all.

Step 12

To fix the seams, we’re basically just going to repeat a process of draw, combine and smooth, draw, combine and smooth. Find your first break in the seams. Select one of the shapes and, using the pencil tool, extend the shape so that it overlaps with the other shape to which it is supposed to be connected, like this:

Step 13

Next, select both shapes, open the Pathfinder palette and press the Combine button to unite the selections into a single shape. Then, use the Smooth Tool (hidden within the Pencil Tool group; hold down the Pencil button and then select the tool that looks like a little file). Just draw across your lines to smooth them out and eliminate most of the extraneous anchors that tend to appear when drawing freehand.

Step 14

If your smoothing dramatically changes the shape of a line, simply use the Direct Selection tool to adjust the position of the anchors and the curves.

Repeat this process anywhere that you find a break in the seams on the artboard. Don’t worry about anything that’s not on the artboard, since we’ll be cropping all that stuff away.

Step 13

Let’s add some colour. Select everything now and convert it all to a Live Paint object. Simply select the Live Paint Bucket tool from the toolbox, choose a colour and click somewhere on the pattern where you would like to apply that colour. Illustrator will convert everything into a new Live Paint object.

Now you can simply go through and fill in the different areas with whatever colours you want. In this case, I want to have the ability to create up to a five-tone pattern, so I’m going to use green for the vines, yellow for the spiky leaves and orange for the rounded leaves, as shown here:

Step 15

This gives me five colour options, including the black outlines and the still transparent background. Also, as with fixing the seams, you only need to colour the parts of the pattern that actually appear on the artboard.

Step 14

When you’re finished filling in all your colours, it’s time to expand the Live Paint object, by clicking the expand button in the options bar. This will transform all of our coloured cells into shapes, and leave everything in one big group.

Next, create a box, with the exact same dimensions as the artboard – in our case 480 x 480 pixels. Drag this shape beneath our pattern group. This will function as a background.

Duplicate the background shape and drag it above the pattern group. With both this duplicate and the pattern group selected, click the Crop button in the Pathfinder palette.

This will use the topmost shape – in this case our square – and crop everything else that is selected and beneath it to that shape. Now there should be nothing left that is not directly on the artboard. Also, the edges of the pattern should be cut nice and flush, allowing it to tile seamlessly.

Step 15

The last step is simply to clean up the pattern. After expanding the Live Paint object and cropping the group, you will find that you have four different colour elements in your pattern group – black, yellow, orange and green. It’s a good idea to go through and separate these out, either into different groups or entirely different layers.

In this case, I will have five different sub layers – Strokes, Leaves 1, Leaves 2, Vines and Background.

Why? It makes things like changing the colours easier to manage.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. The contrasting green, orange and yellow were great for being able to separate different elements into groups, but for the final pattern, we want something a little subtler and more monochromatic. I chose a nice dark red colour and then created swatches with several variations of the colour. I then applied the different colours to each of my different sub layers (in this case I used the same colour for both types of leaves, but you don’t have to). The final pattern looks like this:

Step 16

That’s A Wrap!

So there you have it. As I noted at the beginning, there are other ways of creating patterns. And, I’ll be the first to admit, there are probably simpler ways. I just wanted to show you a technique for creating high-quality, premium vector patterns with a hand drawn feel! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, found it useful and maybe even learned a thing or two!

Bonus – Free Vector Pattern Pack
Note: As an added bonus for all you readers, I’m also making this pattern available to download in a full pattern pack, containing AI, PNG and JPG versions of this pattern in seven monochromatic colours. Want to get your hands on it? Just head over to my own blog, Echo Enduring, and you’ll have all the instructions on how get the pack!


  1. says

    This is a great post. I love doing patterns in Illustrator and you really explained things well. I love the three column grid.

  2. Chuck says

    Great! Super! Awesome! (gee, I think he likes it) Thanks for this tutorial. I’ve been thinking a lot about hand-drawn elements in my designs – great timing.

  3. says

    Very nice! I think when you start with a physical sketch, it really makes you think beyond your digital tools and do something different.

  4. says

    Wow that was a really good post… thanks a lot for the tutorial… I have taken a course in Illustrator and Photoshop however I have found this post to be of real help…

  5. ycrad_a says

    Thanks for that post. I use a lot of patterns in my work, and this answered a couple of burning questions!

  6. says

    WOW what a great job on this tutorial. No question. I especially like that it is based on a hand drawing. I see lots of tutorials that use the built in or addin brushes etc., but yours is totally different from that and extremely well done.

    Very thorough too.


  7. Bryan G. C. says

    Nice tutorial, great technique! I just don’t get where is the “Live Paint” option; it is a button, a menu, a tool, palette? Thanks a lot, anyways.

  8. says

    A good tutorial on a good topic…There are very few tutorials available on the hand drawn vector patterns…I love these patterns and can’t wait to try my hand at them….thanks for your detailed instructions and tips…

  9. says

    This definitely opens up a lot more possibilities in design for me. I can now get more and more creative. But it definitely involves lot more hard work. Thanks for this wonderful post!

  10. says

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  1. How To Design A Hand-Drawn Vector Pattern Using Pencils, Photoshop And Illustrator…

    In this tutorial I’m going to show you how to take a single hand drawn element and transform it into a highly flexible and editable seamless vector pattern….

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