How to create a complex seamless pattern from watercolours


In this blog post, I will describe how to create a complex seamless pattern from watercolours. To create a simple pattern, see How to create a Pattern in Adobe Illustrator.


To create a complex pattern using my methods, ensure that you have access to the following items first:

  • Good quality watercolour paint and paper
  • Good quality paintbrushes
  • Access to Adobe Illustrator, version 2019 or later
  • Access to Adobe Photoshop, version 2020 or later

Choosing your pattern elements

If this is your first time creating a complex pattern, I would recommend choosing a simple subject matter, such as florals. Then, pick three or more elements that would work well together. For example, flowers, stems, and leaves. Decide which elements will be your main, secondary, and tertiary elements in your pattern. Your main and secondary elements will appear larger and less frequently in your pattern, while the tertiary elements will appear smaller, but more frequently in your pattern.

At this stage, do not worry about colours as you can recolour elements in Adobe Illustrator. Having said that, it is good to have a palette in mind when rifling through photographs and other source material. If you are new to patterns, choose three complementary colours with the help of

Painting your pattern elements

Personally, I prefer using watercolour over other mediums for patterns. The beauty of watercolour is that you can paint as loose or as intricate as you like. To create a looser effect, use more water and let your paintings dry naturally.

Usually, I paint all my pattern elements on the same page, but you can use different pages if you prefer. For scanning and vectorising purposes, paint your pattern elements with defined edges and keep some space between your pattern elements. My top tip is to focus on creating curves when painting, as this will really make your pattern synergetic.

complex seamless pattern
Example of a floral painting for a pattern

Scanning your painting

To find your scan dialog on a Mac, follow these steps:

  1. In the upper-left corner of your screen, click on the Apple icon.
  2. Click System Preferences > Printers & Scanners.
  3. Then, click on the Scan tab.
  4. Ensure that you select a resolution of 300 dpi.
  5. In the Format list, select JPEG.
  6. To scan all your paintings at once, click Scan.
  7. To scan each element individually, draw a marquee or square over each element.
  8. These scanned images will automatically appear in your downloads folder.
  9. Move this JPEG or JPEGs to a new folder called Scans.

Removing the white background in Photoshop

Note: If it is very difficult to remove the white background from your painting, see Optional:Enhancing your painting.

One of the most frustrating things when reusing paintings as patterns is removing the dreaded white background from your scanned JPEG . Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but the following videos should help. These videos show two different methods of removing a white background in Photoshop.

Removing the white background with Color Range
Removing the white background with Select Subject

When you have removed the white background using your chosen method, click File > Export > Quick Export as PNG.

Optional: Enhancing your painting

If there is not enough contrast between your painting and the white background, you may need to enhance your painting first.

  1. Open your scanned JPEG in Photoshop.
  2. Click Window > Adjustments > Levels.
  3. To open your layers panel, click Window > Layers.

a. Ensure that you select Levels 1 in your layers panel.

  1. Then, click Windows > Properties.

a. Within this properties panel, move the white node closer to the middle to remove the paper effect.

b. Also, move the black node towards the middle to add more contrast to your painting.

  1. If you like, you can also add the brightness/contrast effect from the adjustments panel to your layers panel.

Vectorising your painting

Vectorising is a process that can turn your painting into graphics that are endlessly scaleable. As we want our finished patterns to appear on as many items as possible, it is important to vectorise your painting, so that it doesn’t appear pixelated at a later stage. To vectorise your painting in Adobe Illustrator, follow these steps:

  1. Open Adobe Illustrator and in the New Document dialog box that opens, click on the Print tab.

a. Select the Letter preset.

b. Change the measurement style to pixels and the color mode to RGB. Ensure that the resolution is 300 ppi.

c. Click Create.

  1. To import your painting, click File > Place.

a. Before clicking on the screen to release your PNG, hold down Shift and drag your PNG so that it is the same size as your artboard.

  1. Click Window > Image Trace.

Note: If you are not using your painting for patterned fabrics, or if you do not want to recolour your painting, in the Image Trace dialog box, from the Preset list, select High Fidelity Photo.

  1. As I want to show you how to recolour your painting in Adobe Illustrator, in the Image Trace dialog box, from the Preset list, select the 3 Colors or 6 Colors option.
  2. At the top of the screen, click Expand.
  3. On the left toolbar, click on the Direct Selection Tool.

a. Click once on the white background and press Backspace. The white background should disappear.

  1. To test whether the white background has fully disappeared, create a black square that is the same size as your artboard. Click Object > Arrange > Send to Back.

a. To lock the black background, click Cmd+2.

b. If there are still unwanted white parts on your artboard, click on a white part and click Select > Same > Appearance. Press Backspace.

  1. Click Object > Unlock All and remove the black square.
  2. To simplify your vector painting, click Object > Path > Simplify.

a. Move the slider to the right so that the curve precision is 100%.

  1. Click Object > Ungroup.
  2. From the left toolbar, click on the Lasso Tool.

a. With the lasso tool, draw shapes around individual vector points that you want grouped together.

b. After rejoining the end point of the Lasso tool with the start point, click Object > Group.

c. To remove any unwanted vectors from a group, click on the Direct Selection Tool and press Backspace.

  1. After completing the vectorising process, your artboard should have clear divisions between your primary, secondary, and tertiary vectors, like the following image:
complex seamless pattern

Recolouring your vectors

If you have followed all the steps so far, recolouring your vectors won’t be difficult. To decide on a suitable colour palette, use the following site: or a photograph you like. If you are planning to use your finished patterns for fabrics, it is important to remember that 18 is the maximum number of colours that can appear on your pattern, including the background. With this in mind, watch the following video where I create a colour palette and apply these colours to my vectors:

Recolouring vectors

Creating motifs

The next step in building your complex watercolour pattern is building motifs. Motifs are recurring subjects that appear in your pattern. To build your motifs easily, follow these steps:

  1. Move all your vectors off the artboard.
  2. From the left toolbar in Adobe Illustrator, click on the Rectangle Tool.
  3. Click the Rectangle Tool once and create a 500 px x 700 px bounding box.
  4. To make the bounding box more prominent, add a fill colour to it.
  5. Click Cmd+2 to lock your bounding box.
  6. Select all your motifs using the Selection Tool and click Object > Arrange > Bring to Front.
  7. Using the scale, rotate, and arrange tools, organise your vectors into eye-catching motifs.
  8. When you are happy with a motif, select the vectors and click Object > Group.
  9. After following these steps, your motifs artboard should look similar to the following image:
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dancing_poppies_motifs-01.png

Making a seamless repeating pattern

Finally, the last step is creating your seamless repeating pattern. Along with the following video, here are my biggest tips for developing your seamless pattern:

  • Keep note of your bounding box measurements. In my case, the measurements were 500 px x 700 px.
  • Only worry about the motifs passing the bounding box edges. You are free to design the middle of your bounding box as you like.
  • What appears extending beyond the top edges of the bounding box must be replicated at the bottom. What appears extending beyond the left edges of the bounding box must be replicated on the right.
Making a seamless repeating pattern

What next?

If you are interested in pattern design, there are a range of sites out there where you can sell your patterns on different products. My personal favourite is Redbubble. To learn how to sell your patterns on Redbubble, check out my popular blog post here: How to set up a successful Redbubble Shop.


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