Complex Circular Design Techniques
by Jay Hilgert
on April 23, 2007
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Creating intricate circular designs and patterns may look difficult because the shapes can be very complicated, but you will be surprised at just how easy making these shapes can be. I will go over some neat tricks, tools, techniques, and settings that will have you pumping out perfect circular designs in no time using Illustrator.
This tutorial is split into 2 sections: The Rotate Tool, and a Custom Pattern Brush. The Rotate tool is faster and easier, but less accurate. So lets try it first, then move on to the brush techniques. Note: These techniques are intended for use with circles. Results will vary with other shapes.
Download the shapes I used for this tutorial so you can follow along:
Making Intricate Circular Designs with the Rotate Tool:
In my opinion, the Rotate tool is highly underused and there is probably a good reason. It’s kind of confusing to figure out the first time you use it.
This is what the Rotate tool looks like:
First I want to show how to use the tool, then I will show you a few examples, so let’s keep it simple and just make a rectangle on your artboard like this:
Now (with your rectangle still selected) Click on the rotate tool. You will see a small light-blue crosshair. The crosshair is the “origin,” or the point that you will be rotating from. You can move the origin anywhere you want by clicking where you want it. (you can click as many times as needed until you get it in your desired spot) You can also click and hold on the origin and drag it anywhere on the artboard.
I moved my origin just below my shape.
Read carefully, this is the tricky part if it’s your first time: Click on the path of your rectangle while holding down Option/Alt and rotate a little, then release the mouse before you release Option/Alt. By doing it this way, it not only rotates your shape, it copies it at the same time, and sets/saves a default setting in your Rotate tool.
Now all you have to do is keep hitting Command + D (Mac) or Control + D (PC) to repeat your Rotate and copy! Do this as many time as you like.
Here is the result, for just a simple rectangle:
Ok, now that you have the rotate tool down, lets get fancy, shall we. Remember, these examples are pretty simple. You can do this with any shape. Even try applying brush strokes/gradients/transparency and different options as you experiment.
Make a bunch of circles with a black stroke, like this:
Now select all of those circles and combine them using the Pathfinder palette. (Window > Pathfinder) Click on the “Add to Shape Area Button,” and then the “Expand” button, in that order. Read this post if you don’t know how to use the Pathfinder.
After you have combined the circles, your shape should look like this:
Follow the steps in the first example with the Rotate tool, and see what you can get as a result
It’s crazy how simple you can start out and get amazing shapes with the Rotate tool. You could now take this shape into Photoshop and make a brush out if it if you wanted to, maybe even use it as an eraser.
The Rotate tool is also a quick way to make a custom vector flower shape pretty easily:
Just start with an oval:
Follow the steps in the first example (above) to make your first initial rotate.
Repeat using Command + D (mac) or Control + D (PC).
Here’s a quick example of a sun shape made with the rotate tool. (It’s all about the shape you start with, and the distance of your first rotation). I added a gradient from Red to orange on my shape:
Here, I took the Transparency down to 50%
Using a Custom Pattern Brush to make Intricate Circle Designs:
The second way I’m going to show you to make complex circle designs is by making a Custom Pattern Brush in Illustrator. This method requires a few extra steps, but is much more accurate, gives you more control, and has more value in the long run because you can reuse your brushes as needed. (if you save them)
Lets start with a simple example. Make a bunch of circles in a row like below. This is the shape we are going to use to make our brush. I’ve found that it’s best to keep this shape simple for starters, until you get the hang of how the brush works.
Now select all of the circles at once and, in your brushes palette, click on the options arrow, then “New Brush…”
Select “New Pattern Brush.”
Now you should see the Pattern Brush Options. Important: Make sure you select “Tints” as the Colorization Method. This allows you to change the color of the brush stroke later. There are some other options you might also play with here to get the effects you like. Choose your settings and click OK.
You should now see your new pattern brush at the bottom of your Brushes palette.
To use the brush, draw a circle on the artboard with no fill, and a black stroke.
With your circle selected, click on your Custom Pattern Brush in the Brushes palette. (make sure that your stroke is selected in the Tools palette) And here is the result:
From here you can adjust color, transparency, stroke size, size of the circle, etc. How easy was that? !!!! Just one simple brush, and you get perfectly spaced and controlled circular patterns! Using the brushes gives you much more control because of the options that are available, as well as the ability to change the stroke size after you are done.
Now I’ll show you a few more examples of different shapes/brushes and the results you can get. (download the example file at the top of the page to follow along) Again, these are simple examples, and the potential for this technique is unlimited. I invite you to experiment.
Pattern Brush Examples with Circular Patterns:
1. The Brush Shape Used:
2. The Brush Shape Used:
3. The Brush Shape Used:
4. The Brush Shape Used: