Complex Circular Design Techniques

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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.

Complex Circular Vector Pattern Techniques

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:

The shapes I used for this tutorial

Includes: – AI (2) EPS (1) SVG (1)

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:

Rotate tool

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.

Blue crosshair

I moved my origin just below my shape.

Origin moved below the 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.

Repeating the rotate

Here is the result, for just a simple rectangle:

Rectangle rotated into a circle

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:

Bunch of circles

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.

Selected circles
Pathfinder, expand

After you have combined the circles, your shape should look like this:

Shape made from combined circles

Follow the steps in the first example with the Rotate tool, and see what you can get as a result

Rotated shape
Shape rotated many times

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.

Shape rotated into a full circle

The Rotate tool is also a quick way to make a custom vector flower shape pretty easily:

Just start with an oval:

Oval starting point

Follow the steps in the first example (above) to make your first initial rotate.

Oval rotated

Repeat using Command + D (mac) or Control + D (PC).
Complex Circular Vector Pattern Techniques

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:

Creating a sun shape
Selected shape
Rotating the shape
Creating a sun shape by rotating

Here, I took the Transparency down to 50%

Sun with 50% transparency

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.

Custom shape

Now select all of the circles at once and, in your brushes palette, click on the options arrow, then “New Brush…”

Creating a new brush

Select “New Pattern Brush.”

New brush pattern

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.

Pattern brush options

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.

Circle on the artboard

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:

Selected shape

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:

Oval shape starting point

The result:

Flower vector created with the oval shape

2. The Brush Shape Used:

Shape including a few circles

The result:

Vector created by rotating the circles

3. The Brush Shape Used:

Abstract shape

The result:

Vector created by rotating the abstract shape

4. The Brush Shape Used:
Complex Circular Vector Pattern Techniques

The result:

Vector created by rotating the lines shape