How to Build a Surface Pattern in Photoshop

software Nov 21, 2019

Before I was an illustrator, I was a graphic designer and so I've been playing in Photoshop for many many years.  I get asked frequently how I create patterns in photoshop.  Over the years I’ve taken bits and pieces of different techniques to come up with a method of creating a half-drop pattern using smart objects in Photoshop.  

Up until recently, Photoshop didn’t have a pattern tool** and so you needed to create a pattern manually.  I find this method, using smart objects, makes the process quick and easy, so you can concentrate more on creating beautiful art.

This method might sound a bit daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature to you and you’ll enjoy the benefits of a seamless repeat that looks fabulous!

Step 1 - Set up your document

  1. Create a new document in Photoshop - 12x12inch 300dpi
  2. On a new layer create a square 6x6 inches. Use the rectangular marquee tool

  1. Fill it with grey at approx. 20% opacity.  Use Shift + F5 to bring up
  2. Rotate it to make a diamond.  Use CMD T to transform, then rotate holding the shift key to rotate 45%.

  3. Centre it, then lock the layer.


Step 2 - Create a Pattern Tile

  1. Drag in your icons onto your document.  Also, now might be a good time to save your document if you haven’t already. 

  2. Place your icons in a pleasing arrangement inside the diamond.  Duplicate icons and rotate as needed so they are evenly placed.  They can go slightly over the edges. 


Step 3 - Create Smart Objects & Offset

  1. Hide or delete your guide layer – it’s no longer required
  2. Group your pattern tile layers
  3. Right-click the group & select “Convert to Smart Object

  1. Create a duplicate of the smart object, rename it to bottom middle, then select Filter -> Other -> Offset
  2. Make sure “Set to Transparent” is selected and Preview is on, then enter 0 for horizontal and enter a positive (+) number for vertical to align the tile vertically down the page.  It should sit just under the main tile. If working with a 12x12 inch page, this is usually around +2500px.  Use the slider to get it in a position you like and make sure it’s an even number.  Write this number down (V = xxxx).

  3. Duplicate the last layer
    1. rename it to top middle 
    2. double click on the offset
    3. change the vertical to negative (eg. -2500) to place it at the top of the page

  4. Duplicate the bottom middle layer
    1. rename it to bottom right 
    2. double click on the offset
    3. Enter a number in the vertical field that is half of the number you write down in step 6.
    4. Use the slider to adjust the horizontal number and to move the tile to the right-hand corner so it fits nicely.  Write this number down (H = xxxx).

  5. Duplicate the bottom right layer
    1. Rename it to bottom left
    2. Double click on the offset
    3. Change the horizontal number to a negative so it moves to the left side

  6. Duplicate the bottom left layer
    1. Rename it to top left
    2. Double click on the offset
    3. Change the vertical number to a negative

  7. Duplicate the bottom right layer
    1. Rename it to top right
    2. Double click on the offset
    3. Change the vertical number to a negative


  1. Use the middle layer/smart object to adjust any layers or fill in gaps. Just double click on the smart object to open and edit. You might find there are some icons that need to be adjusted slightly to get an evenly spaced pattern.  All the smart objects will update when you save it and return to the main document.


Step 4 – Extracting a Repeat Pattern Tile

  1. Group all your smart object layers and rename to “original
  2. Duplicate the group then hide the original group
  3. Merge the new group and keep selected

  4. Click on the Rectangular Marquee Tool
  5. Select Fixed Size
  6. Double the horizontal number you wrote down and enter it in the width field
  7. Enter the vertical number you wrote down in the height field
  8. Click on your design & move it to a position you are happy with.  Double-check that what is lying on the top edge of the rectangle matches on the bottom and that what is lying on the left edge matches on the right edge. If it doesn’t you’ll need to go back and redo your offsets.  Don’t worry, after doing this a few times it will become second nature.

  9. Go to Edit -> Define pattern and give it a name.  This stores it as a pattern in Photoshop and is useful later if you want to create mockups.
  10. Copy the area by going to Edit -> Copy (or cmd C) 
  11. Create a new document.  File -> New and use the dimensions it has defaulted to
  12. Paste the repeat area in by going to Edit -> Paste (or cmd v)
  13. Save this as a jpg (or any other file format you require).  This is your repeating pattern file.  HINT:  This is a good time to add a background layer if you want.  Just place a color fill layer behind your design.

  14. Save original file


You did it!!  Yay!  You now have a beautiful seamless half-drop repeat inside of a standard grid repeat.  Well done you!

If you want to see this in more detail you can watch my very popular Skillshare class here.  


Happy pattern making!

X Mel

** There is now a Photoshop plugin called Textile Designer which has a built-in Pattern tool much like the one in adobe illustrator.  If you want to learn how to use it, see my Skillshare class here.

 Photo Credit: Sally Flegg

Mel is a full-time illustrator based in Wellington, New Zealand.  Over the past 5 years, she has been known for her stunning surface pattern designs, where she has won several awards and licensing contracts seeing her work on products such as fabric, clothing, kids educational products and giftware.  With a great love for books, and inspired by a son who sees the world in pictures, Mel has ventured into the children's book world, publishing her first book ‘A Home for Luna’ in August 2019.  

Mel juggles her illustration work with teaching on Skillshare,  her 2 wildly brilliant children Oscar & Willow, her partner Katie, and when there’s time, flying down mountains on her bike! 

For more information about Mel please visit her website.