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The Stages of Designing a Pattern Collection

And Tips for Not Getting Stuck!

I talk to so many artists who want to design pattern collections, but get stuck at some point in the process and never get to the end goal – a finished collection!

Some common sticking points I've heard from creatives over the years:

  • I just LOVE digging into inspiration so much that I go down a rabbit hole of inspiration research, and end up never actually starting the collection.
  • I usually make it to the sketching stage, but feel stuck on how to move into the inking or vector creation stage because I can’t decide what style to use for inking the assets.
  • I’m able to stick with the collection through all these tricky beginning stages and the icky middle, but struggle with knowing when the collection is “done”.

Does one of these hit a little too close to home?

I know all of these well because I’ve been through many of them myself, and had to develop a system for making myself move forward even when nothing I create ever feels completely “finished”.  Below I want to share with you my stages of collection building along with the queues I use to know when to move on to the next stage!

Stage 1: Inspiration Library

This is probably my favorite part of the process because I get to dig into vintage books, go outside to take photographs, and pour over pattern inspiration — basically what artists want to do all day right?  I try to collect a few hundred images, each of which could be something as simple as a vintage drawing of a fox or a photograph of a plant I took on a hike.  Each piece of inspiration gets put into an album on my iPad so I can easily find it when I’m ready to start drawing.

At some point during this process, a theme usually starts to emerge.  It might be the location where the animals originated or a type of flower I keep seeing.  I take some notes on a canvas in Procreate to start getting clear on what my theme is for the collection.

So, when should you stop collecting inspiration?

Personally, I like to give myself a number (usually something like 200) and that means when my inspiration album on my iPad hits 200 images, I have to stop.  Does that mean I can never go find another inspiration image for this collection?  No, but I know that in order to progress, I need to keep moving.  So for this initial inspiration gathering I stop at a specific number of images.

Stage 2: The Collection Story

This is one of the most important parts of the whole process because it will determine how you move forward with all the following steps.  “The Story” is the theme around your collection and it should be very specific and clear to your viewers and buyers in both the written form and in the patterns themselves.

With everything you do moving forward you should ask — “Does this fit with my story for this collection?”  If not, save it for a future collection.

So when is the story complete?

I like to have a working title and a few paragraphs of text that serve as a guide for the collection.  These can be tweaked later, but having that initial framework will help you make decisions about your assets, inking style, and colors.

Here is an example!

For my new collection Canadian Woodland for Hawthorne Supply Co., I created this title and description to guide me as I worked on the collection.

Title: Canadian Woodland

Description: Tangled wildflower stems weave around branches and fallen acorns as woodland creatures big and small sneak around the forest floor.  Squirrels steal nuts from each other as protective mother foxes clear a safe path in the meadow for their young.  In the Canadian Woodland, the rustic and chaotic wild plants intertwine with the cautious animals searching for their next meal.

This collection was inspired by a series of early 1800s botanical illustrations featuring native Canadian weeds and wildflowers.  The colors, creatures, and rustic style all reference the rough and rugged terrain these early botanical illustrators spent days exploring and documenting.

Stage 3: Sketch

In this stage I get to play with all those inspiration images I collected.  I give myself permission to “messy sketch” and throw away canvases like a madwoman until I get a big set of finished sketches that are ready to ink.  Some of my sketches are individual elements, whereas others are whole pattern sketches.  I show my whole process for sketching patterns from the ground up in my Pattern Layouts class here.

How many sketches is "enough"?

If you love sketching as much as I do, you could easily get stuck on this phase and wake up one morning realizing that you have spent the last few years sketching.  So I give myself an important rule: 10 of each.  “10 of each” means I can only sketch 10 versions of something.  For example, if I want to include bears in my pattern, I can sketch up to 10 bears before it’s time to move on to the next animal, plant, or filler element.  10 is my maximum, so I don’t have to have 10 of everything, but this stops me from getting all the way through a 40 hour audio book and realizing all I’ve done this week is sketch bears.

Stage 4: Inking

My inking process varies depending on the collection I’m creating, so at times it may be a matter of creating black and white textured elements in Procreate whereas other times I might be painting on paper.

To determine the inking style, you should look back at your collection story and ask, “Does this inking style fit my collection?”

In my example, Canadian Woodland is a collection about the rough and rugged wilderness of Canada, so textures and rough and wild elements are welcome.  If your theme is more sleek and refined, you might want to build your elements using vectors or draw using a smooth brushpen.

In short, look to your collection story when you can’t decide how to ink!

When are you finished inking?

When you’ve inked all the elements from your sketching phase that seem like viable options, you’re done!  Of course, not every sketch need to be inked.  Some sketches are just experiments that get us to the next step!

Stage 5: Pattern Building

This is where all of your hard work starts to come together and actually look like a pattern collection!  In this phase I don’t worry much about choosing colors because I like to focus on the composition and placing the elements in the best possible layout.  I use Affinity Designer to build my patterns so I can see a live preview of my repeated pattern as I work.  This helps me place elements in the perfect spot without having to export the original file and repeat it elsewhere!

New to Affinity Designer?  Check out my Free Affinity Designer Foundations Mini-Course

So when are you done with this step?

Most of us pattern designers could spend endless amounts of time tweaking a pattern.  Not to mention all the times we come back to a pattern we created earlier and want to make tweaks days, months, or even years later!

For me the key is to work on a pattern until my “flow state” seems to stop, then give it a break for a few days and come back later with fresh eyes.

Stay in your flow state.

Even if you haven’t heard about the “flow state” before, chances are you already know all about it because we’ve all experienced it.  It’s that feeling that you are sucked into a project and time seems to melt away without you worrying about how long you’ve been working.  Decisions seem to be made effortlessly and you feel like you could keep working forever.  Eventually though, that feeling stops.  You start doubting, questioning, considering that you are a total failure of an artist.  This, my friends, is when it is time to stop.  Go eat a snack, take a walk, and remember that your flow state doesn’t function if you don’t help blood flow to your brain (i.e. sitting still and drawing for 3 hours straight does not help you make better art!).

Stage 6: Color

It’s time to go back to your story again!  If you had to describe your collection story in colors, what would the colors be?  Could you make a palette of them in Procreate?  Could you collect some objects outside or find some objects elsewhere that have those colors?

For my collection example, I wanted to depict a rough and rugged scene of wild animals and plants.  So I sampled colors from fur, wildflowers, bark, weeds, and stones.

If we saw only your color palette, could we guess the mood of your collection?

I try to challenge myself to create palettes that tell stories without any text or imagery attached to them, and I think once you combine those colors with your imagery and your story, it makes your collection even more powerful and memorable!

I create at least 4 different color versions of each pattern, and then let it marinate for a few days.  Usually when I come back to the collection with a fresh and rested mind, it’s easy to see which versions are the best!

What is really stopping you?

Last I want to address two common issues that stop creatives from finishing big projects like a collection, because I know many of you (myself included) have faced or will face these in the future: procrastination and perfectionism

I’ve worked with so many skilled artists who don’t finish projects because they procrastinate on the “boring stuff”.  Is inking similar bears 10 times over a little boring.  Yes, sometimes.  So if you get stuck on repetitive or daunting tasks like these, try to distract yourself with some good music, a podcast, or by working in a new place like outside or in a cafe.  I’ve heard a lot of procrastinators say that working in public helps them stay on task, because they are just too embarrassed to let someone see another silly cat Tiktok show up on their screen.

Perfectionism is even more dangerous though, because it’s usually baked into our beliefs about ourselves.  It’s either an over-inflated ego (I am perfect so I have to make perfect work) or total disillusion (I can do things perfectly).  The truth is, no artwork is ever perfect.  So if you’re waiting to make perfect work, you might as well wait for your work to sprout wings and fly away.

In truth, I think most people who call themselves “perfectionists” are just afraid of what will happen if they put that not-perfect work out into the world.  Elizabeth Gilbert famously said, ” I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified”.

So ask yourself, what is really stopping you from creating a collection?  I hope the tips in this post help you bust through some of your creative blocks!

Learn My Pattern Making Process

I share my whole process for creating patterns using your iPad in my classes and help artists and designers around the world develop their creative style.

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