How to Create Abstract Colour Blobs

INTRODUCTION: When I started my career in graphic design there were a lot of Photoshop tools that I thought I’d never touch. If it didn’t clone, buff, stitch, fill, recolour, enhance, warp, stretch, squish, enlarge, shrink, mask, sharpen, blur, merge, or patch I didn’t really see the purpose. However, I had always been an admirer of beautifully crafted abstractions. The digital art that designers were creating for a new aesthetic. 3D blobs of colour, paint marbling, glitch effects, bizarre patterns, wild lighting effects, and simplified geometric designs are all examples of abstractions that add to the designer’s repertoire. In this post, I explore the easiest way to create abstract colour blobs and take a look at a brush tool that is often overlooked–the Mixer Brush tool.

Getting to know the Mixer Brush tool

For anyone that thought the standard Brush tool was a powerful way of painting digitally…meet the Mixer Brush tool. Capable of sampling more than one colour at a time while simulating real paint mixing and brush wetness this tool is the answer to “What would a professional painter simulation program look like?”. There are a multitude of settings to explore here and I would encourage anyone that wants to create digital paintings to do a deep dive into the various settings to create their next masterpiece. However, for this tutorial we are just concerned about using the Mixer Brush tool with the Hard Round Brush Tip Shape with a Dry, Heavy Load set at Wet 0% , Load 100%, Flow 100%, Smoothing 100%, and Spacing at 1%.

brush settings

This setting will simulate a steady flow of thick paint. When a gradient or mixture of colours is sampled for use with this brush setting it will create a variety of colour combinations based on the direction and orientation of your stroke. Try going from right to left, left to right, bottom to top, top to bottom and any variety of orientations for different colour combinations using the same colour sample.

Example of mixer brush being used in lines going in different directions following a complex path
Straight lines created using the shift key and clicking around the canvas.


STEP ONE Find or create a nice gradient or mix of colours and sample it using the Mixer Brush tool (using the settings above).

sampling colours with the mixer brush tool
Alt + click to sample using the brush tool.

STEP TWO Using the Mixer Brush “paint” a few curvy lines.

creating curvy lines with the mixer brush tool
Curvy lines using the sampled gradient.

STEP THREE Add depth with dropshadows in one of two different ways. Either use the dropshadow function in the Blending Options window or create drop shadows using the shapes of the gradient lines. Below shows the latter.

creating dropshadow blocks

To create dropshadow blocks, Command + click on the image in the layer you wish to make a dropshadow for. This makes a pixel selection. Create a new layer and fill in the selection with a dark colour. Deselect the layer and offset that layer from the original multi-coloured line layer. Apply a Gaussian Blur to the dropshadow block of dark colour and change the Opacity of the layer to 50% or lower and the transparency to Multiply.

blurred dropshadows with multiplied transparency
Dropshadow blocks with a blur and multiply setting.

BONUS STEPS Use the Liquify filter to make the brush strokes more blob-like before adding dropshadows. Make the brush tip large when working in the filter panel and click and drag very slowly and slightly in order to get subtle deviations and smooth blobs.

liquified lines creating blobs

Layering your dropshadows to make the depth more realistic. When objects are layered on top of each other in 3D space their shadows cast differently according to their distance from each other. In order to create this illusion easily and quickly, we need to apply layers of shadows and remove the objects from each dropshadow layer according to their position in space. The closer the top object is to the object below the smaller the offset from the object casting the shadow.

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Creating Seamless Pattern Brushes in Illustrator for Just About Anything

As a graphic designer there is no end to the number of add-ons, brush sets, ornaments, images, filters, and other design tools out there for purchase. Some are amazing and save you a bit of time when trying to create that perfect look, but who has an unlimited fortune dedicated to buying tools you might only use once. Sometimes creating the brush you are looking for can take less time than searching for it on an online digital marketplace. In this tutorial, I go through the simple steps to take in creating an animal print pattern brush. Be sure to save your work often and make duplicate layers for each step so you can return to a previous step without using ⌘ + Z over and over again.

1) Find source material.

Find an image of a pattern from which to draw inspiration. Pexels is a good place to start as it has many images that can be used for free. For this tutorial, I am using just a section of zebra stripes for inspiration.

2) Draw your pattern in Illustrator.

Using the image as inspiration, set up an Illustrator file at 4″ x 4″ and Place (Shift (⇧) + ⌘ + P) the file on the Artboard. (The dimensions of the image don’t really make a difference.)

Lock the layer by clicking in the small square next to the eyeball on the layer that contains the image in your layers panel.

Window >> Layers then click on the [ ] in the layers panel beside the eye.

Set a maximum height to your pattern using guides by simply dragging guides from your ruler along the top of the workspace window. You can set up your ruler as follows…

View >> Rulers >> Show Rulers

In a new layer…

Window >> Layers then click on the [+] at the bottom of the layers panel

…start drawing shapes with the Pencil Tool (N) by loosely following the stripes in the zebra pattern while keeping the height of each stripe the same. Draw the stripes from the top guide to the bottom guide on the Artboard.

Don’t worry about the details. your stripes don’t need to look the exact same as the natural stripe patterns of the zebra image.

3) Duplicate your pattern and find the repeating point.

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Once you are happy with your pattern. Duplicate it by selecting the entire pattern and placing it directly beside itself.

Hold Alt/Option (⌥) + click (and hold) + hold Shift (⇧) + drag
in that order one after the other

Using the Pencil Tool (N), add in another stripe or two between the duplicated patterns to fill in the gaps. This should make the duplicate patterns look like one continuous pattern.

Select All (⌘ + A) and Group (⌘ + G) the patterns together. You should then consolidate the group by using ⌘ + 8 (Compound Path >> Make). This Command works by taking a group of several individual pieces and consolidates it so it can be treated like one object.

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Using your ruler on the left side of the workspace click + drag a guide to an anchor point on a repeating stripe within the pattern. Place a second guide on the exact same anchor point on the repeating stripe’s clone.

You should now have a frame made of four guides that contains the exact pattern you will use to make your brush. Draw a rectangle that fills the frame using the Rectangle Tool (M) by clicking and dragging from the top left corner of the frame to the bottom right corner of the frame.

Select All (⌘ + A) and click on the Intersect icon in the Pathfinder panel (Shift (⇧) + ⌘ + fn + F9). This will create a cropped version of the pattern that will be used to make the seamless pattern brush.

4) Create a seamless pattern brush.

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Drag and drop your new pattern into the Brushes panel (fn + F5). A dialogue box will pop-up with Scatter Brush, Art Brush and Pattern Brush as options.
Scatter Brush – is exactly as it sounds. A brush that scatters a pattern along a predetermined path. Cool for creating sparkles, specks, and dust in randomized patterns.
Art Brush – takes an object and stretches it along a path. It is great for recreating a single brush stroke with no repeating elements.
Pattern Brush – takes an object or pattern and repeats it along a path. It is great for funky borders and repeated elements in a predictable repeated pattern.

You’ll want to select Pattern Brush and click OK.

The next dialogue box will ask you to name the pattern. Name it something that will be easily recognizable, “zebra_v1” for example.

After you’ve named your pattern there are only a couple of settings that need to be changed in order for the seamless brush to work. The first setting to change will affect how the brush will handle sharp corners on the path outside of a shape.

Outer Corner Tile >> Auto-Centered

The Auto-Centered setting works best in adapting the brush to corners. The second setting to change is the Inner Corner Tile which will dictate how the brush will handle the corner on the path inside of a shape.

Inner Corner Tile >> Auto-Centered

Click OK.

5) Test your brush.

Simply draw a line with the Pencil Tool (N) and while that line selected find your new “zebra_v1” brush in your Brushes Panel (fn + F5). Click on it to apply the new brush to your pencilled path.

Voila!! A seamless pattern brush!! You can now manipulate it using the Stroke Panel, expand its appearance to use it as an object, and apply it to shapes or any complex path. This technique can now be used for animal print, florals, damask, and just about any other simple pattern.

If your brush didn’t quite work there are a few things that can be done to troubleshoot the problem. I’ve found the biggest issue can be in creating the perfect frame for the repeating pattern segment. Go back a few steps and try again. Feel free to DM me with your seamless pattern successes and failures.