Illustrator’s Colour Guide

Illustrator’s Colour Guide Panel is an excellent tool for colour inspiration and generating colour themes for your work. In this post we’ll take a look at the options. If you don’t see the panel in your current workspace go to Window > Color Guide or use the SHIFT-F3 shortcut to call it up.


Along the top of the panel you’ll see a base colour, that will come from whatever swatch or artwork you currently have selected; you can change it by selecting a new swatch or a different object and—if it hasn’t updated automatically—click on the base colour to update it. Tip: once you’ve identified you base colour, it’s a good idea to deselect any artwork that you don’t want to modify.

The drop-down to the right of the base colour swatch contains the 23 colour harmonies built into illustrator that you can use as a basis for your theme. The centre column in the colour variations area will change to reflect the harmony you’ve chosen, along with a range of modulations of the harmony colours to the left and right.

The Variations


There are three kinds of variations, and they are accessed via the panel fly-out menu (at the top right of the panel). In the diagrams below you’ll see one of the concentric rings is bordered by a dotted line—these show the base colours used—and the variations either side of that to the inside/outside.


Tint variations (towards the centre) are made by adding white and shade varaiations (towards the outside) are made by adding black.


Warm variations (towards the centre) are created by adding red; colours that are already a saturated red remain unchanged in the diagram above. Cool variations (towards the outside) are created by adding blue and similarly colours that are already a saturated blue will remain unchanged. You can see that a greater range of individual colours are generated here by using a more subtle. less saturated base colours.



Vivid variations (towards the centre) increase the amount of saturation and muted variations (towards the outside) are made by decreasing saturation. You can see that using base colours that already have saturation values of 100% in the HSB model will remain as they are in the vivid variations and the opposite would be true with muted variations if the base colour were a grey, as these variations all move either away from (in the case of vivid variations) or towards, grey (in the case of muted variations).

Tuning Your Variations


The default number of variations, and the amount of difference can be changed by visiting Color Guide Options… from the panel fly-out where you can change the number of steps—my personal preference is 5—and also the amount of variation between each step. If you want a large number of variations, simply resize the panel to accommodate your options:


Limiting your colours

You can also limit the panel to work within a set range of swatches, such as Pantone libraries. In the case of Pantone, the harmony will select colours from other Pantone swatches introducing print tints based on percentages of the original solid colour; it’s best perhaps to stick to Tints/Shades when using Pantone (or other spot libraries/colours) if that’s what you want to end up with as the other variations generate converted CMYK values.

Creating a Colour Group

Once your harmony and variations suit your needs, you can easily create a Colour Group to add to the Swatches Panel (again, it’s a good idea not to have any art selected at this stage). Simply click the first colour you want to use then either SHIFT-click to select a contiguous range of colours, or CMD-click (CTRL-click on Windows) to select noncontiguous colours from the variations. Once selected, click the icon at the bottom-right of the panel and the colour group will be added to the Swatches Panel; from there you can select it by clicking on the little folder icon, and select Color Group Options… from the panel fly-out.

Make Your Own Library File

If you want to be able to easily recall and reuse your colour group—or share it with others—you do have two choices but there’s a best-practice way to do this.

Any Illustrator document can be used as an asset library for Swatches, Symbols or Brushes and loaded into your current document by clicking on the library loader (at the bottom-left of any of those three panels), then choosing Other Library from the bottom of the menu. All you need to do then is navigate to the document you’re after and Illustrator will load the relevant assets in their own panel; the downside is that all of the swatches (or other assets) in that document are loaded.

The best way to get around this—and also to keep the library file compact—is to create a copy of the document using Save As then name it, and remove all of the swatches and groups that you don’t want in there (note: the none and registration swatches cannot be removed) and then save the document. Doing this will ensure that only the swatches you want are loaded.


Illustrator’s Colour Harmonies

Van Goethe Wheel

Colour harmonies represent a combination or unity of colours that are pleasing to the eye; we use colour harmonies all the time: when we choose an outfit, when we decorate our homes or workplaces, and when we—as designers—want to communicate a meaning or mood.

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is the designer’s tool to establish colour relationships, and Johann von Goethe’s mis-named “The Theory of Colours”—there’s no actual theory present—is probably the first text that provided a rational description for the perception of colour arranged as a diametrically opposed wheel. Many have followed on with their own theories and presentations of colour, so we have a couple of centuries or so of established thinking to use as at least a starting point for our work.


Illustrator has twenty-three colour harmonies built in to the Colour Guide Panel, and the Recolour Artwork dialog so in this post we are going to take a look at them, and use it as the basis for further work.

Illustrator’s Colour Wheel is Different

If you’re not already familiar with the RGB and HSB colour models, you may want to check out the Photoshop mini-series “256 Shades of Grey” posts, and if you’re in a hurry, the first two sections of Part Three

Technically, Illustrator’s colour wheel has more similarity with the LAB wheel but visually, Illustrator’s colour wheel is closer to the RYB model, that has more in common with the traditional artists’ model, with the saturation and brightness elements of the HSB “cylinder” model thrown in but it behaves that way too.

If you know your RGB colour wheel, you’ll know that Red sits at 0º, and Cyan sits diametrically opposed at 180º; here’s what the colour wheel looks like in Illustrator:

RYB_colourWheelYou don’t need a diagram to see that opposite red on this wheel is green, and that cyan is a good few degrees around from there; but if you take red and steer it 180º using the sliders in the Recolour Artwork dialog, you end up with cyan!


The reason for this is most probably that unlike Photoshop, which is dealing with luminance values—essentially, working with images made from light—Illustrator is primarily aimed at, er, illustrators (the clue being in the name); illustrators are more concerned with the perceptual values of the end result from the perspective of artists than the production concerns of photographers, and may well have trained in traditional colour theory so the harmonies need to make sense to them.

The Colour Harmonies

In each of the examples below, we will take pure RGB red as a base—or root—colour, and generate a harmony from it. The illustrations show approximately the positions on the colour wheel for each of the colours in the harmony, and underneath the colours generated (white means no colour generated) by the harmony, starting with the original (red) colour; you’ll see that some of the harmonies change the saturation and brightness, as well as the position of the hue.


The Complementary harmony rule generates only one other colour, opposed at 180º.


Illustrator also produces four other variations on the Complementary rule:

Complementary 2

In addition to the original colour and the complementary opposite, this rule produces one brightness and one saturation variant on the original colour, with one brightness variation and one hue, saturation and brightness variant on the complement.
ch__02_Complementary 2

Split Complementary

The Split Complementary rule goes to the complement and then splits off by thirty degrees clockwise and counter-clockwise to produce three colours.ch__03_Split Complementary

Left Complement and Right Complement

These two variations bend the complement clockwise—in the case of the left—and counter-clockwise for the right, with hue, saturation and brightness shifts.

ch__04_Left Complementch__05_Right ComplementAnalogous and Analogous 2

The Analogous harmony generates four additional colours, with hue values spaced 15º and 30º clockwise and counter-clockwise from the original colour, with saturation and brightness variations.

The Analogous 2 variant produces five additional colours, with less hue variation and deeper saturation and brightness modulations.


Monochromatic, Monochromatic 2 and Shades

As you’d probably expect, these rules fix the hue, and instead generate variations in saturation and brightness. Monochromatic produces three additional variants with decreased variations in saturation of 75%, 50% and 25%.


Monochromatic 2 yields four saturation and brightness variations.

ch__09_Monochromatic 2

Shades generates three additional brightness-varied colours.



Illustrator has a trio of triadic harmonies, which all split from the original colour by 120º. The first of these—Triad—produces two additional hue shifts with some saturation variation.


Triad 2

This harmony rule creates the two additional hue-rotated swatches as in the original Triad harmony, but with an additional modulations of brightness/saturation for the original colour and the rightmost complement.

ch__12_Triad 2

Triad 3 is almost the left-complement version of the previous harmony, but with even more variation.ch__13_Triad 3


The tetrads are roughly-speaking square—or perhaps diamond—variations. The original Tetrad generates three additional colours hue-rotated by 90º and with a 5% decrease in saturation. Tetrads usually consist of two pairs of complimentary colours.


Tetrad 2

This rule gives us a total of five colours, with a variation on the root colour, along with three other saturation and brightness varied colours, with the colours to the left and right of the root additionally being skewed a bit further in hue. This is most like a fusion of the direct complement, with a left and right complement combination.

Tetrad 3

The Tetrad 3 harmony again gives us a five colour rule, with a darker variation of the base colour, a less saturated version of the complement and then a rotation of the second complementary pair by an additional 15º, with modulation of the brightness/saturation.



ch__17_Compound 1

The compounds—1 and 2—are again clockwise and counter-clockwise variations of each other. These rules are compounded analogous and complementaries. In Compound 1 you can see analogous colours to the red and then analogous colours from the green complement. Compound 2 moves the complement in the opposite direction.

High Contrast

There are four high-contrast harmonies, all of which are fundamentally triads—certainly in terms of hue—but also compounds of other harmonies.

High Contrast 1

This rule consists of five colours; it has a monochromatic variation an left-analogous variation of the base colour, with a left complement with a saturation/brightness variant of that.

ch__19_High Contrast 1


High Contrast 2

The only rule of this group to generate six colours, High Contrast 2 is an equally distributed Triad of 120º, with saturation and brightness modulations of each hue.

ch__20_High Contrast 2

High Contrast 3

This harmony creates an analogous variant, along with a brightness-modulated variant of the analogy, with a 90º counter-clockwise hue variation that have saturation/brightness modulations.

High Contrast 4

High Contrast 4 is almost identical to High Contrast 1, but here the analogous colour to the root colour is from the right, and two variants are produced from it, rather than the base as in High Contrast 1.


The final rule in the Illustrator harmonies is the Pentagram, yielding a total of five components (as you’d likely expect) separated by 72º in hue, with various modulations of saturation and brightness.



The important thing to remember here is that these variations are often just a starting point. Rules are there to be broken, and it is one of the tools we want to make a statement, or otherwise create a purposeful imbalance to arouse curiosity or invoke emotional responses.

The Colour App and Service


We are surrounded by some great colour combinations, and the Colour CC app for iPhone is a great way to capture and model your own colour harmonies that then become immediately available in all of your CC applications. They can also be shared with your colleagues using CC Libraries, or with The World via the Colour web service at—it’s a great way to have fun with experimenting in colour combinations, and putting them to use straight away.

InDesign’s Colour Theme Tool


Continuing to explore topics around colour, in this post we’re going to to take a look at a really useful tool that was aded to the toolset of InDesign CC 2014: the Colour Theme Tool, that gives you a really quick way to pull a colour theme from assets—including images or placed art—on your layout. You can use the colour themes immediately, as well as save them to your document swatches and add them to your colour themes on Creative Cloud.

The Colour Theme Tool


The Colour Theme Tool is accessed by the icon in the toolbox, or by tapping I (I-dropper) on the keyboard. Roll your mouse over the layout and InDesign will highlight items that can be used to create colour themes, you can then either click on an item—such as an image—in the layout or drag a marquee over a section of the image, or a range of page items. A colour theme composed of five colours will be automatically generated and presented to you in a floating palette:


The palette has a few options:

  1. There are five kinds of colour themes generated: Colourful, Bright, Deep, and Muted. You can switch the theme from the menu just to the right of the theme in the palette:
  2. The active theme can be added to your document swatches by clicking this icon—the swatches will be added to the Swatches Panel in a folder. If you only want to add a single colour from the theme, select it in the theme, and ALT-click this icon.
  3. If you want to edit the theme, and/or share it with The World—along with other options—including obtaining colour values for other colour models—you can push it to the Colour website: It’ll be in the My Themes list in the Adobe Colour Themes Panel inside of InDesign and will also become available in the mobile sketching/drawing apps if you use them, too.

If you want to generate a them based on a single colour, hold down SHIFT and click on the colour you’re interested in. The floating palette will add the colour to the centre of the theme, and will add variations either side, based on six colour harmony rules: Analogous, Monochromatic, Triad, Complementary, Compound and Shades. You can switch between them using the menu in the palette.


Other Options

In addition to the SHIFT key, there are a couple of other useful keys that the tool uses:

  • The ALT key switches the tool back into sampling mode
  • The ESC key clears the current palette
  • Q adds the generated theme to the Swatches Panel immediately

The colour model that the swatches are generated in is based on the Document intent; a Print document will generate CMYK swatches and a document for Digital Publishing will generate RGB swatches. If this isn’t to your liking, the behaviour can be modified by double-clicking on the tool in the Toolbar and specifying sample attributes; the three options are:

  • Convert as per document intent (default setting)
  • Convert to CMYK
  • Convert to RGB

Using the Colour Theme Tool

The tool is great for rapidly adding colour directly from the palette. You can choose one of the generated swatches and click on a shape, or drag across text and the colour is applied immediately; your layout could develop a colour harmony and consistency that would have taken a bit longer in previous versions.


Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑