Illustrator Global Swatches

People often have questions when using Adobe Illustrator.

What’s that triangle for? Why do some have a dot? What the heck is a “global” swatch? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Three of these four questions will be answered for you right now!
For the last one, watch some Monty Python movies as homework.SwatchOptions

Have you ever noticed that not all of your Illustrator swatches look the same? That is because not all swatches are created equal. OK, they actually are all equal but not the same, as I’ll explain.

What’s a swatch? It’s a color, tint, pattern, or gradient with a name. This name can be labels like “My Red” and “Pantone Blue 072 C”, or the color properties that make it up its values.

Normal Swatches

In the following examples I’ve made a color group with three example swatches. In the first image I’ve selected a normal CMYK swatch. It behaves exactly as you expect a swatch to. It holds process color information and does not update objects until you manually apply it.


Global Swatches

Things change if you select the “global” checkbox when making a process swatch. When you select an object with “global” checked in swatch options, it stays connected to the objects and can update them. It also acts more like a spot color in that the color panel sees it as one color and not a process mixture. As you can see from the color panel below, the global swatch can have its tint percentage modified just like a spot color.



Spot Color Swatch

When a spot color swatch is selected, the color panel allows you to adjust the strength of that color and allow you to make a tint swatch of it. Only Global Process and Spot colors will do this in the color panel.



When you look at the Swatches panel, the color icons with a white triangle in the lower right corner are global process colors. The ones with a triangle and a dot are spot colors. In list view, you can also tell the difference by the boxes to the right of the name. A gray box is global. A gray box with a circle in it, is a spot. Look at the images above and you can see that these show regardless of what items are selected.

Using Global Process Colors

When do you want to make global colors? What if you have a detailed drawing of a jacket and all the trim elements have to be blue. Updating those all at once would be helpful if there are a lot of them and they all need to be identical. For the example below, I’ve made a sketch of a room with a window, fruit bowl, and curtains. Because I will have many pieces in the curtains that are different shapes but the same size and tint, I will use a global swatch for the curtains.

Let’s begin

Follow these steps to make swatches and test the global behavior.

  1. Make a swatch and be sure to select the Global box. I’m cleverly calling mine “Curtain Color Global”.
  2. Now make a a second swatch but deselect the Global checkbox. This one I’m calling “Curtain Color NOT Global“.
  3. Draw four objects on your page.
  4. Apply the first swatch to two objects and the second swatch to the other two.
  5. Change the color of the normal swatch.
  6. Change the color of the global swatch.

If you have a normal swatch and you change the color to something else, the items that were using that swatch do not change.

Now the swatch “Curtain Color NOT Global” is yellow, but the curtains that had been using the swatch are still red. When I change the swatch color of “Curtain Color Global” all the connected curtain items now have a green fill.

Let’s take this further and make a tint.



Making a Tint Swatch


A tint is a global process color or spot color with a lower saturation and increased value. It reacts the same as it would if you added white to another color when painting. When you make a new tint swatch, it’s connected to the parent color and shows the percentage of color next to the name.  All tints made from the same parent color are linked to the parent.

  1. Select either an object using the global swatch on your page or the global color swatch itself in the Swatches panel.
  2. Now, in the Color panel you can adjust the tint percentage. I’m going to change the percent of “Curtain Color Global” to 47%. 
  3. To make a new swatch, just use the swatch panel menu and click “Create New Swatch”. You can also drag the color to the Swatches panel, or use the New Swatch button on the Swatches panel.

Now I have “Curtain Color Global” and “Curtain Color Global 47%” in my swatches. The tint is a child of the parent global swatch. Changing the color of the parent changes connected objects and also changes the color of the child (tint) swatch.

Ready for the weird bit?

Double-click the color thumbnails of the tint swatch (not the parent) and change the color to blue. What happened?

It changed the parent color, which cascaded down to all connected objects and child swatches. Spot colors, like Pantone colors are meant to be a specific defined ink color. Global Process colors are not. They are more of a placeholder for whatever color you turn them into.


If you edit the color of a tint swatch, it always edits the parent color, which changes all linked tint swatches and any objects that use those swatches. The tint percentage does not change.

Naming your swatches

The point of using Global swatches is that you can change the color and have it update on all shapes using that swatch. This means that it makes NO sense to name a global swatch something like “My Red” unless you will be only tweaking the red color settings and never changing the base hue. “Sneaker Body” or “Trim Color” are much better names for a global color swatch.

Note: If you turn on the global swatch after you’ve used the swatch, you’ll need to reapply the swatch to previous objects to connect them to the global update.

That’s it! Now you can have global updates to colors and tints on even the most detailed drawings.

Quick encore—let’s add Opacity too

Now that you know how Global swatches and their Tint swatches work, let’s add in opacity to make the curtains less hideous before we quit.


  1. Go to the Window Menu and open the Appearance Panel.
  2. Select the curtain panel objects and change the opacity to 75%.
  3. Change the color of the parent swatch.
  4. Resize the curtain panels and duplicate them to add a few more.

Now you’ve got two separate links. When you apply the transparency with the Appearance Panel it will stay on those objects even if you change their shape or associated swatch. When you duplicate them, the global swatch colors AND the opacity settings from appearance are carried over.


Posted on: June 8, 2015

Kirsten Rourke

Applications Trainer for Rourke Training:

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