*** From the Archives ***

This article is from November 13, 2002, and is no longer current.

Illustrator Tips: Organizing Colors and Palettes

Excerpted from “The Illustrator 10 Wow! Book” (Peachpit Press).

Peachpit Press is offering this book at a discount to creativepro.com readers. Follow this link.

As any colorist knows, an organized palette can facilitate the creative process. Artist Jean Tuttle constructs a color chart file in Adobe Illustrator that makes it easy to create several illustrations with the same palette and allows her to work with colors in an intuitive manner, as shown in the image below:

In this story we’ll follow Tuttle’s lead and learn how to: remove default swatches from the Swatches palette; work with printed color swatches to choose initial colors; make a color chart to help organize colors; rename swatches; create color variants and make them into swatches.

1. Clearing the Swatches palette of unused swatches; using swatches of printed colors to choose base colors with which to work. A new Illustrator document opens with a default set of colors in the Swatches palette. When creating a new palette of customized colors, you’ll want to start fresh by removing these default colors.

First, choose File: New to create a new Illustrator document. Next, open the Swatches palette (Window: Swatches) and click on the Show All Swatches icon in the lower left corner of the Swatches palette. To select most of the swatches, click on the pop-up menu icon on the upper right corner of the palette and choose Select All Unused. Click the Delete Swatch icon at the bottom of the palette and choose Yes in the dialog box to delete the selected swatches.

Your goal is to have just four swatches: None, Registration, White, and Black. If you have more than those four swatches remaining in your Swatches palette, delete the extra swatches by dragging them to the Delete Swatch icon at the bottom of the palette. To select multiple swatches to delete, hold down the Shift key as you click on each swatch.

If you think you may want to start with a cleaned out Swatches palette in the future, save this blank document and begin with it next time. If you want to start all of your new documents with a clear Swatches palette, save a copy of this file as Adobe Illustrator Startup_CMYK (or _RGB) in the Plug-ins folder inside the Illustrator application folder. The next time you start up Illustrator and create a new file, the color palette will have your minimalist color set in the Color palette by default.

Color on the screen is not a reliable predictor of the color you’ll get in print. Therefore, start with a computer-to-print color matching system to choose your initial colors. Tuttle selected tear-out swatches in a Pantone Color Specifier as a starting point in choosing colors to consider for her base palette. Then in Illustrator, she opened the Pantone Process Coated color palette (Window: Swatch Libraries) to access the digital version that included the CMYK breakdown of the colors she had chosen. On the Artboard, Tuttle made a column of 12 rectangles, each filled with a color she wanted in her palette. After choosing and using these base colors, she could close the Pantone palette.

Show All Swatches icon; the cluttered default Swatches palette of a new Illustrator document..

Choose “Select All Unused” from the Swatches palette pop-up menu to select most of the colors in the palette; click on the Delete Swatches icon to delete the selected swatches.

To completely clear the Swatches palette, manually drag the extra swatches to the Delete Swatch icon.

The base set of colors used to begin the swatches palette chart.

2. Renaming and reorganizing swatches. Every time she tried a Pantone color, it added to her Swatches palette, so with her Swatches palette open (Window: Swatches) Tuttle next deleted all the colors except those she actually used in her column of rectangles. After making some slight adjustments to the CMYK mixtures, she renamed each base color in the Swatches palette based on its color. Because Illustrator, by default, lists colors alphabetically by name in List View, Tuttle preceded each color name with a letter and number that would automatically group the colors based on her preference.

For example, Tuttle used a3.yel for yellow, b3.oran for orange, and so on. To rename a color swatch in the Swatches palette, first deselect all objects (Select: Deselect) then double-click a swatch name in the Swatches palette to display the Swatch Options dialog window. Type in a new name in the Swatch Name field, and make sure that the Color Type is Process Color. Tuttle disables the Global checkbox when creating colors so that editing a swatch’s color won’t alter the colors in her existing document.

Double-click on a swatch in the Swatches palette to rename it and change other properties. Tuttle included a “3” in each name so that she could add two lighter (1 and 2) versions in step 3.

3. Creating variant colors and making them into swatches. In the list of colors she was building, Tuttle created two columns of lighter variants to the left and one column of darker variants to the right, renaming each swatch to fall correctly into her Swatches palette. She created the lighter variants by using the Saturation filter on an object filled with a base color (Filter: Colors: Saturate) and moving the Intensity slider to the desired position. She created the darker variants by adding 10–15% black to each base color by moving the K slider to the right in the Swatch Options dialog box.

Once you are satisfied with your color variations, select one of the filled objects and Option-click (Mac) /Alt-click (Win) on the New Swatch icon at the bottom of the Swatches palette. Choose a name in the Name field so that it will list alphabetically in the intended position in the Swatches palette, and click OK. Repeat this procedure for each variant-filled object. Save your custom color chart, then use Save As to begin another image with this palette. To access these swatches when the chart isn’t open, choose Window: Swatch Library: Other, then locate your chart document.

A chart made of custom swatches allows future access to the full palette and helps with naming conventions. Column 3 contains the base set of colors in this palette, columns 1 and 2 contain the lighter variants, column 4 contains the darker variant.

Accessing tints with “Global” colors. You can specify tints for global colors in the Swatches palette. If you don’t see the slider for a color, double-click the swatch and enable the “Global” option. You can then use the Tint slider, or enter a tint numerically.

Excerpted from “The Illustrator 10 Wow! Book” (Peachpit Press).

Peachpit Press is offering this book at a discount to creativepro.com readers. Follow this link.


For three decades Sharon Steuer has pioneered the merging of traditional and digital art forms. In addition to being an artist, Sharon is also the author of numerous books, online tutorials and articles including 14 editions of the best-selling Adobe Illustrator WOW! Books (Peachpit Press), Creative Thinking in Photoshop (New Riders), and “Artistic Painting with Illustrator” courses for lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning (now "archived"—ask Sharon for direct links).
  • Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe how hard this tutorial is composed..
    Anyways thanks

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