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.
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.