Ever go out looking for that perfect fabric, paint color, carpet, shirt, eyeshadow, flower, ribbon, or other decorative item to match that room, lamp, tie, lipstick, wedding centerpiece, or dress only to find yourself overwhelmed and confused by the color choices once inside said retail location?
You thought you had a clear picture of the color in your head, but everything disappeared when you set foot in the door and the overly friendly, but well-meaning sales assistant said those 7 anxiety producing words, "What can I help you find today?" Who knew so few words, with so few letters, could cause so much trouble?
This is a constant challenge for me when designing for myself and others. I want to match colors accurately, but I don't want to haul my client's lives all over town. Enter the digital color palate, a customizable and easy way to visualize color schemes for designers and crafters of all kinds.
I'm going to show you how to make a palate in Photoshop, since it is the preferred digital tool for lots of creatives.
Step 1: Select an Inspirational Image for Your Color Story
Choose an inspirational image that has many of the colors you want to work with, or take your own picture of the item(s) that you are trying to color match or color compliment. Photo's often have a lot of color balance and color harmonies (especially those taken of nature), but you can definitely find a great starting point almost anywhere. I use google to find some of my images. The image you choose is going to help you tell a color story.
For the purpose of this tutorial I am going to use a picture that my friend Hatim took. It has a lot of vibrant colors in it, and I'd love to decorate a room for a beautiful party using the color story that I'm about to pull as a guide.
Step 2: Prepare Your Canvas
The first thing you want to do is open up your image in Photoshop, and make some space for the color swatches you're about to create.
- Find the Image Menu
- Click on Canvas Size
- Add several inches to the height (sometimes I even like to double this number depending on the size of the original image.)
- Make sure to adjust the anchor point to the top-center position (by clicking the top-center square), so that the canvas extends below the original image, not all around it.
Step 3: Familiarize Yourself With These Tools
For the purposes of this exercise you will need to know how to use two tools. That's it. It's really easy.
The first is the Eyedropper Tool (or the Chicken Baster Tool, as I like to call it). It looks like both of these objects, and what it does is suck up the color of any pixel you're holding it over as you click the mouse. This is how you will be able to quickly grab colors from your inspiration image for your color story.
The second tool is the Rectangle Tool. You will use this tool to draw swatches that you will fill with the colors selected with the Eyedropper.
If you are having a hard time finding these tools, please use the images above to help you locate them within the toolbar. The Rectangle Tool is nested with several other shape and line tools, just FYI.
Step 4: Make Your First Color Swatch
Now that your canvas is ready and you've familiarized yourself with the tools, you can start making the individual color swatches that will become your color story.
- Select the Eyedropper Tool
- Hover it over a color in the photo that you'd like to use for your color story, and click.
- Notice that the color box in the bottom left corner is filled with the color you've just selected.
- Select the Rectangle Tool and draw an appropriate sized swatch. The color of this first swatch should fill in automatically.
Step 5: Make Additional Swatches
Photoshop makes it easy to create shapes that are completely uniform. This does change the process a tiny bit, so I'll go over the steps needed to make additional swatches for your color story now. This is honestly the most difficult part of this process, but once you get the pattern down you'll have a easy time repeating it.
- Select the Eyedropper Tool and pull a new color from your inspiration image. It should fill the color box in the lower left corner, but you'll have to do something extra to fill the new swatch with this new color.
- Select the Rectangle Tool and hover over your first swatch. You'll see a cross appear. Click and you'll see the Create Rectangle box appear. Press enter or use your mouse to click OK. An exact copy of your first swatch will appear below, and you should see this new swatch highlighted. Go to the fill box in the upper menu and select it. You will see your new color in the left most box of the "Recently Used Colors" section. Select it and your new swatch will fill with your new color.
- Repeat these three steps until you feel you have pulled enough colors to make the kind of color story you want.
Step 6: Edit Your Color Story
I sometimes find it necessary to tweak the swatches in order to accurately represent the colors found in the inspiration image. I also like to edit my color stories down to 5 or 6 essential shades for simplicity's sake. I will go over some editing tips now.
- Use your Eyedropper Tool to select a the color from a swatch you want to edit.
- Double click on the fill box to bring up the Color Picker box.
- Select a new shade.
- Use the Rectangle Tool to fill your existing swatch with the new color.
- Remove any color swatches that don't fit into your vision. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to this, just whatever seems right and fits the mood you're going for.
- Organize the swatches from darkest to lightest, or in some other way that is attractive to your eye.
- Align all swatches.
Step 7: Same Inspiration. Different Story.
Sometimes I like to work with the same inspiration image several times to see how many stories I can come up with. Work with your image until you find a palate that captures everything you want your colors to say.
I've attached all three sample palates to this page in case you'd like to use them for whatever colorful needs you might have.
Step 8: Save and Send
Of the palates that you've created, choose the one that you like best. Save it (I like saving them as JPEG's), and email the image to yourself.
Step 9: Enjoy Your Digital Color Palate
Save the image to your smartphone, and open it up whenever you need to refresh your color memory. Remember, your world is whatever color you want it to be. Make it beautiful.
Love and Enjoy.