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The Ultimate Guide to Adobe Illustrator Swatches

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What You'll Be Creating

In today's article, we will be talking about one of Illustrator's most underrated tools, the Swatches panel.

From simple questions such as "What are Illustrator swatches?" and "How to add a swatch in Illustrator" to more advanced ones such as "How to create swatches in Illustrator" or "How to open swatches in Illustrator", I will do my best to answer each and every one of them.

By doing so, we will learn all about Illustrator color swatches, gradient swatches, and even Illustrator pattern swatches, and see exactly how to get swatches in Illustrator.

For simple things such as how to open a swatch library in Illustrator, how to add color swatches in Illustrator, to how to create a gradient swatch in Illustrator, or how to handle the Illustrator pattern swatches download process, you will get a clear example so that you can then do it yourself.

We will explore the available Illustrator swatch libraries and see how to add new ones, so that, for example, if you need to add custom Illustrator GCMI color swatches or Illustrator hair color swatches, you should be able to do it all on your own.

Whether you want to create a gold gradient Illustrator swatch, figure out the Adobe Illustrator gradient swatches download process, the Adobe Illustrator pattern swatches download process, how to make a fabric swatch in Illustrator, or maybe how to make a pattern swatch in Illustrator, this article should prove to be the exact resource that you were looking for.

1. What Are Swatches?

As with every new learning curve, we first need to take a couple of moments and try to define the concept, so that we can have a better understanding of what it stands for.

According to the online version of the Oxford Dictionary, a swatch is:

A small sample of fabric intended to demonstrate the look of a larger piece.

In our case, we can think of swatches as predefined colors, gradients, and/or patterns, found within an Adobe Illustrator document, that we can apply to any given shape.

The software itself comes with its own dedicated Swatches panel, which stores and controls all of the current document’s colors, gradients, and patterns, making it easier to access them when working on a project.

swatches panel preview

2. How to Access the Swatches Panel

If you’re new to Illustrator, then it might take you a while until you get familiar with the location of its different tools and panels.

If that’s the case, you need to know that the Swatches panel can be found within the right-side panel groups, but it will only be visible as long as you’re using the Essentials Classic workspace.

If you prefer using the default Essentials workspace, then you can easily access the panel by heading over to Window and then clicking on Swatches.

By default, each new document you create comes with a default set of swatches, which as you can see can be standalone or grouped, but more on that in a few moments.

locating the swatches panel

3. How to Adjust the Swatches Panel View

Now that we have the panel front and center, let’s see how we can actually adjust it so that we can have a better view of its different available swatches.

3.1. The Thumbnail View

By default, the panel uses the Thumbnail View, which as you can see gives us a clear overview of all the different available colors, gradients, and patterns.

example of using the default thumbnail view

Depending on the number of active swatches, we can improve the selection process by increasing or decreasing the size of their thumbnails. Just open up the panel’s advanced options menu and click on one of the three available options.

adjusting the size of the thumbnails

3.2. The List View

The second view mode is called the List View, which we can switch to by clicking on the little button found next to the default Thumbnail one. When we do so, the panel will adjust, giving us more details in regards to the color type (spot color/process color), RGB/CMYK values, etc.

example of using the list view

As with the Thumbnail View, you can adjust the size of the preview by opening the panel’s advanced options menu, and then choosing between its two available settings.

adjusting the size of the list view

Now, personally I usually work within the RGB color space, which means that I don’t really need the more detailed List View, but if you do need more details, it might be a better alternative, especially when it comes to print design.

4. How to Filter Swatches Based on Type

By default, the panel displays all the available swatch types (colors, gradients, patterns, groups), but what if we wanted to filter them so that it would only display a certain type, e.g. patterns?

Well, we can easily do so, by clicking on its Show Swatch Kinds menu, which can be found within the bottom section of the panel, and then choosing from its five different available options.

example of filtering the swatch types

5. How to Search Swatches

If we want to filter our swatches based on the color/gradient/pattern or group’s name, we can easily do so by turning on the Show Find Field, which should prove to be a fast targeting method as long as we know them by heart.

example of using the show find field

6. How to Use a Swatch

At this point, we’ve spent most of our time talking about the Swatches panel, but how does one actually go about using swatches?

Well, to use a swatch, whether it’s a color, gradient, or pattern, first we have to select a shape or group of shapes, and then all we have to do is click on the desired swatch, which should immediately apply it to the Fill and/or Stroke.

example of using a swatch on a shape

7. How to Find the Advanced Swatch Libraries

As Adobe points out, Swatch libraries are collections of preset colors, including ink libraries such as Pantone, HKS, Focoltone, DIC, and Toyo, and thematic libraries such as camouflage, nature, Greek, jewel tones, etc.

If this is your first time using the Swatches panel, you might think that those initial swatches are the only ones that the software comes with, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, Illustrator comes packed with a hefty set of swatch libraries, as we will see in the following moments.

Assuming you already have the panel up, click on its little Swatch Libraries menu, located in the bottom-left corner, which should bring up a dropdown menu, where you’ll find a collection of 21 categories, some of which come with their own subcategories indicated by the right-facing arrow.

example of locating the advanced swatch libraries

As soon as you click on one of the swatch libraries, the software will bring up a separate new window (the swatch library panel), where you’ll find all of its different available colors/gradients/patterns from which you can then choose.

You can easily navigate between the different available swatch libraries using the left and right directional arrow buttons.

example of opening up a default swatch library

8. How to Add Color Swatches in Illustrator

Compared to regular swatches, swatch libraries come in a separate panel, which means that they are not actively saved within the document.

If we take a closer look, we’ll notice that each color swatch library comes with swatches grouped inside color groups, while the gradient and pattern ones come as individual standalone values.

If we want to add a specific color group from a swatch library to the Swatches panel, we can easily do so by clicking on the little folder icon found in front of it, from within the swatch library’s panel.

example of adding a swatch library to the swatch panel

Once added, the library will be part of the current document’s “default” swatches, which means that as long as you save the changes, you won’t have to load it again.

If we want to add a gradient or pattern swatch from within the library panel, we can easily do so by first selecting it, and then simply dragging it over to the Swatches panel.

example of adding an individual swatch from the library

By default, every time you close the software, the swatch library panel will disappear, but if you need to, you can easily change this by opening up its advanced options menu and then enabling the Persistent option.

example of using the persistent option

9. How to Create a New Swatch

At this point, we’ve taken a quick look at the available swatches found in Illustrator, but what if we wanted to create new ones of our own?

Well, the process itself is actually really simple, as we will get to see in the following moments.

9.1. How to Create a Color Swatch

Since color swatches are basically custom defined values that are associated with an individual document, this means that we can always add new ones, but they will only be visible within that particular document.

The Click-and-Drag Method

In order to create a new color swatch, we first have to select the color from within the Color Picker / Color panel, or a custom colored shape, which we will then drag into the Swatches panel.

For example, let’s create a small circle, which we will color using a light purple, more exactly #8086F9. We can easily turn the color into a swatch by dragging the circle itself over the panel, or we can click and then drag its color directly from the Color Picker / Color panel, which will produce the same result.

creating a new color swatch using the click-and-drag method

The New Swatch Button Method

Of course, we can always create the swatch directly from the Swatches panel, by simply selecting the color from within the Color Picker / Color panel or shape, and then using the New Swatch button, which will bring up a new window giving us a couple more options.

For example, we can assign a custom name to our swatch and then adjust its color’s settings such as Color Type and Color Mode.

When it comes to Color Type, we can choose between:

  • Process Color: which Adobe defines as a print value using a combination of the four standard process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), and which is the default swatch color type
  • Spot Color: which is a premixed ink that is used instead of or in addition to CMYK process inks

We can also define the swatch as a Global color, which is really helpful when it comes to recoloring your artwork, since once you adjust the value of the color it will automatically update all the objects that use it, without you having to manually select them.

As for Color Mode, we can choose either RGB, which is a digital colorspace, or CMYK, which is intended for print.

Finally, we have the option of adding the new color swatch to our Creative Cloud Library, but for this example I’m going to leave that one out.

Depending on what type of project you’re working on, you’ll have to adjust these options as needed, and then once you’re done, simply hit OK.

example of creating a swatch using the new swatch button

As soon as we hit OK, our new color swatch will be added to the Swatches panel, being positioned underneath the individual swatches.

example of newly created swatch

Quick tip: If we need to, we can always adjust any of the above settings at any point, by simply double-clicking on the swatch and then carrying them out.

9.2. How to Create a Gradient Swatch

When it comes to creating a gradient swatch, the process is pretty much identical.

All you have to do is select the desired gradient (using either the Color Picker / Color panel or the actual shape), and then add it to the Swatches panel using either the click-and-drag method or the New Swatch button.

The only difference between the two methods is that if we use the latter, a new window prompt will appear giving us the ability to assign a custom name to our gradient, but you can always change later on by simply double-clicking on the swatch itself.

example of creating a gradient swatch

9.3. How to Create a Pattern Swatch

Compared to the previous two swatch types, patterns require you to go through a slightly different process, at least for the second method, as we will see in the following moments.

The Click-and-Drag Method

The easiest way to create a pattern swatch is to select and then drag it into the Swatches panel, which will immediately add it to your current library.

example of creating a pattern swatch using the click-and-drag method

The only downfall of this method is that in some cases you’ll have to fine tune the pattern afterwards by double-clicking on it from within the panel, since otherwise it might behave differently from how you would expect.

example of adjusting a pattern swatch created using the click-and-drag method

The Make Pattern Method

The second method relies on going through the process of creating an actual pattern, which is always stored as a swatch within the Swatches panel.

All you have to do is create the main design for your repeating pattern segment and then, with it selected, simply go to Object > Pattern > Make, which should bring up the Pattern Options window.

Once you’re happy with the result, all you have to do is hit Done, and your new pattern swatch should be added to the Swatches panel.

example of creating a pattern swatch using the make pattern method

10. How to Remove a Swatch

At this point, we’ve learned how to create a swatch, but how about removing one?

Well, the process of removing a swatch is, as one would expect, really easy.

Whether it’s a color/gradient or pattern one, we can easily do so by first selecting the desired swatch or swatches, and then simply clicking on the little Delete Swatch button.

We can remove any of the newly created swatches as well as any of the default ones.

example of removing a swatch

11. How to Adjust the Position of a Swatch

If we need to, we can always adjust the position of a given swatch by first selecting it, and then simply holding and then dragging it to the desired position.

By doing so, we can easily customize our Swatches panel to our needs, so that we can take full advantage of it once we start working on our project.

example of adjusting the position of a swatch

12. How to Create a Swatch Color Group

When it comes to keeping track of our different swatches, color groups can prove to be of great help, since they allow us to make associations between multiple color values based on our own needs.

Whether we’re aiming to create a group based on harmonies or just want to round up multiple swatches together, we can easily do so using two easy methods.

Before we begin, I wanted to point out that groups only work with colors, so make sure you keep that in mind when building a custom group.

12.1. How to Create a Color Group Using Swatches From Within the Panel

The first method assumes that your colors have already been turned into swatches, which means that all you have to do is select them from within the Swatches. To do so, press and hold the Control key and then click on the swatches that you want to add to your current selection, and once you’re done, simply use the New Color Group button.

example of creating a color group using created swatches

The software will then ask you to assign a custom name for your group, which I strongly recommend you do.

Once you hit OK, it will immediately add your new color group to the panel, which as you can see will be indicated by the little folder icon found in front of it.

example of created color group using color swatches

12.2. How to Create a Color Group Using Shapes

The second method assumes that you haven’t created the swatches yet, which means that you’ll have to select the shapes carrying the actual colors and then use the Swatches panel’s New Color Group button to perform the same task.

example of creating a new color group using shapes

13. How to Add a New Color Swatch to a Color Group

Once a color group has been created, you can easily add new swatches to it by simply selecting and then dragging them over.

example of adding a new swatch to an existing color group

14. How to Remove a Color Swatch From a Color Group

To remove a color swatch from the group, all you have to do is select it and then, depending on whether or not you want to keep it within the Swatches panel, you can either drag it out of the group or remove it completely by using the Delete Swatch button.

example of removing a swatch from an existing color group

15. How to Edit a Color Group

If you need to, you can always edit an existing color group by either double-clicking on its little folder icon or by using the Swatches panel's Edit Color Group button.

editing a color group using the edit color group button

No matter which method you end up using, the software will bring up a new Edit Colors window, giving you the option of changing the group's name, as well as the ability to adjust the colors either individually or in relation to one another using Harmony Rules.

example of editing a color group

Once you're happy with the adjustments, simply hit OK and your color group's swatches should immediately be updated.

example of adjusted color group

16. How to Delete a Color Group

When it comes to removing a color group, the process itself is kind of interesting, since instead of removing the entire group, the software breaks it up, keeping its composing color swatches within the panel.

To delete a group, simply select its little folder icon, and then open up the Swatches panel's advanced options menu and use the Delete Color Group option.

Quick tip: you can also use the Delete Swatch button, which will pretty much do the same thing.

how to delete a color group

As soon as you use the option, the composing color swatches will be ungrouped, giving you the ability to either continue keeping them within the panel or remove them completely, depending on what you might want to do.

example of deleted color group

17. How to Create a Custom Swatch Library

At this point, we’ve seen how we can add new swatches and remove those that we might not need, but how about creating a custom one from scratch?

Well, guess what, you actually can, and it might prove to be really helpful since you can establish a clear selection of the colors, gradients and/or patterns that you might find yourself using more often.

So how do we actually create one?

Step 1

First, we need to get rid of all the colors that aren’t currently being used by any of the shapes from within the document.

To do this, simply open up the Swatches panel’s advanced options menu, and then use the Select All Unused option to target them.

As you can see, in this example I have four colored squares, which haven’t been added to the selection, since their colors are actively being used.

Another thing that I wanted to point out is that, even though neither the white or black swatches are currently in use, the software keeps them, in case you might actually want to use them. For this example, I’m going to be removing those as well.

example of selecting all unused swatches

Step 2

With the swatches selected, we can now remove them using the Delete Swatch button, which will give us a nice, clean foundation for our custom swatch library.

example of removing unused swatches

Step 3

While I’m not going to be creating the largest swatch library, I do want to include a couple more colors, so I’m going to create a second row of squares and then assign different colors to them—maybe some lighter versions of the ones that I currently have.

example of creating a second row of colored squares

Step 4

As soon as I’m done creating the actual colors that I want to use, I can then add them to the Swatches panel by opening up its advanced menu again and using the Add Used Colors option, which as you can see, will only add those that haven’t already been turned into swatches.

example of creating new swatches using the add used colors option

Step 5

Once we’ve created the color swatches, we can easily group them into a second color group by selecting them in the panel and then using the New Color Group button.

example of creating a second color group

Step 6

All we have to do now is save our custom swatch library by opening up the Swatches panel’s Swatch Libraries menu, and then clicking on Save Swatches… which will then ask us for a location to save the file, allowing us to give it a custom name.

example of saving a custom swatch library

18. How to Load a Custom Swatch Library

When creating a custom swatch library, you should keep in mind that if you clear out the default values found in the Swatches panel, the new ones will take their place.

This means that for that particular document, every time you close and then open it up back again, it will always display the same custom created swatches.

Open up a different document, and you’ll quickly notice that the default swatches will take their place.

If you want to use a custom created swatch library, within a different document, you’ll have to manually load it up.

To do this, simply open up the panel’s Swatch Libraries menu, and then go to User Defined where you should find your custom created library.

example of loading a custom created swatch library

19. How to Load a Downloaded Swatch Library

In some cases, you might find yourself downloading external swatches created by different individuals, which you’ll probably want to add to your existing collection.

The best way to do this is to save the file within a custom resources folder, and then load it up by opening up the panel’s Swatch Libraries menu, clicking on Other Library, and then manually locating that specific folder and its contents.

example of loading a downloaded swatch

That's It!

Now that we've reached the end, I truly hope you've found this article useful and managed to learn something new and exciting along the way.

Expand Your Adobe Illustrator Skills!

Just started out using Adobe Illustrator, but feel that you haven't quite gotten the hang of it?

Well, if that's the case, I've taken the time to put together this little list which should keep you going for the following days!

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