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How to Create a Wide Range of Custom Color Swatches in Illustrator

Read Time: 8 mins
This post is part of a series called Design Essentials.
Create a Rationalized, Geometric Wordmark and Ambigram
Designing a Typeface, With Illustrator and FontLab, from Start to Finish - Part 1

Swatches are the life line of any artwork. There are a lot of color books available in Illustrator to discover a wide range of swatches. Most popular among them are the Pantone Color Books and default CMYK and RGB swatches.

In this tutorial, we will learn how to create a wide range of custom swatches using the color blending methods. In the end, we will learn how to organize these swatches into Color groups. Let’s get started!

Final Image Preview

Below are some of the swatches we'll be creating in this tutorial. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS3
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 1 Hour

Step 1: Understanding the Color Blending Methods

Before proceeding towards the meat of the tutorial, let’s have a brief look towards two different types of color blending methods.

Method 1. Color Blend Using Object > Blend > Make

This method blends two or more colored objects by generating a series of intermediate objects between them.

Method 2. Color Blend Using Edit > Edit Color

This method blends three or more colored objects by filling the intermediate objects with graduated blends. It does not create any new object; rather, it divides the color gradually between the selected objects.

For our purpose, we will use the second method in this tutorial. Let’s proceed ahead!

Step 2: Create a Dummy Swatch

Create a new document. With the Rectangle Tool (M), draw a rectangle of 15px by 15px and fill it with 50% K.

Step 3: Create a Swatch Card

Select the rectangle and go to Object > Transform > Transform Each (Alt + Shift + Command + D). Enter 20px for Horizontal move and click on Copy. Next, press Command + D thirteen more times until you see 15 rectangles as shown below.

Step 4: Discovering the Range Between Two Swatches

To find a range of colors available between two given swatches, color the first and last rectangle with those two master swatches respectively. For example, we want to find 13 color swatches between 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow. Color the first rectangle with 100% Cyan and the last rectangle with 100% Yellow, as shown below.

Step 5: Blending the Colors - Normal Blending Using Method 2

Select all rectangles and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Horizontally. You will find 15 different swatches ranging from 100% Cyan to 100% Yellow. You can broaden the range by increasing the number of rectangles.

Note that the middle swatch is not pure green. It is 50% Cyan and 50% Yellow.

Normal blending yields the swatches whose CMYK sum never exceeds the average CMYK sum of the master swatches. To understand it more clearly, let's have a look at the example below.

To get full color range, in which the intermediate swatches are rich in color, we will follow another intensive method in next step.

Step 6: Editing the Swatch Card: Full Color Blending Using Method 2

Grab the swatch card that we created in Step 2. Next, we will specify three master swatches: First, middle and the last. The middle swatch should be the union of CMYK values of the first and the last swatch. To make it more precise, we will consider an example. If M1 has C=100, M=0, Y=0, and K=0, and M3 has C=0, M=0, Y=100 and K=0, then the middle swatch i.e. M2 will be C=100, M=0, Y=100 and K=0.

Tip: The Union of 100% and 100% is treated as 100%, whereas, the union of 30% and 40% is taken as their addition. i.e. 70%. All the additions exceeding 100 are treated as 100.

Step 7

Once the master swatches are defined, select rectangles from M1 to M2 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Horizontally. Next, select rectangles from M2 to M3 and blend them horizontally too. The final output will be a full color range from M1 to M3.

Note that the middle swatch (Green) is a pure combination of 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow. Hence, we get a full color range.

Step 8: Multi Color Blending: The Matrix Method

We have seen two different methods of discovering color swatches – The "Normal Blending" and the "Full Color Blending." To expand more options, we will use the Matrix method. This technique involves the blending of pre-created swatch card with the third set of swatch card. We will use the output of Step 7 to blend with a third color, say, 100% magenta. For this, create six more rows of rectangle sets to form a matrix, as shown below.

Step 9: Define Master Swatches in a Matrix

Select all the rectangles of last row and color them with 100% Magenta. Next, we will define the master swatches for the "Full Color Blending" method.
Note: I will denote each rectangle as RxCy where R and C denotes Row and Column, whereas x and y denotes row number and column number respectively.

Step 10

Select rectangle R4C1 and assign it a CMYK union of R1C1 and R7C1. Next, select rectangle R4C8 and assign it a CMYK union of R1C8 and R7C8. Similarly, select R4C15 and assign it a CMYK union of R1C15 and R7C15. Once the master swatches are defined, we will proceed to blending.

Step 11: Blending the Matrix

Select all rectangles from R1C1 to R4C1 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Vertically. Next, select all rectangles from R4C1 to R7C1 and blend them vertically.

Step 12

Select all rectangles from R1C8 to R4C8 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Vertically. Next, select all rectangles from R4C8 to R7C8 and blend them vertically.

Step 13

Similarly, select all rectangles from R1C15 to R4C15 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Vertically. Next, select all rectangles from R4C15 to R7C15 and blend them vertically. In the next steps, we will follow horizontal blending.

Step 14

Select rectangles from R2C1 to R2C7 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Horizontally. Next, select rectangles from R2C7 to R2C15 and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Blend Horizontally.

Step 15

Repeat Step 14 for each row until you reach to Row 6. The last row need not be blended. After successful horizontal and vertical blending, the end result should look like the one below.

Step 16: Creating Color Groups

Now that the Color Matrix is created, we can organize the swatches of similar kind into Color groups. For this, select all the rectangles of first row and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor with Preset > Color Harmony.

Next, select All from the Colors option and click on the New Color Group icon at the top. The newly created Color Group will appear in the Color Groups section with the name "Artwork Colors."

To rename it, double-click on the name and enter the new name as "Nature." Press OK to continue.

The "Nature Color" Group will appear in the Swatches.

Step 17

Using the same procedure, you can select the swatches of similar kind and organize them into Color groups. I have defined seven Color Groups from this Matrix. They are: "Nature," "Corporate," "Berries," "Aqua," "Kids," "Forest" and "Valentine."

Step 18: Using the Color Guide

Until now, we have created custom swatches and organized them into different Color Groups. We can further play with the harmonies of each Color Group using the Color Guide Panel. For this, select any Color Group in the Swatches panel and go to Window > Color Guide (Shift + F3). You will see harmony variations of the Color Group based on the current fill color in the Tools panel.

Note: There are only three options available for complete transition of the selected Color group with a third Color. They are: Tints/Shades, Warm/Cool and Vivid/Muted.

To get more transitions of a Color Group with custom colors, we can use the Matrix method of Step 8. In the example below, I have shown transitions of the "Nature" Color Group with White and Magenta using the Matrix method.

Conclusion and Scope

For browsing more and more color options, you can select any row or column from the color matrix and blend it with the third set of color using the procedure described in this tutorial. The "Normal Color Blending" is useful in finding shades of a single swatch, whereas "Full Color Blending" is effective in finding the multiplied output of two swatches.

The Matrix method is another effective procedure to broaden the possibilities. All these methods are experimented for on-screen view of CMYK colors only, and does not guarantee printing in a proper gamut. I will still follow Pantone color books when it comes to standard printing. I hope you like this custom technique of creating and organizing swatches!

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