Take command of color

Whether you’re creating a brochure in Apple’s Pages or coding Web pages in a text editor, choosing the perfect combination of colors for your design can be an intimidating process. Professional applications such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop have integrated color pickers that help simplify the process. But they’re not your only options. Mac OS X offers color tools that can help anyone use color more effectively.

One of the most useful is the Colors panel. Once you understand its secrets, you can use the Colors panel to find inspiration, save swatches, and create custom color palettes that you can use again and again.

Gaining access

From most Apple applications (including Keynote and TextEdit), and from many other programs that take advantage of the Colors panel, you open the panel by pressing Command-shift-C. Some third-party applications don’t support the Colors panel, but you can easily work around this limitation—and make the panel accessible at any time—by writing a simple script.

First, open Script Editor (located in the /Applications/AppleScript folder). Type

choose color
in the editor, and then select File: Save As. In the dialog box that appears, set the File Format to Application, enter
Choose Color
in the Save As field, and then select a location for the new application. Finally, click on Save. Now whenever you want to access the Colors panel, simply double-click on the Choose Color application.

Selecting colors

The Colors panel offers five color-selection modes, including a color wheel, sliders, and predetermined palettes. You’ll see them listed in the toolbar at the top of the window. If you’re brainstorming colors, the color wheel is probably your best choice. Simply click anywhere in the wheel, and the selected color appears in the color bar (see top screenshot).

But you’re not limited to getting inspiration from the color wheel. You can sample colors from anywhere on your screen by clicking on the magnifying-glass icon (located beneath the menu bar’s color-wheel icon). Your cursor will turn into a large magnifying glass with a crosshair in the center. As you drag your mouse around the screen, the pixels under the crosshair are magnified. Click on a color to add it to the panel’s color bar. Your cursor will immediately return to normal.

To save a color that appears in the color bar, so you can access it again later, click on the color bar and drag the swatch to the grid at the bottom of the window. To erase a color, drag a blank cell on top of it. If you run out of space in the swatch grid, you can add more rows (up to 10) by dragging the resize button downward.

Sampling an image for inspiration

Perhaps you need to create a color palette that complements a photograph you plan to use on the cover of a brochure. The Colors panel makes this easy.

First, switch to the Image Palettes window (it’s the fourth icon in the toolbar). Here you’ll see colors arranged in a spectrum. To use a photo as your color source, open the Palette pop-up menu and select New From File. Navigate to the photo you want to use, and click on Open. (If you have an image open in another program, such as Preview or iPhoto, you can copy the photo by pressing Command-C. Then switch to the Colors panel and choose New From Pasteboard in the Palette menu.) The image then appears in place of the color spectrum.

You can add as many images as you’d like to the Image Palette. To access previously imported images, open the Image pull-down menu and select the name of the file. If your image has an obscure name—such as Img_0161—you can quickly give it a more memorable name. Select the imported file from the Image pull-down menu, and then choose Rename from the Palette menu.

Once you’ve imported an image, you can use the cursor to sample colors, just as you would in the color wheel. Drag the colors you like to the swatches grid.

Instant Color Scheme Need a quick way to find the dominant colors in a photograph? If you have Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, open the file in the program and select Filters: Pixelate: Mosaic. Adjust the Cell Size setting until the image is reduced to just a few colors.

Don’t have Photoshop? If you’ve installed Tiger’s Developer tools (found on the Mac OS X 10.4 installation disc), you can do the same thing in Core Image Fun House (see “Tiger’s Secret Tools,” Geek Factor, September 2005 ). To open the program, go to /Developer/Applications/Graphics Tools. Select the image you want to sample. Add a Stylize: Pixellate effect and adjust the Scale slider to limit the colors. When you’re done, save the pixelated image and import it into the Colors panel’s Image Palettes window (see bottom screenshot).

Saving a custom color palette

Once you’ve found a color scheme you like, why not save it so you can use it again and again—or perhaps even share it with coworkers?

Build Your Palette In the Colors panel, switch to the Color Palettes window (the third item in the toolbar). Open the List pull-down menu to see a list of the default color palettes. These include the traditional Apple list, a palette designed for software developers who want to match the OS X color scheme, and a list of Web-safe colors.

To create your own palette, select New from the List menu. A new list entry, Unnamed1, will appear. To give it a more meaningful name, select Rename from the List pull-down menu, enter a new name, and click on Rename.

You’re now ready to build your palette. If you’ve saved colors as swatches, simply drag the swatches from the swatch grid into the palette list. You can also use the magnification tool to select any color on your screen, and then drag the color from the color bar into the palette list.

You can rename any color in the palette by selecting it and choosing Rename from the Color pull-down menu. For example, if you plan to use one color for all of your headlines, you might rename it Headline.

Share It Tiger saves your custom color palette in the / your user folder /Library/Colors folder as a .clr file. You can send this file to other Mac users to let them access your color palette—for example, if you’re all working on the same project. They just need to drag the file into the same location on their Macs.

Picking colors is easy with the Colors panel’s color wheel. You can select from any color on your screen by clicking on the magnifying-glass icon (A). To save a color for later use, click on the color in the color bar (B) and then drag the swatch to the grid at the bottom of the window (C). To add more cells to the grid, drag the resize button (D) downward.You can import a photo into the Colors panel to use it as the basis for your color palette (left). To quickly see the dominant colors in a photo, first pixelate it in an image editor (right).

Color companions

Apple’s Colors panel offers five different color modes, but if that isn’t enough to satisfy your eye for color, have a look at these Web resources:

ColorBlender

This free online tool lets you select a base color; then it automatically creates a palette of six matching colors. It’s a great way to get quick color inspiration.

ColourLovers

This site lets you peruse interesting color combinations that others post. It’s a great source of color inspiration and education. You can browse, create, and rate colors and palettes.

Color Scheme Generator 2

This handy Web tool takes your base color and creates color schemes based on one of five color-matching methods—including Contrast, Triad, and Analogic. It also lets you preview how those colors will appear to people who have several different types of color blindness.

Tip

At first glance, it may look as though Microsoft Word doesn’t support OS X’s Colors panel. But it does. In Word’s Formatting palette, choose More Colors from any Color pop-up menu (for instance, under Font, Borders, or Shading). Word will then open the Colors panel and give you access to any custom color palettes you’ve created.

[ Robert Ellis is a freelance writer, a Mac fanatic, and an avid digital photographer. ]

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