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Photoshop Training: Lesson #3 - Introduction to Color

Updated on March 21, 2013

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Level: Novice ◊

This picture contains a million different colors!
This picture contains a million different colors! | Source

In the last lesson, we learned how to create a new image to work in. So, of course, we need the paint! And by paint, we mean color. And there are a lot of colors to choose from.

By using the default 8-bit RGB color mode, Photoshop and your computer monitor can render up to 16.7 million colors per pixel. 16,777,216 to be exact. If you set your color mode to 16-bit, or Lab color, there's even more to choose from. There's even colors in there that the human eye can't see!

So, with so many possibilities, how do you choose your colors?

Your Foreground and Background Colors
Your Foreground and Background Colors

Foreground and Background:

The first time you open up Photoshop, no matter what version, you'll see a pair of little black and white squares in your toolbox. Those are your foreground and background colors.

Photoshop uses the foreground color for painting and text, and the background color to make gradients and fill in erased areas on a background layer. The foreground and background colors are also used by some filters, which we'll get to in a later tutorial.

RGB versus CMYK
RGB versus CMYK

You'll probably want to use something other than black and white at some point in your artistic career, and Photoshop has several ways you can choose the colors you want.

As we touched on last time, you can select different color modes for your canvas. The mode you choose will affect what colors you'll have available. So a color you choose in RGB mode may be adjusted or altogether vanish if you switch to another mode.

Color Picker

Once you've chosen the color mode you plan on using, it's time to choose the specific colors. I tend to use the Color Picker to select my palette, because it gives me the most choices, and I'm a big fan of color choices. Still, it's all those choices that can make something as simple as choosing a nice red become a bit of a challenge.

To open the color picker, go to the toolbar and click on either the foreground or background color. A new window will pop up.

(If you don't have Photoshop right at hand, follow along with this web-based version.)

Photoshop Color Picker (CS2 Version)
Photoshop Color Picker (CS2 Version)

(Note: In CS5 and later, you can assign a shortcut to open the Color Picker for your foreground color by going to “Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts.”)

There are three main areas of the color picker. I've highlighted them in the picture above:

  • (A) The color field and slider

  • (B) Color information

  • (C) Color values

Color Field and Slider:

The color field and slider are how you choose your color. Move the little arrows on the slider, and the color field will change to match.

How does the color field work? Well, by default, the color field/slider are in the Hue mode. That means that you choose your base color - or hue – in the color slider, and then adjust it for brightness and saturation in the color field using the little circle.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Extra Credit - Color Theory:

Hue, brightness, and saturation are the computer version of basic painting color theory. Hue refers to the pure shade of a color, which you'll find in the upper right corner of your color field. All of the other colors on the field are tones of that hue.

The further you move to the right, the lower the saturation is – this is the same as mixing white into your hue to create a tint. The further you go down, the lower the brightness is – this is the same as mixing black into your hue to create a shade.

The benefit of using computers rather than actual paint is that we don't have to worry about the pigments shifting hue when mixing the color we want.

Color Information and Warnings
Color Information and Warnings

Color Information:

This little square gives you a brief blurb of information based on the color you've picked. The bottom rectangle is the color you started with. The top rectangle is the color you've currently chosen.

Sometimes, depending on the color you've chosen, you'll see some warnings pop up next to a little square. Don't worry, you didn't do anything wrong.

The first warning shows up as “Warning: out of gamut for printing.” That means that the color you've chosen can't be printed. That is, the CMYK inks can't blend to that exact color, so it'll give you the closest approximation it can.

The second warning (which you'll see a lot more often) is “Warning: not a web safe color.” Honestly, you don't have to worry about this warning. It does not mean that websites will only display those colors.

Web safe colors are a relic from the days where monitors could only produce 256 colors, 216 of which were “web safe.” That is, they were constant no matter what platform you were using. Nowadays, even phones can render millions of colors, so web safe colors are practically unused.

If you want to work only in those 216 colors, you can check the “Only Web Colors” box beneath the color field.

But say you want to use a color that works better for print? That little suggestion is all well and good, but you can't just click around until you get it, right? Actually, you can. If you click on any of the colors here, other than the one you've currently selected, the color field will automatically load that color.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The out-of-gamut warning pops on the little square......and your new color is automatically loaded.
The out-of-gamut warning pops up...
The out-of-gamut warning pops up... on the little square... on the little square...
...and your new color is automatically loaded.
...and your new color is automatically loaded.
Additive RGB Color
Additive RGB Color | Source

Color Values:

Now we're going to look at the part of the color picker that's probably used even less than web safe colors – color values.

Every color you can possibly pick can be broken down into its color values. These values are like the recipe for that color. The higher the number (or percentage), the higher that particular value will be in the color.

For example, in RGB, a pure red will have a value of 255 red, 0 green, and 0 blue. Pure blue is 0 red, 0 green and 255 blue.

The odd man out of the formula is the hexadecimal field. If you have some web programming experience, this will look familiar to you. As the name implies, every color has a six-digit code. You can use this code on webpages or to quickly pull up the color you have in mind.

(click column header to sort results)
Common Color Values in HSB, RGB, and Hexadecimal

Now that we've covered the color picker, there's two other options Photoshop gives us for choosing our colors. On the right side of your workspace, you'll see a little window that contains your color palette and your swatches.

Photoshop Color Palette
Photoshop Color Palette

Color Palette

By default, you'll find the color palette on the right side of your workspace. Also by default, it uses the RGB color mode, regardless of the mode you're working in.

In practice, the color palette is a scaled-down version of the color picker, with the colors all squeezed into that little bar. So you can pick your colors much faster, in exchange for some accuracy. If you know the exact values of the color you want, though, you can type them in directly.

Creating a New Swatch
Creating a New Swatch


On the tab right next to the color palette are the swatches. Swatches are similar to the traditional artist's palette. The colors are already chosen and set for you, and you can pick them as you please. You can also save any color you have as your foreground by simply clicking the empty area next to a swatch.

If you're working on a project where you'll be using the same colors multiple times – say, a webcomic, or fashion design – having your colors saved to swatches can save you a lot of time.

You can find and download swatch sets online. Here's a list of some of my favorites:

Skin Tone Swatches

Hair Color Swatches

Complementary Color Swatches (Good for website design!)

Tips, Tricks, and Troubleshooting:

  • What keyboard shortcuts should I know?

Shortcut (Windows)
Shortcut (Mac)
Switch Foreground/Background colors
Return colors to default black/white
Choose a Background color from Swatches
Ctrl+Right Click
Cmd+Right Click
Click thumbnail to view full-size
RGB Color PickerLab Color PickerSaturation Color PickerWindows Color Picker
RGB Color Picker
RGB Color Picker
Lab Color Picker
Lab Color Picker
Saturation Color Picker
Saturation Color Picker
Windows Color Picker
Windows Color Picker
  • My color picker doesn't look anything like that!

You've opened your color picker and it looks nothing like the one in the tutorial. You see a rainbow, multiple colors, or even something out of Microsoft Paint!

Your color picker is in the wrong mode. Looking at the color values section, you'll see little circles next to several values. The default mode is to select Hue (or H). Other selections will make your color picker change to the value selected.

If your picker is completely different, it's likely in the system default. Hit Ctrl (or Cmd)+K to open preferences and change your color picker to “Adobe.”

  • What does that Color Libraries button do?

Color Libraries are colors that are very specifically matched colors that are used in commercial printing. You can load them up as swatches as well.

  • The word “color” doesn't seem like a real word anymore!

Turn off your computer, pick up a box of crayons, and doodle for a bit until the word leaves your head. Then go back to Photoshop.

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    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      I am able to learn it step by step by viewing your tutorial here. They are great for any beginner as well as a refresher course for any users of Photoshop.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I have often had difficulty using the color palette. There is so much more control than I actually take advantage of. Your hub has been extremely helpful to me as I now understand much more of what I can do and how to do it. Voted up.

    • beingwell profile image


      6 years ago from Bangkok

      Voted up, amadaun. Thanks for this informative hub. It's been a while since I've used photoshop in my edits. This'll help a lot of beginners to appreciate the program.

    • prospectboy profile image

      Bradrick H. 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Awesome writing, and another great lesson. You really know your material when it comes to Photoshop. Voted up, and rated useful.

    • LauraD093 profile image

      Laura Tykarski 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

      I love photoshop and this hub will help me increase my use of color-very well organized thanks

    • LisaMarie724 profile image

      Lisa Stover 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

      This is a great one, I need to bookmark this and come back here for reference. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      6 years ago from Athens, Greece

      What a wonderful job you've done, Amadaun! Some wonderful hubs - now I can actually understand what Photoshop is all about! Voted up and useful! Cheers!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for your offer. Over the years my main use of Photoshop was to touch up signatures that people had given to be for inclusion on letters and other documents. I became very good at that. I also use it to in increase the dpi on photos when needed. That process has improved a lot over they years. I think I started with Photoshop 3.5, learned the basics and did not go into the advanced areas for lack of time and need.

    • Amadaun profile imageAUTHOR

      Emily Velenovsky 

      6 years ago

      @Larry: Thanks for your advice! I'm still getting the hang of Hubpages, but I think I'm getting better with links. I'm still not sure what's acceptable and what's over-linking. I do like your suggestion for the summary at the end - I'm definitely going to do that.

      I wouldn't call it lack of talent, just lack of practice! You don't need huge artistic talent for a lot of the photo editing available. Unless you're doing digital painting, anyone can become a Photoshop pro.

      If you have a particular tutorial request (like using text), please feel free to ask. My next hub (thanks to sudden inspiration) is going to be written directly for Hubbers and image retouching, so the more requests, the better!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      6 years ago

      Photoshop is an outstanding program. I have used it for years, but do not claim to be a master of it, and since I am using it less and less, a result of being unemployed, I am falling way behind the curve. My problem with Photoshop has always been associated with the layers containing text. I never feel pleased with those efforts. That is probably a result of my lack of talent. Your series is good. I would suggest you link the lessons by number and topic and not just previous or next. Furthermore, when you are finished, you may want to do a summary of the key issues and in which hub the subject matter can be found.


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