Color and Color Management in Photoshop


Color and Color Management in Photoshop

When you work with Photoshop, you notice almost immediately that you have choices to make about color. The choice is presented to you when you create a new file, and it is ever-present the entire time you use the program at the top right of your screen. As you learn to use Photoshop, moving from basic to intermediate knowledge and skill, understanding how to select and use color for print and on-screen purposes is important. Here, we are going to look at some of basics about color, and how to make the best choice for your project.


Color Theory

The first thing to understanding color in Photoshop is to go back to elementary Color Theory. The color wheel, like the one shown, is based off the Primary Pigment Colors, Red, Blue, and Yellow. From these we derive our Secondary Colors – by mixing two Primary Colors – Green, Orange, and Purple. When we then mix a Primary Color with a Secondary Color, we arrive at our Tertiary Colors – Yellow-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green, and Yellow-Green.



The second part of understanding color is understanding how colors work together. Any picture that you create in Photoshop will not be just one color, so it is important to color harmony and what creates a pleasing visual appearance. This will help you match and contrast colors when you are working on your own projects in Photoshop.

Here are a few ways that you can look at how to create colors that please the eye.

  • Analogous Colors. Colors that share similar properties are going to be pleasing to the eye when they are seen together. On the color wheel above, these are going to be colors that are side by side, for example Blue, Blue-Green, and Green. One color will stand out to you, and it will be the primary color you use.
  • Complementary Colors. Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are Complimentary to each other. Red and Green are perfect examples from our wheel, and colors we see in variation in nature all the time. Think of the red rose on the green stem.
  • Monochrome Color. A third way to create colors that please the eye is to choose a single color and then create shades of the color, making it darker or lighter without adding another color to the mixture. From Blue, you can get light blue, medium blue, dark blue, and so on.

These are three of the easiest color combinations to work with. As you begin to master the basics of color, you can move to more advanced combinations as well. Each of the above combinations serves different purposes.

  • Monochrome Colors create a cohesiveness to a design.
  • Analogous Colors keep cohesiveness and unity, but also allow for some color variation.
  • Complementary Colors allow you to draw emphasis to different elements in your design by using color.

Why Do the Same Colors Look Different?

Have you ever noticed that the color red on a web page looks slightly different if you view it on multiple computers? You are not imagining things. Colors do not look the same from computer to computer or monitor to monitor. If you have a computer that you run dual monitors, you can see this very clearly. When you pick up a window that displays a web page or image and move it so that half sits on one monitor, and half on the other monitor, you can see the difference between the color displays. The same red will be brighter on one and darker on the other, for example.

Several factors affect how colors display on the screen. The age of the monitor, resolution, and the color capabilities of the monitor will all determine how a color displays, so that two monitors on the same computer will show color differently.

If you are creating a project on screen to later print, the differences become even more complicated. When you create on the screen and print on your printer can look very different, sometimes leaving you feeling dissatisfied with what you see.

Fine-tuning your color from screen to print becomes a complicated process. You can do two things, however, to help your screen color and print color stay as true as possible.

  • First, calibrate the color on your monitor(s). How to do this varies by your computer and your monitor, so refer to the manufacturer instructions for both to correctly calibrate the monitor. What this will do is ensure that the colors your monitor displays are as “true” as possible.
  • Second, make sure that you are using the correct color mode for what you want to do. Being in the correct mode for print or on-screen display will help you achieve the truest color when you print and when your work is displayed on different screens and systems.

Color Mode

You have two simple ways to choose Color Mode in Photoshop. The first is to select the mode when you create a new project. When you select New you will see Color Mode and a drop-down box. For this tutorial, we will be looking at RGB and CMYK color modes. When you choose the color mode here, it will set it for your project.


If you need to change mode in an existing project, you do that from the top of your screen by selecting Image and Mode. Select the Color Mode for the type of project that you are working on and you have your Mode.




How Do I Know What Color Mode to Use?

The two most common Color Modes you will choose from are RGB color and CMYK color.


RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. If you remember science class in school, you may recall being stumped when your science teacher told you the primary colors of light were Red, Blue, and Green. From art class, since elementary school, you knew that Red, Blue, and Yellow were the Primary Colors (and we mentioned that in Color Theory above as well). In Pigments, Yellow is a primary color because the pigment cannot be broken down into component colors. Green can. In Light, however, Green is the primary color because it cannot be broken down into other color wavelengths.

This distinction is important when we look at electronic color – your monitor display – and physical color, your print. Your monitor display is based upon the light spectrum, so the primary colors and how colors are built will be based upon the light spectrum as well.

When you are creating graphics for digital display, it is important to use the RGB Color Mode. This will help you keep your colors as consistent as possible over multiple displays and systems.


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. In Printing, the only Primary color used for the base printing colors is Yellow. The reasons are complicated, but they culminated in the 4-color process, which commercial printers and your home printer use. These four colors are standardized and easy to reproduce. This makes them cost effective. Printers are designed to combine these colors in different hues and print angles so that the true colors you want in your design are reproduced on the page.

This means that when you are creating graphics for print display you want to ensure that you use the CMYK mode, so your printer knows to combine colors correctly.

Because RGB and CYMK use different base colors to combine and create the spectrum of colors available to you, it is important to choose the correct mode for what your display platform. If you are planning to display both in print and digitally, you will want to have two final files, one in RGB color, and one in CMYK color to ensure that you achieve the colors you want in your final design.

Working with Color Profiles and Color Swatches in Photoshop

Now that we have covered the basics of Color and Color Mode, let us look at Color Profiles and Color Swatches.

Color Profile

You can select your color profile in two ways. The first is to select it when you create a New project. You will select your Color Mode (RGB for Screen projects or CMYK for Print projects) and then under Advanced you will see Color Profile and a drop-down.




What you choose in Color Profile will largely be a matter of preference. Wide-Gamut RGB is good if you are working in RGB color because it will give you a wide range of RGB colors to choose from when you are working.

In the CMYK color mode, what you want will depend on the type of press and paper. If you plan to use a commercial printer, use that printer’s recommendation for the Color Profile. If you are unsure or if you will be printing at home, Web Coated SWOP 2006 Grade 5 Paper is a good for most projects.

If you are in a project already, you have two ways to change your Color Profile.

If you are changing from profiles but staying in the same Color Mode, RGB, or CMYK, then go to Edit and select Assign Profile.


This will bring you to the assign profile window, where you can select the new Color Profile. If you are in RGB Mode, then it will show you selections for RGB, as pictured below. If you are in CMYK, the selections will be for CMYK profiles and will be the same selection that you see when you are selecting the profile when creating a new project.


If you need to chance profiles from one Color Mode to another, then go to Edit and Convert to Profile.


Under Destination Space, you will see Profile and a drop down.


This drop down will let you select from all Color Profiles in all Color Modes. Choose the RGB or CMYK Profile that you would like to work in for your project.


As you learn and practice with Photoshop, play with the different CMYK and RGB profiles, for example choosing the different regional colors, to see how the different color profile work and which you ultimately prefer to work with for your own projects.

Color Swatches

When you are ready to use a color in Photoshop, you can select the color from the Color Swatch.

As you can see at the top right of your Photoshop screen, you have two boxes for colors. The top box is your primary color; the bottom is your secondary color. The primary color is the main color for outlines, while the secondary color will be your fill-in color if you are drawing solid boxes, for example.

To use Color Swatches to change the color, simply click on the box that you want to change the color for and then click on the Swatches subtab above that you see here.


You will go to the swatch that you want to select and left click on it. Nothing will seem to happen. You will only see a dropper.


Go back to the Color subtab. You will see that the color has changed.


You can add swatches to your selection of swatches from a picture you have open.

Select the square you want to change the color for and then go to the left of your screen to the Eyedropper tool.


Your cursor will become an eyedropper. Bring it to the color on your picture that you wish to select. The Eyedropper does not appear in this screenshot, but you will see it on your screen. In the picture below, say that you want to select the blue hue in the iris of the woman pictured.


You simple left click over the blue until you capture the blue you are looking for (it may take a few tries if you have a small area to work with. You will see at the top right that your color box has changed.


Click over to the Swatch subtab and right click over the existing swatches. Choose New Swatch.


You will receive a pop-up screen with a default swatch name. You can keep the default or change the name then click OK. Your custom color will be added to your swatches to select, as you need it.



Using Color Codes

You can also use Color Codes to create color swatches as well. When you enter your color code in the boxes (where you see the numerical values 21, 76, 254) the color box will change. As before, go to your Swatch sub tab to add a new swatch of that color.


This is useful if you have been assigned a project and have been told the color codes to incorporate in the design, if you lift the HTML color code from a website, for example if you use a tool like Get Color to discover the color code from an image on a website.


What Are Color Codes and How Do You Get Them?

HTML Color Codes, RGB Hex Colors, and RGB Dec Colors are just different ways to input the “name” of your color. Names like “Blue” and “Yellow” are far too ambiguous for computers to provide an accurate color. The Code, however, will select a specific hue based on the number or letter value. If you use a tool like Get Color to lift colors from an image, it will provide you all three color codes. In Get Color you simply follow the instruction on the screen. Left click and hold the dropper, bringing it to the color you desire. You will see the color screen on the window change color as you drag the dropper along.


You can input these color codes depending on your preference in Photoshop. You will notice that the digits in the RGB HTML field, #007DC6 are the same digits I the RGB Hex, 00, 7D, C6. This is because Hex color and HTML color are the same codes, put together differently depending on if you need to use the code for creating a website (the HTML code) or for selecting color in a program like Photoshop (the Hex code).

Photoshop defaults to RGB Dec, which for this example is 0, 125, 198.

If you do not know the RGB Dec code for a color, you can change this to RGB Hex. At the top right of the color box you will see four lines and an arrow. Click this and select Web Color Sliders. This will allow you to enter the Hex or HTML color codes that you have obtained.


You simply place your mouse in the desired field, type over the value there, and hit enter.

The order you enter the colors is simple. RGB – Red, Green, Blue, or the R, G, and B fields that are present in Photoshop.

Note: The color box will always show as RGB codes regardless of whether you are in RGB or CMYK Color Mode.

Converting your HTML Color to RGB HEX

If you have HTML Color #B97B3A, and that is all you know for the color you need to use, read the color from left to right, ignoring the #.

The first two digits/letters are Red. The second two digits/letters are Green. The last two digits/letters are Blue. Your RGB Hex Code is B9, 7B, 3A and you will put these codes into their corresponding box, R, G, and B respectively.


Now that you know the basics of how to play with color in Photoshop, it is time to enjoy. Take time to experiment with different Color Modes and Color Profiles to see how they enhance and affect your project. With practice and instruction from your commercial printer, you will find the Profiles that work best for you.