Easily create a color palette in Illustrator from a photograph

There's something to be said for a beautiful color palette in a design or art composition. If colors are working in a design, they are instantly pleasing and you may not even notice them. But if colors are wrong, it can make a design stick out like a sore thumb.

Maybe you've been here before: you see a harmonious photograph and you want to replicate the colors somewhere. You may try to recreate the colors blindly from memory or with a reference, or you may try to use an eyedropper to pick out specific colors that capture the essence of the photograph. Neither scenario works out really well unless you're just really good at it. Recreating a color from memory almost never has a good ending. Even using it as a reference doesn't work out well, because your mind has already labeled the color as one thing and so trying to recreate can be difficult without that bias. And while eyedropper seems like the safest method, sometimes there are weird pixels hanging out in the swaths of color that you're looking at and you end up with something muddy or off.

I'd like to say that I'm awesome at color, but it's just not true. In my work, I rely on math to help me figure out palettes. There are the easy ways of building a color palette off of formulas, but sometimes you just want to derive a palette from a pleasing looking photograph.

Good news: there's an awesome tool in Illustrator to help you do just this, and make it fool proof.

Easily create color palettes from photographs in Illustrator

So chances are, even if you're not good at color, you have good taste. You can tell when something looks good versus when it looks loud or confusing or bland. Photographs are usually the best way to communicate a color palette and mood to design clients as well, because they help communicate the message better than plain color fields might.

Step 1: Choose a photograph with a pleasing color palette

Whether you are looking for fresh photographs or you keep a store of them on your hard drive somewhere, find something that works for you for your given project.

I found this photo on Unsplash and I love how the multiple blues play with the off-white background.


On first glance, the photo is blue and cream. But looking further into its layers, there's also the blue buildings in the background, the green of the palm trees and the surfboard, and the various levels of cream as it goes from yellow to bluish grey towards the outside of the sky. Too many choices!

Step 2: Don't fear, open your photograph with Illustrator

Drag your photo into Illustrator. You will see the magic happen very shortly.


Step 3: Open the Crystallize Effects tool

In Illustrator, open your Appearance Panel (go to Window, Appearance or use the keyboard shortcut Shift+F6).

Click on the fx button at the bottom of the panel, then hover over Effects, then choose Crystallize.


In this dialog box, first zoom out until you can see more of your photograph.

in crystallize panel make sure to zoom out

Next, adjust the Cell Size until you get the sizes desired. The bigger the cell size, the more fool-proof your color palette is going to be. Then hit OK.

adjust cell size crystallize

Notice how the photograph is now pixelated in a way that best captures the essence of the photo's colors. The greens are gone, the background of the image has faded away, and you are left with a set of beautiful blues and beiges to build a color palette off of.


Step 4: Expand the effect to flatten the artwork

This is an important step: in order to make the crystallized artwork turn into the flat objects, make sure to go to Object, Expand Appearance. If you don't do this, the effect is only sort of applied to the photograph, and you'll miss out on the benefits of flattening the colors in the photograph to begin with.


Step 5: Build your color palette

Now you can easily grab some of these colors and drop them into the swatches palette in Illustrator.

Open your Swatches window by going to Window, Swatches.

With the eyedropper tool (I), click on the first color you want to pull in. Once you've selected the color, the color will appear in the color picker on the left, and then the New Swatch icon on the Swatches window will be enabled.

choose color to add new swatch

On the Swatches window, click the page icon for New Swatch. Rename it if you want, then hit OK. The swatch will now appear in your swatches window.

add new swatches

Keep cycling through selecting the color with the eyedropper tool and adding new swatches until you've pulled out all the colors you want. Next, select all the swatches you just created (do this by clicking on the first swatch, then holding down Shift and clicking on the second swatch) and click the folder icon to create a new swatch group. When prompted, name it what you want and hit OK.

organize swatches into a group

To make sure you can use the swatch group in other Illustrator files, make sure to hit the library icon (bottom left) and click Save Swatches. That way, when you're in a new document all you have to do is open your Swatches window, click on the library icon, click on User Defined at the bottom of the list, and add the swatch group to the document.


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