Every time Adobe bring out a new version of Photoshop I think ‘this is perfect, how could it ever be better’ and every time they release an updated version they make it better than the last without breaking anything. It’s truly a great program, and if I could only use one art application for the rest of my life… well you can guess what that would be. With that said, Photoshop still has one niggling and very basic weakness. It’s handling of Swatches.
For those of you that don’t know, a swatch is nothing more than a colour reference, and a ’swatch set’ is just a library of swatches (i.e. a library of colours). In Photoshop a swatch is represented by a little square of solid colour that lives inside the Swatches pallet. For someone using Photoshop to create colour-critical art, swatches are a great idea. Imagine you’re designing a website and you’ve decided on a colour scheme. Your backgrounds will be a very pale green, your headings are to be an electric blue, and all your hyperlinks will be a particularly fetching shade of orange. If you don’t use swatches you’ve got to remember the hex-value for those particular shades whenever you need them. Or you can be smart and use swatches to ensure you always get exactly the right colour whenever you need it. You want the heading you just wrote in black text to become the right shade of blue? Just select the heading with the type tool and then click on the ‘heading’ swatch in the swatches palette - job done.
Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice using swatches in Photoshop is a bit of a pain in the ass. Photoshop ships with a large selection of swatch-sets, so you can see the web-safe colours, or the Windows system palette for example. Not that useful to me. What I really want is to create a new (blank) swatch set for the document I’m working on, and have the set embedded into the document on save - so whoever has my Photoshop file has my swatch set. Sadly there’s no easy way to create a new swatch set, and the set itself lives in your Photoshop directory and not in the document itself. This makes swatches redundant for me, and I never use the swatch pallet purely because of the way Photoshop handles swatches.
OK, so the idea of a little library of key colours is great, but the way Photoshop handles swatches makes it far too painful a technique to use and we all promptly close the swatches palette and pretend it never existed. Here’s how I get the benefits of document-embedded swatches without actually using the swatches palette - I create a ’swatches’ layer-set in the document.
It’s stupidly simple, but works a treat. I create a layer set which sits at the top of the layer stack, so it will always be in the foreground when it’s visible. Inside the layer set is a white background layer (at the bottom of the set), above that is the ‘colours’ layer, and above that a type layer. I draw a little 20px square on my ’swatch’ layer and fill it with the swatch colour I want to save. If I want another swatch I’ll draw another 20px square exactly 2px below the first and fill it with the new colour. If I make sure the line-height on my type layer is 22px, then the text will always line up with the box I draw. Once my swatch colours are finalised I just lock the layer set so I can’t accidentally edit any of them. If I need to colour pick from my swatches I make the layer set visible, otherwise I just leave it invisible and it stays out of my way.
The layers palette with the swatch layer-set at the top.
The swatch-set in action.