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How many times have you found the perfect piece of artwork but the colors weren’t exactly what you had in mind? In reality, whether you’re a buyer or a content creator, you often want to make color changes in a file. I’m not referring to global changes, like a Hue shift in Photoshop, rather, precise color changes to specific parts of an illustration. In general, vector-based artwork can be particularly difficult to edit in this fashion, as there are often many objects in each file, each with various colors, tints, and gradients, resulting in a tedious manual process.

The good news is, if you have a copy of Adobe Illustrator CS3 or CS4, you can easily modify colors at will, with the Recolor Artwork feature. In this article, you’ll explore two common tasks involving color changes: First, you’ll modify certain colors in the illustration to fit your needs, and second, you’ll convert a full color illustration to grayscale for one-color printing.

Figure 1. (left to right) Original art, hair and eye colors changed, colors converted to grayscale.

Changing Specific Colors

Save a copy of the document. It’s always best to make edits in a new file, so that you can always return to the original, if needed. Choose File > Save As and give your file a new name. Alternatively, you can just create a copy of art within the same document, or even just duplicate the artboard, if you’re using Illustrator CS4.

Define new colors. When working with the Recolor Artwork feature, life is easier when you make preparations in advance. In this specific example, changing the color of the woman’s hair and eyes are in order, so you can create two new color swatches. If you need to work with spot colors, you can add Pantone colors by clicking on the Swatch Libraries Menu icon in the Swatches panel and choosing Color Books. For the ultimate in convenience, organize your colors into groups by selecting swatches and clicking New Color Group in the Swatches panel.

Figure 2. Creating color groups makes it easier to manage colors.

Select your artwork. The Recolor Artwork feature works on selected art, so you’ll want to make sure that no artwork is locked. If it is, you’ll have to unlock the art and then select it. With the art selected, launch the Recolor Artwork feature by choosing Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork. Alternatively, click on the Recolor Artwork feature in the Control panel.

Figure 3. Launching the Recolor Artwork feature from the Control Panel in Illustrator.

Deconstruct the Recolor Artwork dialog box. The Recolor Artwork dialog box contains many different functions—and covering them all is beyond the scope of this article (a good portion of the color chapter of my book is dedicated to this feature as a whole). But let’s focus on performing the task at hand.First, the Recolor Artwork dialog has two modes, Edit and Assign, and buttons near the top of the dialog allow you to toggle between them. Both modes display the colors that are currently found in your selection, but they do so in very different ways. The following analogies may help you better visualize how they can be used.

The Edit mode presents a color wheel with little circles placed upon it. Think of the Edit mode as Google maps, where the color wheel is the map, and the little circles are the pins that indicate where each color lives.

Figure 4. In the Edit tab of the Recolor Artwork dialog, colors appear as circles mapped on a color wheel.

The Assign mode presents each color in your selection as a list. Think of the assign mode as a telephone book, where each color is listed by name.

Figure 5. In the Assign tab of the Recolor Artwork dialog, colors appear in a list.

In my experience, I’ve seen countless demos and tutorials of this feature, and everyone seems to love the spin the colors around the color wheel in Edit mode, but rarely do you see anyone spend any time in the Assign mode. The true power to this feature, though, is learning how to use BOTH modes in harmony.

Reduce the number of colors in your artwork. Start in the Assign mode of the Recolor Artwork dialog. A quick glance tells you the total number of colors that appear in your selected artwork. Each color appears in its own row, representing a simple color equation: [Current Color] [Changes to] [New Color]. By default, Illustrator matches the New Color to each Current Color, so no color changes appear in your artwork just yet.

In this example, you want to change specific colors in the artwork (just the hair and the eyes), and manually adjusting and working with all of the colors individually isn’t very intuitive. This is especially true in this example, considering that the hair is made up of gradients, with different subtle shades of color. Instead, you will have Illustrator quickly identify all of the colors used in specific areas, allowing you to work with them easily.

To get a better idea of how Illustrator can do this for you, take a look at the “map” by switching to the Edit mode or the Recolor Artwork dialog. Each of the colors (27 in this example) appear as circles on an HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) color wheel. Hue values are displayed clockwise/counterclockwise. Saturation values are displayed as a radius on the wheel. Colors closer to the center of the wheel are desaturated, and the closer to the outer edge of the wheel are more saturated. Brightness is determined by the slider that appears beneath the wheel. When performing a reduction in colors, Illustrator analyzes the values of each color and tries to group colors together by hue.

Toggle to the Assign tab, and in the Colors field, specify a value of 5. The colors that appear in the list change, but before you look there, toggle back to the Edit tab to see what just happened. Illustrator reduced the number of colors by finding colors that were similar in hue, and combined them.

Figure 6. Illustrator sorts the colors by hue, moving counterclockwise around the wheel (left). The fifth region is actually desaturated “neutral” colors that appear at the center of the wheel. (left to right) Before the colors are reduced, and after.

Isolate just the colors you want to change. Toggle back to the Assign tab, where you’ll complete the recoloring of your art. Even though you instructed Illustrator to reduce your art to five colors, you’ll actually count 7 color rows. This is because by default, Illustrator protects black and white. In other words, those colors remain untouched, and are not included in the 5 colors (meaning that at the moment, your artwork contains 7 colors, if you consider white a color).

Figure 7. The rows for black and white don’t have any arrows, meaning those colors are protected, and won’t change.

To quickly find the colors you want to work with, click the magnifying glass button in the lower right corner of the Assign tab to activate the Recolor Artwork feature’s preview tool. With this button turned on, you can select colors in a color row and see where they appear in the artwork. You can shift-click on multiple colors to preview them all at once, or you can position your cursor to the far left of any color row and click on the icon that appears to select all colors in that row. In this example, you can see that the woman’s hair is made up of colors from the second and third color rows.

Figure 8. With the magnifying glass turned on, you can select color rows to highlight and identify those colors on the artboard.

To easily change the color of the woman’s hair, you will combine the colors from both rows into a single row. Position your cursor to the far left of the third color row and click and drag up into the second row. This moves the colors from the third row into the second one. Click again on the magnifying glass button to deactivate the preview.

Figure 9. By combining the two color rows, you’ve isolated all the colors used in the hair into a single row.

In this example, it’s easy to identify which color is the eye color (the fourth row), so the next step is to protect the colors that you don’t want to change. Click on the arrows that appear in rows 1 and 5 to disable color changes in those rows. At this point you’ve isolated just the parts of the file that we want to change – the two color rows that we have left, with the arrows still turned on.

Figure 10. You can disable color changes to other rows by clicking on the arrows that appear between the Current and New colors.

Recolor your artwork. You’ve set everything in place, and now it’s time to specify the new colors. Starting with the color for the eyes, double-click on the New Color (Row 4 in this example) and then click on the Color Swatches button. Choose the color that you created earlier, and click OK. Now, do the same for the hair color. In the case of the hair, you’re instructing Illustrator to convert several different colors into one new color, which normally would turn the entire head of hair into one solid color in this case. However, by default, Illustrator uses a colorization method called Scale Tints, which generates various tints of the new color to simulate the different colors. Click OK to apply the color changes and to exit the Recolor Artwork dialog box.

Figure 11. Make sure the Recolor Art box (lower left corner) is checked in order to see the colors change on your artboard.

Changing color into shades of gray

In this second example, you’ll convert all color in the illustration to shades of gray. Changing color into shades of gray is something that is quite common, and in reality, there are several ways to perform such a conversion in Illustrator. However, for simplicity sake, there’s a one-click option available. Select your artwork and choose Edit > Edit Colors > Convert to Grayscale.

Image Credits
For this tutorial, I’ve chosen an illustration of a customer service representative from absolutely_frenchy. I apologize in advance for messing with her eyes and hair.
Painter and decorator by dumayne

The founder of Design Responsibly, Mordy Golding has played an active role in the design and publishing space since 1990. A production artist for both print and the web for many years, Mordy, an Adobe Certified Expert and Adobe Community Expert, is an author and an instructor, and regularly speaks at worldwide events including Adobe MAX, The InDesign Conference, and The Creative Suite Conference.

Books written by Mordy Golding include Real World Illustrator, SAMS Teach Yourself Adobe Creative Suite All in One, and The Web Designer’s Guide to Color.

Training videos for Lynda.com recorded by Mordy include Illustrator Essentials, Illustrator Beyond the Basics, and Illustrator for the Web. Mordy is also the author of the popular Real World Illustrator blog.

Mordy worked at Adobe as the product manager for Adobe Illustrator, and was named a Champion of Graphic Design by Graphics IQ.