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Colour theory 3: Applying colour in Affinity apps

Finishing off the Colour theory series, Andy looks at how colour spaces are used in Affinity apps, and how colours are applied.

The first article in this series, Colour Theory 1: Basic concepts, looked at colour models such as RGB and CMYK, while the second, Colour Theory 2: Colour in branding and design, covered how colour messaging can be used to communicate the right information to the end-user.

This last article in the Colour Theory series looks at how you practically apply colour in Affinity apps via panels and the creation of palettes of colour sets that work together in different ways.

Setting up documents

For Affinity Designer and Affinity Publisher, as you set up a document from scratch you will be setting up a colour format, be it based on an RGB or CMYK model, immediately. This colour format depends on the type of work you are about to do. For example, RGB is the choice for presenting designs on screen, while CMYK is reserved for the process of printing physical books. However, for Affinity Photo, you’ll mostly be opening an image, typically a photo from your camera, so your document will adopt the colour format of that opened photo, e.g. RGB.

Why do you need to know this? Well, mostly you don’t, as Affinity does a great job of guiding you through the document setup for the type of document you need to produce. The work is done for you. However, what is useful to know is that you should define colours via panels that match your active document colour format, i.e. use RGB colours in an RGB colour format; CMYK colours in a CMYK colour format.

Panels explained

For all Affinity apps, colour is chosen from the Colour panel, Swatches panel or context toolbars. A choice of sliders or an HSL colour wheel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) can be used.

Colour panel

The Colour panel lets you choose a colour for the currently selected object.

HSL colour wheel

In Affinity Designer, colour is selected from an HSL colour wheel by default. Importantly, this gives a more intuitive experience compared to colour selection from RGB sliders, because you can work with colour using easier conceptual terms such as hue, saturation and lightness rather than using RGB values. Less guesswork, more productivity!

The HSL colour wheel defines RGB colours in an RGB colour space.


By default, Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher prefer colour to be offered using sliders. They let you precisely define colours by dragging, although you can input values into boxes directly.


Instead of the colour wheel or sliders, you can optionally ‘eyeball’ colours you need by selecting from a colour spectrum. You can use this to initially choose a colour and then fine tune it using sliders.

CMYK printing

If you’re designing for process printing, it’s recommended to define colour in terms of CMYK values. To do so, you just need to swap the Colour panel to CMYK sliders and define values for cyan, magenta, yellow and black (this is K). Alternatively, to ensure absolute colour accuracy in print output, you can adopt the PANTONE® colour matching system—here you choose PANTONE colours from the Swatches panel, which we’ll look at next.

Swatches panel

Think of the Swatches panel as a storage area for colours that you want to return to again and again. You can also access pre-defined system and application palettes, as well as PANTONE library palettes. Colours are stored as swatches, i.e. square coloured thumbnails, that can be clicked to apply that colour to a selected object.


If you’re using more than a few colours in your design, you can use palettes, the digital equivalent of an artist’s palette, to apply a set of used colours that you want to restrict yourself to.

Documentation manager

Andy manages our software documentation here at Serif and is our chief technical writer. In-between falling off his bike cycling into work, he keeps himself busy ensuring all our apps have up to date and accurate help content, and is editor-in-chief of our stunning Affinity Workbooks.

Credits & Footnotes

Video artwork by Maciek Blaźniak

Article artwork by Camilla Falsini

Lion image used under license from Shutterstock