How-To: Create a Color Palette from a Photograph

Craft & Design Photography & Video

By Carina Envoldsen-Harris
If you’re stuck for color inspiration for your projects, turning to your favorite images on Flickr or Pinterest can help you get unstuck. Photos are a wonderful source of color inspiration! In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to extract colors from a photo to make a color palette.
But remember – you can’t use other people’s photos to create new work for public consumption if you don’t have permission to do so. These palettes are for your personal use only.


Photo(s) with colors which inspire you
Photo manipulating program on your computer
(or the internet)
Notes: The photo editing program you use must be able to pixelize an image and work with layers and transparency. I used GIMP in this tutorial, because it’s free and readily-available. You can also use Photoshop.
There are also online tools which can help you make palettes with just a few clicks. These tools give you less fine control over the colors you can extract from images, but they are simple to use and may work well for many applications. Check out Color Palette Generator from BigHugeLabs and Color Palette Generator from


Step 1: We’ll make the color palette by pixelizing a photo. The reason we do this is so we’ll get larger areas of a solid color. If we extract from the photo without pixelising it, the resulting color will rarely be the one we’re actually seeing, because of how the individual pixels “blend” to create colors.
Load your photo into your computer program and save it as a new file – you don’t want to work on the original.
GIMP instructions
File > Open > then navigate to your image on your computer
File > Save As > give your image a new name
(Please note, when saving in Gimp it will give you one or two prompts after you hit Save. Click ‘OK’ for both of them.)

Step 2: Pixelize the photo. You may find this under something like “blur” options, which is where it’s found in GIMP. I used a 10×10 pixel blur for my photo. You use bigger pixel values if you like, but if you go too big you’ll end up with a whole bunch of greyish squares.
GIMP instructions
Filters > Blur > Pixelise
In the prompt box, play with the settings until you’re happy with the proportions of the pixelization

Step 3: Now you want to extend the canvas of your image, so you have room below the pixelised photo to add more layers. Set these layers to an even percentage of the width. Use as many layers as necessary. I used 5, but you can use more or less. In the example I have colored my layers grey just so you can see where they are.
GIMP instructions
First, a bit of math! Decide how many colors you want to extract, then divide the width, in pixels, of your image with this number. Use the resulting number plus the original height of the canvas as the new Height of the canvas.
Extend canvas: Image > Canvas Size
In the prompt box, unlock the Width and Height. You only need to extend the height of the canvas. Enter the new Height value and click the Resize button.
Create new layers for your color selections: Layer > New Layer
In the prompt box, set the Height and Width to the number you just found by dividing the width of the image. Click on the Paint Bucket in the Toolbox and fill the layer with any color, otherwise the layer would be empty and you can’t ‘grab’ it to move it around.
Make as many copies of the layer as you need: Layer > Duplicate Layer
The layer copies will sit on top of each other so it will look like there is only one layer. Move the layers to the extended space under the image. The Move tool can be found in the Toolbox, it looks like a cross with triangles on the ends. Or simply press ‘M’ on your keyboard.

Step 4: Now, with the color picker tool, select a color you like from the image, use the paint bucket to fill up one of the small layers. Repeat this pick-and-fill process for the rest of the colors you like in the image. Save your image when you are happy with your color selection.
Please note, you may see that the colors you pick look different when they fill the large area than they do in the photo. This is normal! The pixelized colors are “averages” of the colors in a given area of your image, so essentially a number of colors have been mixed to make this new color. And a larger area of a color will generally look different than a smaller one. Think of a paint chip compared to a wall painted in the same color.
So, now you have a range of colors you can apply to any craft project. But why don’t we extend this basic palette so we have even more choices? We can do this by creating some lighter and darker versions of the colors.
GIMP instructions
The color picker tool can be found in the Toolbox; it looks like a pipette.

Step 5: Save a new copy of the image and crop it so you only have the color palette left. Flatten the palette layers so there’s only one layer.
GIMP instructions
File > Save As > give your image a new name
Image > Flatten Image
To crop: Select the Crop tool from the Toolbox (it looks like a small knife). Mark up the area you want to keep and press ‘Enter’ on your keyboard.

Step 6: Extend the canvas so that it is three times its former height + 10 pixels. Make two copies of the palette layer and move one to the top and one to the bottom of the image.
GIMP instructions
Before extending the canvas, note down the numbers right at the top of the GIMP workspace, for example 600×100 – this is the current size of your image (width x height) and your layers. You will need these numbers in one of the steps below.
Extend canvas: Image > Canvas Size
In the prompt box, unlock the Width and Height. You only need to extend the height of the canvas. Enter the new Height value and click the Resize button.
Layer > Duplicate Layer
The layer copies will sit on top of each other so it will look like there is only one layer. Move the layers so one copy sits above the original layer and the other copy sits below it. The Move tool can be found in the Toolbox, it looks like a cross with triangles on the ends. Or simply press ‘M’ on your keyboard.

Step 7: Create two new empty layers which are the same size as the other layers. Fill one with black and the other with white. Set the opacity to 50% for both these layers and position one above the top palette and one above the bottom palette.
Now you have a whole selection of colors to use, from light to dark, all based on the same base colors.
GIMP instructions
Layer > New Layer
In the prompt, set the Height and Width to the values you wrote down before extending the canvas. Click OK. Duplicate this layer.
Use the Paint bucket to fill the layers with black and white color. Select the Move tool and move the layers.
To change the opacity: In the toolbox on the right hand side, select the layer you want to change and set the opacity by using the slider just above the visual of all your layers.

About the Author:
Carina Envoldsen-Harris of Carina’s Craftblog is a Danish embroidery pattern designer, craft blogger, and Star Wars geek. Under the name Polka & Bloom, Carina designs colorful, freeform embroidery designs and ebooks inspired by the folk art and design of her native Denmark.

16 thoughts on “How-To: Create a Color Palette from a Photograph

  1. JP says:

    I don’t think creating a color palette from someone else’s photo constitutes stealing their work – it seems abstract enough that you should be able to use the palette however you want without infringing on the photographer’s creativity or rights. Am I wrong here? Also, there are lots of photos available on Flickr with a Creative Commons license that allows you to modify them, use them commercially, etc. – if you really have an issue with pulling colors from someone else’s work, you can use Advanced Search to find these okay-to-use photos.

  2. Jo says:

    Thanks, these are really helpful instructions.

  3. Zoe says:

    Great article, but as an intellectual property lawyer I wanted to chime in with JP to say that, certainly under U.S. Law, there is no legal issue with using the palettes that result from this process for any purpose, including public and/or commercial purposes.

  4. Carina says:

    I’m sorry if there’s confusion about what you can or can’t use.
    As Zoe said, there’s no problem using the actual colour palettes of course. :-)
    But if you make a palette based on someone else’s photo and then include the original photo like I’ve done in the very first photo (it’s my own photo, btw) – that may be seen as breach of copyright.

  5. Susanna says:

    Thank you for sharing!
    I recently discover and it works really well to create new color palettes. It extract colors from flickr pictures, so I just search for my own pictures and get the color palette. You can even download it to use it in Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator…

  6. kat says:

    Thanks for the excellent tutorial! I’m glad someone is advocating Gimp…

  7. Leah says:

    Thanks for this tutorial. I use GIMP, am a total beginner at graphic stuff, and it is so hard to find good tutorials. I was able to follow this one pretty easily.

  8. Carlyn Clark says:

    This is really helpful. Thanks!

  9. Qeana says:

    Try It’s much easier!

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