5 Smart Ways To Apply Color Swatches In Photoshop

In this tutorial, you will learn 5 different ways to apply color swatches in Photoshop and improve your workflow!

In Photoshop 2020, the easiest way to add colors from the Swatches panel is to drag a color swatch onto a layer in the Layers panel. You don’t have to select the layer because Photoshop will automatically select the layer as you drop the swatch onto it.

However, how the colors will apply depends entirely on which type of layer you have selected or which shortcut keys you are using.

Drag-and-drop to Apply Color Swatches to a Background Layer

Let’s start with the locked Background layer

Add the Swatches panel to your workspace by going to Windows > Swatches.

On the Swatches panel, you have a list of primary colors and your recently-used color swatches. 

Go to the Swatches panel

If you can’t view the color swatches that you have recently used, click on the flyout menu and click on Show Recents to enable it.

The recently-used swatches will appear on top of the panel, and any color picked up by the Eyedropper tool will be added to the line-up.

Now, from the Swatches panel, click-and-drag on a color swatch and drop it on the Background layer. This will automatically create a Color Fill layer directly above it.

With a Color Fill layer active, you can easily swap it with a different color swatch just by clicking on any color in the Swatches panel.

Another way of doing it is by double-clicking on the Color Fill layer thumbnail. It will open up the Color Picker window where you can click-and-drag on a particular hue and adjust the slider, or go to the Color Libraries to access magnificent color palettes. 

Then, press OK to apply the set color.

Drag-and-drop Color Swatches to Pixel Layers and Smart Objects

Next, let’s work on Pixel layers. Working with a Pixel layer is similar to working with a Smart Object—you can work on it non-destructively.

On the Pixel layer, there is a sun-shaped object created with the Custom Shape Tool.

If you click-and-drag a color from the Swatches panel and drop it on the pixel layer, Photoshop automatically turns it into a Color Fill layer. It transforms every pixel into that color through a Clipping Mask.

The Clipping Mask works by applying its properties to every pixel on the layer directly below it. That is why even the stroke on the sun-shaped object has changed its color as it affects not by color or style but by pixels.

If you want to create a Color Fill layer above the pixel layer without the Clipping Mask, then select a color from the Swatches panel.

Hold Alt (Windows) or Option (macOS), then drag it onto the pixel layer for Photoshop to create a Color Fill layer above it.

Another way of adding a color swatch onto a layer is by holding Ctrl Alt (Windows) or Command Option (macOS) and then dragging that color swatch onto a layer for Photoshop to apply it as a Layer Style.

In this example, it transformed into a Color Overlay.

Double-click on the Color Overlay, it will open the Layer Style window where you can change the color or the Blend Mode.

Drag-and-drop Color Swatches to Vector Graphics

Select the Direct Selection Tool and click on the vector shape to show the points. You can adjust them by clicking-and-dragging on these individual points to stretch, bend, or distort.

Going back to the Swatches panel, click-and-drag any color and drop it onto the vector shape.

Unlike in the pixel layer, clicking-and-dragging a color only changes the Fill color, as you can see in the Options bar.

The Stroke style or color is not affected as it is separate property.

Another way of doing it is by clicking-and-dragging a color from the Swatches panel and dropping it onto the Vector layer, and this will give you the same result.

Drag-and-drop Color Swatches to Text Layers

The Text layer is also affected in the same way. If you click-and-drag a color swatch onto the layer, it will automatically change the color of the text.

It also gives you the same result when you click-and-drag a color from the Swatches panel directly onto the text.

Drag-and-drop Color Swatches to Multiple Layer Types

Another cool way of applying color swatches is by selecting two layers at the same time.

Hold the Shift key to and click on two layers to select them both.

Then, click on a color in the Swatches panel to fill both layers into the selected color.

However, this technique only changes the Fill color, so the color of your Stroke remains the same.

Drag-and-drop Color Swatches from a Library to a Layer

Select the Text layer, Vector layer, Pixel layer, and go to the Swatches panel to select on a color. The selected color will apply to both the Text and the Vector layer.

However, the Pixel layer remains the same. This is an excellent point to remember if you select multiple layers but notice one layer is not filled with the chosen color.

Before concluding this tutorial, look at what happens if you apply the same technique with colors saved in your Libraries panel.

Select a color in your library and drag it to your Layers panel.

You may notice that nothing happens, and instead, the “prohibited” symbol appears.

However, the other way around works! If you select on a layer and then click on a color saved on your Libraries panel, it will change the Fill color, but the Stroke color unchanged.

If you double-click on a color saved in your Libraries panel, Photoshop applies it, but it opens the Color Picker window.

As a rule of thumb: On your Libraries panel, one-click applies it, and double-click opens the Color Picker window.

How to Save a Color in Your Libraries Panel

If you want to gain easy access to your favorite colors, select a color from Swatches panel or double-click on the Foreground color to open the Color Picker window and select any color that you want and then press OK.

Go to your Libraries panel and click on the plus icon at the bottom.

You can select the current Foreground color or the Text color and add it to your Libraries panel.

Selecting the Foreground color, it will be added to the Non-Grouped section, and from there, you can organize it in the right group.

With this technique, you can easily organize your swatches in groups based on the project that you are working on and not have them mixed with other swatches in the panel.


Hopefully, these five different ways to apply color swatches encourages you to work smart and achieve your desired effect in a few simple steps!

Tutorial Assets

Download “287 – Apply Color Swatches” 257-apply-swatches-explination.zip – Downloaded 364 times – 255 KB

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