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Making Vim Pretty With Custom Colors

Pretty much all editors have the option of changing themes and tweaking colors. Vim’s no different, but instead of menus and wizards, it’s done by using vimscript. While it could be argued that this is more difficult than in a “conventional” editor, I really don’t think that’s the case. I’ve recently been hacking on my own color scheme a bit, so I’ll take this opportunity to do a post on how to manage colors in vim and achieve some nice effects.

The basics

Vim’s syntax items are organized into named groups: Normal, Constant, Function, and so on. Every language that vim supports has a syntax file that defines how the language tokens are mapped to those groups. This can be a very complicated task involving tons of regular expressions and it won’t be discussed here. This article tackles the much simpler problem of defining the mapping from group to actual color.

A colorcheme is a file, containing such mappings. These need to be located in vim’s runtime, under a “colors” directory. Activating a scheme is done by executing:

colorscheme scheme_name " or, a bit shorter:
colo scheme_name

The actual mappings are created by using the highlight command, or hi for short. As an example, this is how you’d set all Normal text to be white on a black background in the GUI:

hi Normal guifg=White guibg=Black

As you can see, the first argument is the syntax group and the rest are key=value modifiers. Different ones are used for GUI and terminal colors. It goes like this:

  • ctermfg, ctermbg: These have effect on color terminals. On 8-color ones, you have access to several names like “blue”, “red”, and so on. You can also use the numbers from 0-15, where the upper half are “bright” versions of the original eight. These days, it’s normal to use a 256-color terminal emulator, so you could probably utilize the whole 0-255 range. I’ll talk about a plugin that helps with that later on. If you frequently find yourself without a running X server, you might want to consider limiting your choice to the base eight colors. Take a look here for more details on those.

  • guifg, guibg: These values have an effect only in the gui (gvim or mvim), and you can set them with color names or with hex values (#rrggbb). Generally, I’d recommend sticking to the hex codes. You can express more colors with them, and there are some nice plugins that could highlight that format, but more on that later.

The modifiers ending in “fg” set the foreground, the ones with “bg” are for the background. You can reset the color to its default value by setting it to NONE. If you want to specify additional properties, like making the text bold or italic, you can use gui= and cterm=. For instance, to make searches yellow, bold and underlined in the terminal:

hi Search ctermfg=Yellow ctermbg=NONE cterm=bold,underline

It looks a bit like this:

search highlighting

Another important variation of the highlight command is highlight link. It sets a syntax group’s colors to be the same as another one’s. This is used for almost all language-specific syntax items. For instance, the rubyFunction syntax group links to the Function one.

hi def link rubyFunction Function

The def part stands for “default” and it means that the link will only take effect if this syntax group hasn’t been specified before. That way, if you want to override it, you can do that in one of your own vimscripts.

The process

So, now that we know the basic commands, where do we begin?

While you could start from scratch, there’s a lot of syntax to work with, so it’s highly recommended to grab some other colorscheme and hack on that. Your modified file needs to be located under a “colors” directory in the vim runtime, for example, ~/.vim/colors. Unless you have some specific requirements, it needs to start with some boilerplate. First, we set the background:

set background=dark

This can also be “light” and it’s useful as a baseline. It affects the default colors that come with vim, so if you leave some of them as they are, they will change depending on its value. Some colorschemes try to adapt to it, but it’s simplest to just set it to one value and code according to that.

hi clear
if exists("syntax_on")
  syntax reset

This cleans up the current highlighting and syntax changes. It ensures that when you change to this colorscheme, you start with a clean slate.

let g:colors_name = 'colorscheme_name'

This line sets the name of the colorscheme, and it’s important for it to match the filename. The above example should be in a file called “colorscheme_name.vim”.

After this, it’s time to start defining the actual syntax groups. A full list of all of them can be found with :help highlight-groups. You can also execute highlight without an argument to see a full dump of all the colors set at the moment. Here are few of the more common ones:

  • Normal: The most common group of all. You probably want to keep it simple with this one, using some variation of white and black.

  • Comment: Should be self-explanatory.

  • Constant: This one is actually not for constants, defined within the language, but for things like strings and numbers. There are specific groups that usually link to it, String, Number, Boolean, and so on, so you can color those in something more specific, if you’d like for them to stand out.

  • Operator: Braces, mathematical operators, commas. Which ones have this highlighting actually depends on the filetype, some prefer to use Special for punctuation.

  • Statement: Usually control flow statements, but this depends on the filetype as well. In vim, the built-in commands are highlighted with this group.

After you’ve decided on colors on a few of these, the rest can be linked to them with highlight link, so you don’t have to copy-paste the definitions.

Remember that you can execute highlight commands directly in the command line, which will let you experiment with the colors before you write them to the file. If you change your mind, just set the colorcheme again, which will clear your tweaks. You can also execute :source with the filename, which might be more convenient if you have a mapping for it.


When you’re looking at code, it might not be immediately obvious which tokens map to which groups. Fortunately, vim has a few functions that help you discover the syntax properties of the text. Unfortunately, they’re a bit confusing. You can investigate them in detail here, but I suggest you try out the SyntaxAttr.vim plugin instead. After placing it in autoload, you just need to execute call SyntaxAttr#SyntaxAttr(). This will display information about the syntax directly under the cursor. Once you know what group a token belongs to, it’s easy to modify it.

Another interesting plugin that helps in the console is xterm-color-table.vim. It has a single command, XtermColorTable, that displays all of the current terminal’s colors in a split window. They’re annotated with the terminal’s color codes, 0-255, and also with hexcode equivalents, which could be very helpful if you’re trying to be GUI-compatible.

And as for the hexcodes, the colorizer.vim plugin highlights them all in the colors they represent. Since that format is only compatible with the GUI, it’s probably best to use it there, but it works fairly well in the terminal as a sort of a guideline.

Other interesting highlight groups

The SyntaxAttr plugin is great for most syntax groups, but there are a lot of areas that you can’t put the cursor on. Here are a few you might be interested in:

  • CursorLine: I don’t usually use a cursor line, but it helps a bit in the NERDTree. I like it unobtrusive, so I just make it underlined with NONE for the background.

  • DiffText, DiffAdd, DiffChange, DiffDelete: These control the colors when using vim’s diffing capabilities. The solarized colorscheme, for example, makes removed items red and added ones green.

  • Pmenu, PmenuSbar, PmenuThumb, PmenuSel: Coloring the popup menu might seem like a small tweak, but having a bright pink one with white text can be highly annoying. It’s actually the reason I started learning how to customize my colors.

  • Visual: This one is for highlighting the visual selection. I’d recommend aiming for good contrast with a bright background color.

  • Search: If the default look of search matches looks unsightly to you, you could tweak this as I showed above. Note that this also affects the currently active line in the quickfix window.

  • StatusLine, StatusLineNC, VertSplit: These groups handle the looks of the window separator lines. I’ve always disliked how “fat” the windows borders look in vim. That’s why I set a white foreground on a NONE background and tweaked my fillchars to stl:-,stlnc:-,vert:│

    separator lines

    I’ve been very happy with the result, although I would have liked it a lot more if I could set a horizontal line character to the statusline filler. Apparently, vim doesn’t let you put multibyte characters there…

  • Folded and FoldColumn: The second one only matters if you set a foldcolumn, but the first one would be important if you use folding at all. You should be careful not to make folded text too similar to status lines, or you might get confused when you work with splits.

  • WildMenu: If you’ve turned on the ‘wildmenu’ option, you might benefit from tweaking this one. It controls the color of the active item in the menu. Since I don’t have a background for the statusline anyway, I just set the font to something bright and obvious. Looks like this:


  • MatchParen: This is not one of vim’s core defaults, but it ships with the matchit plugin that comes with vim. You can customize what the matching brace looks like by tweaking this group.

So, why not do it all with XML or something?

Many other editors are designed with the assumption that these color mappings are just data. That makes a lot of sense and is simple enough to implement. You can set the colors in XML or YAML files and let the editor parse them and provide a nice GUI with color pickers and preview panes. The benefit of Vim’s approach is that it gives you a lot of freedom, without sacrificing too much. Sure, the syntax is a bit frightening at first, but if you look at it at a high level, it’s just another key-value store. Except it’s actually a part of the scripting language, so you can put variables, expressions, whatever you need.

A very nice example is Solarized. It’s a well thought-out set of colors for many different applications. The vim colorscheme is interesting, because it goes to great lengths to be customizable. You can set a few variables that control the contrast and sharpness levels and you can switch between a light and a dark variant.


  • A vim “theme” is called a “colorscheme” and is just a bunch of vimscript. The highlight command is the main one you need to remember.
  • You can set colors for the GUI or for the terminal, vim can’t automatically transform the values from one to the other.
  • All the syntax groups can be seen with a help highlight-groups.
  • A few plugins that help are SyntaxAttr.vim, xterm-color-table.vim, and colorizer.vim.
  • As is usually the case with Vim, the colorscheme system is a bit odd at first, but flexible and fairly comfortable to work with once you get used to it.