This question is not TeX specific. When creating scientific documents with graphs and figures, what colors are good to use such that they help the reader understand the figure but will also print well on a black and white printer? For example, I would assume that yellow is a poor choice since it is difficult to read on the screen and it prints very light on the page.

  • I would think that that would depend on the colors in the figure/graph? I tend to use thick lines and so far have been using a white background so will be interesting to see what others think. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 0:03
  • 1
    This might depend on the printer, I think. By the way, if you're using something like TikZ, with a little work you should be able to set up two color schemes, one for black-and-white printing and one for color printing, that you can just switch between by changing a line in the preamble. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 1:29
  • Unfortunately the scientific journals require a single PDF. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 2:13
  • Do you have a specific kind of graph in mind (bar chart with three different series, line graph with a single series, chloropleth map)?
    – Jake
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 3:56
  • Here is an example paper. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 7:17

6 Answers 6


In general using patterns is preferable than colour, especially for scientific papers. If you need to use colours though, I suggest you use a combination of high contrast colour values and limit them to two or three colours. For example in the figure below, I wanted to emphasize delayed activities for a Project. I used orange to highlight these values and shades of gray for the rest.

enter image description here

Shades of gray, come out well in print as well as photocopying. For screen viewing, black colours don't look attractive. If you expect people to view your paper on the screen (if for example you posting it on a web page) rather use colours and control the screen version via a boolean, but best option of course is to choose colors that look well both in print as well as on a screen.

  • I hope this is not a new question, but how can I get the contrast of a specific color, such as the orange color in your graph, to find out what gray level it will print with? Photoshop tells me that your dark gray is RGB 128,128,128, your medium gray is RGB 159,159,159, your light gray is 191,191,191, and your orange is 255,140,25. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 17:03
  • @NathanFarrington If you convert to grayscale you will see immediately, either with photoshop or gimp. The gimp manual is a good read gimp-savvy.com/BOOK/index.html?node54.html for this sort of problem. Personally I just experiment and when I see something good I tend to save it and try it later on. The highest contrast is black and white, the further the delta between the channel values the better.
    – yannisl
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 17:19
  • Hmmm, is there a "color scheme" I could use for my papers? For example, product literature such as data sheets often use the colors of the corporation, possibly as a branding mechanism since the primary interface to these companies is through their data sheets. It would be nice to write down some where the RGB values of say up to 5 different colors to use for every figure. This way I wouldn't have to hunt and experiment each time. Perhaps I could choose an "orange" color scheme and write down 5 shades of orange that also convert well to grayscale? Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 21:30
  • @NathanFarrington You can check the colourlovers.com for some inspiration. Note that the xcolor package provides a number of testing routines and environments and is a good read.
    – yannisl
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 3:01
  • @NathanFarrington: have a look at the ConTeXt default colorgroups and palettes
    – morbusg
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 10:17

I'd take a look at http://colorbrewer2.org/. It is a site designed to help pick color schemes for cartography, but I've used it to pick schemes for regular scientific plots as well.

There is an optional button that will only show color schemes that are photocopy-able. If you click on learn more it says:

Photocopy Friendly: This indicates that a given color scheme will withstand black and white photocopying. Diverging schemes can not be photocopied successfully. Differences in lightness should be preserved with sequential schemes.

  • I am using the three color qualitative photo-copy-friendly palette, but two of these colors look identical when printed in b/w. Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 23:03

An easy way to check whether the black-and-white version of a coloured document will be usable is:

  • 2
    I don't expect this will do anything to figures that aren't drawn with TikZ or such?
    – Christian
    Commented Jul 2, 2012 at 15:28
  • @Christian: Yes, external graphics included with \includegraphics are not affected.
    – mhp
    Commented Jul 2, 2012 at 15:41

Some folks at Matplotlib have spent a lot of time thinking about this. There is an excellent talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAoljeRJ3lU

Summary: Nathaniel Smith and Stéfan van der Walt designed a colourmap called Viridis that, in an optimal sense, differentiates sequential data in a visually proportional way, projects well to grayscale and is readable to the colourblind. It's very cool research. Don't use Jet!

There are several others, namely magma, plasma and inferno, which are also close to optimal, and have some blues, reds and pinks if you're aesthetically partial to Jet.

If you would like the colours as a discrete palette for making diagrams and such, I have converted them to Gimp color palettes for my use in Inkscape.

Here is a comparison of those color maps to jet:

comparison of those color maps to jet

  • Which versions of matplotlib are these available in? Also, what are the names of the six color scales you are showing?
    – user545424
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 15:09
  • @user545424 Any version from the last few years. They are called Viridis, Plasma, Inferno and Magma. See matplotlib.org/users/colormaps.html
    – Timtro
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 15:39

This is from my experience in writing research papers, personally I find the easiest to read is not by color because sometimes we print papers ourselves to read and due to printer differences it's hard to read sometimes. I would recommend using different patters in your graphics (dotted lines, dots, dashes, stripes, etc...)

Again this is just my opinion but I find that patterns are easier to recognize than different color shades sometimes.

  • 1
    Agreed. I try never to make color be the only differentiating factor in a graph, chart, or figure. Instead if I do use color then I try to also have some other differentiating factor such as a pattern. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 7:19

Paul Tol has developed great color schemes for scientific visualization, and he also explains very well which color scheme is suitable for which purpose. For example, there is a section on grey-scale conversion. One of the color schemes is optimized for high contrast and is well suited for printing in a grey scale. Paul Tol's high contrast color scheme

High-contrast qualitative colour scheme, an alternative to the bright scheme of Fig. 1 that is colour-blind safe and optimized for contrast. The samples underneath are shades of grey with the same luminance; this scheme also works well for people with monochrome vision and in a monochrome printout.

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