How to use a vim color scheme

In an earlier vim color configuration tutorial I described how to have fine-grained control of your vi and vim color settings. In this article I’ll take an easier route, and just show how you can use existing color schemes in your vi editor sessions.

Using a vim color scheme

Using a vim color scheme is actually pretty simple. If you’re in a vim editor session, just issue the vim colorscheme command from last line mode, like this:

:colorscheme delek

Or, if you prefer less typing, just use the colo command, like this:

:colo delek

Either of these commands tell vi that you want to use the delek colorscheme. If you want to use the desert color scheme instead, just specify it instead of delek, like this:

:colo desert

Specifying a colorscheme in your vimrc file

Once you’ve settled on a vim colorscheme that you like, you’ll want to configure that as your default colorscheme in your vim configuration file, vimrc. The vimrc file is located in your home directory, and on Unix and Linux systems the vimrc file actually begins with a decimal (it’s a “hidden” file), so you can edit it like this:

vi ~/.vimrc

To use the desert colorscheme just add these lines to your vimrc file:

colo desert
syntax on

(For more information on vimrc configuration files, see my vim vimrc configuration file example.)

What vi color schemes are installed?

A common question at this point is “What color schemes are available on my system?”

You can find your installed vim colorscheme files in the colors subdirectory of your vim installation directory. All the files end with the file extension .vim, and begin with the name of the colorscheme. As an example, I just found all these files in the /usr/share/vim/vim72/colors directory on my Mac OS X system:


Manual vi/vim color control

If you don’t like any of these default color schemes, you can find others on the internet, or even create your own, using one of these files as an example. Or, if you’d like to tweak a few colors manually, take a look at our vi/vim color settings tutorial.

As a final note, if you’re new to the concept of syntax highlighting, here’s a link to my vi/vim syntax highlighting tutorial.

vi is not vim

Just to make it clear, vi is NOT vim, and they do not work the same way. So no *.vim colorscheme or :colorscheme for vi, those are vim-only features.

vi and vim

Yes, thank you, I should be more clear on this. On some systems vi is a symbolic link to vim, on others vi and vim are different binaries, and on older systems vim isn't even available.

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