vim colors FAQ: Can you provide details on how to control/configure colors in the vim editor (i.e., vim color settings)?
Sure. When using vim syntax highlighting, a common complaint is that the default color scheme is a little too bold. In this article I'll try to demonstrate how you can change the colors in vim to be a little more pleasing, or at least be more in your control.
Note: This tutorial is about how to manually configure vim color settings. If you’re interested in choosing a vim color scheme, or figuring out which colorschemes are available on your system, please see my vi/vim color scheme (colorscheme) tutorial.
How to configure vim color settings
You can control your vim color settings in your vim startup file. On older Unix systems the vi configuration file was named
.exrc, and on modern systems it is named
.vimrc. Either file will be located in your home directory on a Unix or Linux system.
The next thing to know is that you control the vim colors using a command named
highlight. The highlight commands are powerful, you need a little bit of background information to learn how to use them. Let’s look at a sample command to help us get rolling:
highlight Normal ctermbg=Blue
This highlight command can be read as “When using a color terminal (cterm), set the background terminal color (ctermbg) to Blue for the ‘Normal’ group.”
At first blush the word “Normal” may not make much sense, but if I add in a few more groups, I think you’ll see the power of groups:
highlight Comment ctermbg=DarkGray highlight Constant ctermbg=Blue highlight Normal ctermbg=Black highlight NonText ctermbg=Black highlight Special ctermbg=DarkMagenta highlight Cursor ctermbg=Green " this next line is needed to enable your custom colors: syntax enable
Because vim supports syntax highlighting, it makes sense that groups like these need to be specified. For instance, imagine you’re editing a Java file. If you’re familiar with Java -- or any other programming language -- you’ll know that it consists of things like comments, constants, variables, and many more things. Therefore, you need a way to specify these segments of code, and the “product” portion of the highlight command lets you specify these regions.
Before moving on to some more complicated examples, note that I included the
syntax enable command at the end of that example. You’ll need this command to get your custom vi colors to work, so I thought I’d slip it in now so you can start experimenting with colors on your own system.
How to specify vim foreground and background colors
Before we look at the general syntax of the vi highlight command, lets take a look at a slightly more complicated example:
highlight Comment ctermbg=Blue ctermfg=White
This example shows demonstrates that you can specify both a foreground color (ctermfg) and a background color (ctermbg) with one command.
How to add other vim font attributes
To take this one step further, you can also add some additional font attributes with the
cterm keyword. For instance, in addition to adding color to comments, if I want to underline them as well I can use this command:
highlight Comment cterm=underline ctermbg=Blue ctermfg=White
Now that you’ve seen a complete vim color command like this, as you might guess, the general version of the highlight command looks like this:
highlight Group font-key-value-terms ...
Now that you’ve seen the general vim color command syntax, we can look at the possible values for each key-value field.
Possible highlight Groups
The list of vim Groups for syntax highlighting is actually pretty large, so I’m not going to try to include them all here. As you’ve seen in the examples so far, some possible Groups are:
Comment Constant Normal NonText Special Cursor
To see a long list of all possible vim highlight groups, search this vim documentation page for the phrase “*highlight-groups*”, and you’ll find many more groups, like these:
Cursor CursorLine ErrorMsg Folded
and many more.
possible vim highlight keys (related to fonts and colors)
So far I’ve only looked at three possible vim highlight command font keys:
ctermbg. These all work on character-based terminals with color support. Although I haven’t tried the other terms, you can also use
term for terminals that have no color support (though I have no idea what this actually does), and you can use
guibg to work with GUI versions of vim, which I assume means gVim. (Again, sorry, I haven’t tried this, but I believe that is correct.)
When using a key like
cterm, you can use these values:
bold underline reverse italic none
To be clear, don't try to use color values with the
cterm key -- you’ll just get an error message.
vim ctermfg and ctermbg color values
As shown above, you can use color values with the
ctermg keys. This list is a little shorter than the possible list of Groups, so I’ve copied the list of possible values here from the vi documentation page that I linked to earlier:
*cterm-colors* NR-16 NR-8 COLOR NAME 0 0 Black 1 4 DarkBlue 2 2 DarkGreen 3 6 DarkCyan 4 1 DarkRed 5 5 DarkMagenta 6 3 Brown, DarkYellow 7 7 LightGray, LightGrey, Gray, Grey 8 0* DarkGray, DarkGrey 9 4* Blue, LightBlue 10 2* Green, LightGreen 11 6* Cyan, LightCyan 12 1* Red, LightRed 13 5* Magenta, LightMagenta 14 3* Yellow, LightYellow 15 7* White
If you’re using gvim you should visit that page for more information. It looks like you can use the convential RGB syntax (like “#FFCC99”) to specify colors in a GUI environment.
Summary: vi and vim color settings
Whew, that seems like a lot of “vi and vim color” ground to cover in a short time -- I hope it all makes sense. If you have any questions, comments, or vi color tips to share, feel free to use the comment form below.
As a final note, if you’re new to the concept of syntax highlighting in vi, here’s a link to my vim syntax highlighting tutorial.