A to Z CSS: Color

Colour can be specified in a number of formats including keywords, hex, rgb and hsl. The color property effects the foreground colour of an element – its text colour. Colour as a value can be used in many places such as border-color, background-color, gradients, box-shadow, text-shadow, and fill in SVG.

Browser Support

rgba and hsl: all modern browsers and IE9+.
keywords and hex: IE3+
rgb: supported from IE4+


The web would be a pretty dull place without a splash of colour.

There are a number of different properties that take a colour value and there are four different colour syntaxes in CSS and that’s what we’ll be focusing on in this video. Those formats are colour keywords, hex, RGB and HSL.

.box-white {
   color: white;
   color: #fff;
   color: #ffffff;
   color: rgb(255,255,255);
   color: rgba(255,255,255,1);
   color: hsl(0,0%,100%,1);
   color: hsla(0,0%,100%,1);
.box-black {
   color: black;
   color: #000;
   color: #000000;
   color: rgb(0,0,0);
   color: rgba(0,0,0,1);
   color: hsl(0,0%,0%,1);
   color: hsla(0,0%,0%,1);

Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.


There are 147 named colours in CSS3.

There are actually only 140 different colours as 7 of them are duplicates just with different spellings of grey.

Here they are as colours, and here they are as a list of keywords.

I personally find this list pretty useless – there’s lots to choose from, but it’s hard to remember what they all look like.

What is palevioletred? How pale? How violet? How red?

What is gainsboro? How about burlywood or goldenrod?

These aren’t that useful but fortunately there are more options.


In CSS, colours are defined in the standard Red Green Blue colour space or sRGB where colours are defined through 3 channels: Red, Green, and Blue.

One way of defining colour in CSS is using the RGB syntax. Here the values range from 0 to 255 for each of the three componenets. In this case specifying 255 for each of the components, gives us the colour white.

.box {
	color:rgb(255, 255, 255); /*white*/
	color:rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.5); /*semi-transparent white*/

We can also make semi-transparent colours with RGBA. Here, a fourth value, known as Alpha, determines the opacity of a colour. This value is a decimal ranging from 0 to 1 where 0 is completely transparent and 1 is completely opaque.

The transparent keyword is represented as rgba(0,0,0,0).

.box {
	color:rgba(0, 0, 0, 0); /*transparent*/


Probably the color format I use most often is hex. Hex is short for hexadecimal which is a base 16 numeral system. Most people are more familiar with decimal – or base 10 – like the metric system.

A hex colour is broken down into three couplets that specify the red, green and blue componenets of a colour. The values of the couplets are in base 16 and range from 00 to FF. You can think of 00 as no colour and FF as full colour. FF is actually the decimal number 255 in base 16.

In this case we have full red, full green and full blue which combine to make white.

In this second example we have no red, full green and no blue which gives us green.

When both values in each of three couplets are the same, the hex value can be abbreviated to a short-hand 3 digit format.

.box {
	color:#00ff00; /*green*/
	color:#0f0; /*green in shorthand*/


HSL stands for Hue, Saturation and Lightness.

Hue is specified in degrees from 0 to 360 – and corresponds to a position around the colour wheel. 0 degrees represents red and then colours blend through oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks and back to red again at 360 degrees.

Saturation determines how vivid a colour is from 0% – monochrome – to 100% – vivid.

Lightness is also set as a percentage and determines the overall amount of luminance.

HSL has the corresponding HSLA version which allows for alpha transparency.

.box {
	color:hsl(0, 0%, 100%); /*white*/
	color:hsla(0, 0%, 100%, 0.5); /*semi-transparent white*/


So, how do we use these colours?

The color property only effects text – so it allows us to set the text colour of an element.

But there are lots of other properties that accept a colour. background-color, for example, or colour stops in a gradient. We can also set border-color or the color component of box-shadow or text-shadow. We can even change the fill colour of an SVG path or polygon.

.box {
	background-color: #000;
	background-image:linear-gradient(to right, #000, #fff);
	border-color: #000;
	box-shadow: 0 0 10px #000;
.text {
	text-shadow: 0 0 10px #000;
.svg path {
	fill: #000;


There is one last colour keyword that has a unique if not entirely useful purpose. currentColor is a special keyword that links the value of the color property to other properties that accept a colour value like border-color, box-shadow and text-shadow. Let’s have a look at a quick demo.

We can create a box with a border and a drop shadow as follows and pass in the colour values as a keyword, hex, rgb or hsl. If instead of a colour value, we use currentColor, the colour of the border and drop shadow is black – which is the default value for the color property.

If we now set the color to hotpink, this will be used in place of currentColor instead. This allows us to remove the color value from the border and box-shadow properties. Which maybe saves you a few keystrokes.

.box {
	border:10px solid; /*border-color is hotpink*/
	box-shadow:0 0 100px; /*shadow colour is hotpink*/

AtoZ CSS: Learn CSS and sharpen your front-end skills

AtoZ CSS is a video screencast series that tackles one CSS topic per letter of the alphabet. From auto to z-index, take a deep dive into a single property, value, selector or concept each week.


Guy Routledge

Guy is a consultant front-end developer specialising in front-end architecture and Sass-flavoured CSS. Building on years of experience, he has recently worked with a range of clients in the UK and internationally as well as numerous individuals and creative agencies and also teaches a range of courses and workshops. Away from client work and the classroom, he is currently building a library of video screencasts and courses on his favourite web topics. You can read more about Guy and his latest musings on his blog. When not in front of the computer or catching up on the latest web drama, he has a keen interest in property investment and fine food and wine and someday plans to open his own restaurant.