Dan Drust

Software Developer
based in Grand Rapids, MI

Creating a Custom Color Selector

16 April 2020

This article was orignally posted on the Spark Business Works Insights Blog

We recently needed to implement a circular color picker similar to the one used by the Hue light bulb mobile app. We needed this to be circular, have white in the middle, and we needed to be able to move a marker and capture the color at that point when a user taps or clicks the wheel. We couldn’t find a suitable open source solution, so we decided to write this ourselves.

Phillips Hue color picker on mobile

The color wheel

In the end, our color picker widget needs to be able to capture an RGB color value and send it off the the back end. Though, we noticed that a number of color pickers we analyzed reported HSL values. We found this helpful article that explains some mathematical foundations behind computing colors. (We didn’t read it, we just looked at the pictures!) The picture of a color cylinder looked exactly like what we’re trying to create. We noticed that the hue value changes as you rotate around the circle, lightness varies from near-white in the center to a fuller color on the edges. The scale marked “Value” in the image probably wasn’t as important to us – we don’t want to display black on our color wheel. We decided to use this scheme to calculate a Hue, Saturation, Lightness value which we could then convert to an RGB value.

HSV diagram

One color picker example we saw used a series of very thin pie slices to construct a color wheel. So we took that approach. The hue value of the HSL triad is a value from 0-360 (as in, 360 degrees in a circle).

So to begin, let’s create a series of rectangles with increasing hues:

Scroll the insert to see all 360 colors

Then we made these blocks really skinny and arranged them around a point:

Colored rectangles are arranged around a central point

Now we needed to get the gradient to show up. We need a white center with a colorful ring outside. The HSL resource from earlier told us that 100% lightness would be white, while 0% lightness would be black. We applied a linear gradient from 50% to 100% lightness to each pie slice:

Each slice of the pie has a gradient applied

Looks great! This widget is going to show up on a touchscreen, so we were worried about how small the white area was in the center. It might be hard for fat fingers to select white. Our template also has a considerably bigger white center. Instead of getting fancy with the gradient background, we decided to open up a hole in our circle and throw a white background behind the center of our new doughnut.

We expanded the center slightly to expose a larger white region

Putting a selector on it

We had our color wheel, but no way for the user to interact with it. We don’t have a great native HTML input element that we could use here, so we decided to draw a little selector circle on top of the color wheel to indicate the user’s selection, just like the Hue app does. This seemed like a good job for a canvas element - that would allow us to overlay an image over the color wheel that we can draw (and redraw!) programmatically. We decided to lay a 2D canvas over our color wheel where we could draw our selector button and move it around based on coordinates when a user touches the display.

We have a selector in the color wheel, but it doesn't do much yet

Next we needed to be able to click/tap to move the circle. We put a click handler on the canvas to get the coordinates of the click, redraw the circle at that point, and then redraw the canvas:

Click me

We noticed that you’re able to click outside of the color picker’s bounds. Go ahead and try it above. That’s because the canvas is a square and we’re allowing the selector to move anywhere in that square. We need the selector to stay within the circle. How can we tell, given an (x, y) coordinate, if we’re inside the circle or not?

The Ghost of High School Math

So our problem at hand is that we need to know when a click is outside of our color wheel. We know that there’s a certain point (x, y) that represent the center of our circle, and we know that the radius of the circle is 210 units. So we can use the Pythagorean Theorem to tell us if the distance from the center of the wheel to a clicked point is greater than the radius of the circle - meaning that the user has selected a point outside of our color wheel.

Try clicking outside of the circle. Notice the 'In bounds?' value changes.

Now that we know when a user is out-of-bounds, how do we keep them in-bounds? It would be great if we could move the selector to the edge of the circle but no further when a user clicks out of bounds.

This part proved pretty challenging. We didn’t have a great way to find a point along a line that was only so far away from the center.

Getting polar

Based on some fact-finding we’d done about HSL values, we knew that in the end we’d need to know a couple things:

Knowing the angle would also help us with our issue of keeping the selector in bounds. If we can work out the angle from the center to a point out-of-bounds, we could use that same angle and our circle radius to figure out where the “edge” of our circle is on the square canvas.

So far we’ve been using coordinate pairs (x, y) that count from the top-left corner. We’ll write a little conversion function to convert these coordinates to (angle, length) pairs that originate in the center of our color picker. So now we’re dealing with polar coordinates! This primer on the polar coordinate system was very useful!

Try clicking around the circle counter-clockwise and note the angle increases. Then try clicking further from the circle center to see the length value change

Don’t cross the line

Now we’re ready to fix our issue of the selector being able to leave the circle. We:

Of course, this takes place in a split second when you click to move the selector.

Try moving the selector outside the circle. You can't!

We have color!

At this point, we know that our selector will stay in-bounds and we can now reliably calculate a color value from our (angle, length) pair that we’re capturing! Our hue will simply be the angle, and our lightness will be length. To keep things simple, saturation will be fixed at 100%.

Using the polar coordinates, we can calculate the HSL color value. Click around to see the color value change.

Getting out of the way

This color picker widget will be part of a touch-screen control so we needed to think about how our code might get in the user’s way and prevent a good experience. For example, what if you try to click the very edge of the circle but your touch is hitting just outside of the circle? We modified our code to respond to touches in a buffer zone outside of the color wheel and the selector circle to account for “fat fingers”:

Try clicking in the gray 'buffer zone.' The click is recognized, but the selector still stays within the colored circle's boundary.

After that we wrote a conversion function that would take the calculated HSL values and return an RGB value which our client then used on the application’s back end. And that’s it! Many layers of engineering went into making a color selector that “just works!”


Written by Dan Drust on 16 April 2020

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