Beautiful custom colormaps with Matplotlib

If your Matplotlib chart needs a colormap and you’re not using an inbuilt map, chances are you’re going to have a bad time. I used to dread editing colormaps in Python. Every help thread I looked at showed a different approach, and none of them quite matched my situation. This was always disappointing because colormaps can vastly change the message you’re sending with your data visualisation, and can even go so far as to make your chart un-useable.

Don’t believe me? Check this out.

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Each of these visualisations show identical data (estimated population of local government areas in Australia), but with different colormaps. The data is continuous and positive, which is shown by carefully examining the legend for each. However, the colormaps tell a different story, one that’s a bit like the tale of Goldilocks:

  1. The first chart uses a sequential colormap, where the lightness value changes (either increasing or decreasing) monotonically throughout. If the detail in your visualisation is important then sequential probably isn’t your best bet, since it can be difficult to compare areas with similar values.
  2. The second chart uses a diverging colormap. With more colours it’s easier to tell the difference between similar values, but it also suggests to the viewer that the data is centred about a normal baseline, like zero. If we were to normalise our data about the mean then this scale would be appropriate, but since we’re just showing a range of positive values it doesn’t work here.
  3. The third chart is just right. This is similar to a sequential map since the color changes gradually throughout, with one end that clearly indicates higher values, and one that indicates lower values. However this map includes more colors, which allows the viewer to more easily compare small differences.

These are just a few examples of the colormaps you can use, for more details and options, check out this guide from Matplotlib.

Designing and creating a colormap gets even harder if you are attempting to make it fit in with a theme. For example, a visualisation embedded within a dashboard or website with an existing color scheme. It’s worth putting in the extra work for a thoroughly professional end product, and this guide will help you get there.

Using a Matplotlib inbuilt colormap

Let’s create a test image to work with, and turn off the axis ticks to make it look a bit nicer.

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Default matplotlib colormap.

Now let’s edit the image, and test out 4 different inbuilt Matplotlib colormaps.

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Beautiful custom colormaps with Matplotlib
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