MATLAB Answers

Explicitly specifying line colors when plotting a matrix

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Knut on 30 Oct 2011
Commented: Chien-Han Su on 30 Apr 2020
x = 1:3;
y = [1 2 3; 42 40 34];
plot(x,y,'Color', [0.5 0.5 0.5; 1 0 0])
produce an error:
Error using plot
Color value must be a 3 element numeric vector
Same with:
Error using plot
Error in color/linetype argument
This has bugged me for years, but I have circumvented it by unrolling the matrix into a number of vectors that I plot one at a time using whatever color I prefer. But is there no way to tell MATLAB (in a compact, readable form) what colors I would like it to use for whatever number of lines it will plot?

  1 Comment

ELTH on 16 Aug 2016
You can make a for loop and specify each line's colour based on the RGB code:
x = 1:3;
y = [22 20 18; 32 30 24; 42 40 34];
hold on
for k=1:size(y,1)
set(p(k),'Color',[(size(y,1)-k+1)/size(y,1) k/size(y,1) 0.1]);

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Accepted Answer

Kelly Kearney
Kelly Kearney on 10 Jan 2017
An alternative method would be to save the handles of the plotted data and set the colors via the array option of set. I find this method a lot less hassle than messing with ColorOrder and hold states:
x = 1:3;
y = [1 2 3; 42 40 34];
h = plot(x,y);
set(h, {'color'}, {[0.5 0.5 0.5]; [1 0 0]});
I often use the shortcut of using a colormap with num2cell to get the desired list of colors:
set(h, {'color'}, num2cell(jet(2),2));


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Kelly Kearney
Kelly Kearney on 27 Mar 2017
The cell arrays are used because I'm using the cell array syntax for set, as described in the help text for that function (third option):
"set(H,pn,pv) sets the named properties specified in the cell array of strings pn to the corresponding values in the cell array pv for all objects specified in H. The cell array pn must be 1-by-N, but the cell array pv can be M-by-N where M is equal to length(H) so that each object will be updated with a different set of values for the list of property names contained in pn."
I could also set multiple properties using this syntax:
set(h, {'color', 'linewidth'}, [num2cell(jet(2),2) num2cell((1:length(h))')]);
Chien-Han Su
Chien-Han Su on 30 Apr 2020
I regret for not seeing this earlier! Thank you for sharing!

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More Answers (3)

Image Analyst
Image Analyst on 30 Oct 2011
In the help it says this:
"plot automatically chooses colors and line styles in the order specified by ColorOrder and LineStyleOrder properties of current axes. ColorOrder : m-by-3 matrix of RGB values
Colors to use for multiline plots. Defines the colors used by the plot and plot3 functions to color each line plotted. If you do not specify a line color with plot and plot3, these functions cycle through the ColorOrder property to obtain the color for each line plotted. To obtain the current ColorOrder, which might be set during startup, get the property value:
Note that if the axes NextPlot property is replace (the default), high-level functions like plot reset the ColorOrder property before determining the colors to use. If you want MATLAB to use a ColorOrder that is different from the default, set NextPlot to replacechildren. You can also specify your own default ColorOrder."
co = get(gca,'ColorOrder') % Initial
% Change to new colors.
set(gca, 'ColorOrder', [0.5 0.5 0.5; 1 0 0], 'NextPlot', 'replacechildren');
co = get(gca,'ColorOrder') % Verify it changed
% Now plot with changed colors.
x = 1:3;
y = [1 2 3; 42 40 34];
plot(x,y, 'LineWidth', 3);
The things I put in the set() command are especially important.


Show 3 older comments
Cici Ma
Cici Ma on 9 Jan 2017
A note for subplot: need to put the set line before each plot command
x = 1:3;
y1 = [1 2 3; 42 40 34];
y2 = [3 5 8; 11 17 29];
set(gca, 'ColorOrder', [0.5 0.5 0.5; 0.2 0.2 0.2],'NextPlot', 'replacechildren');
plot(x,y1, 'LineWidth', 3);
set(gca, 'ColorOrder', [0.5 0.5 0.5; 0.2 0.2 0.2],'NextPlot', 'replacechildren');
plot(x,y2, 'LineWidth', 3);
And much appreciated to Image Analyst!
KAE on 10 Jan 2017
And if you need to restore the color order to the defaults, use reset(gca).

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Daniele Maddaluno
Daniele Maddaluno on 8 Dec 2017
Edited: Daniele Maddaluno on 8 Dec 2017
I can solve your problem with something like this:
x = 1:5;
y = [x; x.^2; x.^3; x.^4; x.^5];
n = size(y, 1);
colors = hsv(n);
h = plot(x, y);
set(h, {'color'}, num2cell(colors, 2));


Vivek Bhardwaj
Vivek Bhardwaj on 14 Feb 2019
Hi, works perfectly, thank you. I have a follow-up question to this. Is it possible that I can have the colors based on a different data set? i.e. I use X and Y only for plotting but the colors of the plot are based on data set, say P (Pressures).

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Joakim Wang Erlandsson
Joakim Wang Erlandsson on 19 Sep 2018
It is beyond me how matlab manages to be so unintuitive in the most simple sitiations. Luckily there is a smart community that can find workarounds for all of these shortcomings. Someone above stated happily that this answer is still helping people years after it was asked, too me this is just sad, that Mathworks haven't improved this in all of that time.

  1 Comment

Jim Camp
Jim Camp on 4 Nov 2018
Joakim, I partially agree with you. In my (limited) experience, MATLAB is much more intuitive than its competitors. If you think MATLAB is difficult, try R! However, this example shows that there is plenty of scope for improvement.

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