This is a slightly refreshed version of an article originally published on my personal blog.
If there is something that people love as much as tweaking their editing configurations it’s probably the selection of color themes. A good color theme can make your work much more pleasant and a bad one that literally impair your vision. It’s a fact of life that I’m a firm supporter of low-contrast color themes with dark backgrounds - I find them easy on the eyes and I feel that they don’t strain the eyes as much as most themes. I’ve even ported a couple of popular themes to Emacs - Zenburn and Solarized.
In this short article we’ll see how color theming has changed in Emacs 24 and I’ll share with you a few tips on theme creation and distribution.
Color Theming in Emacs 24
Prior to Emacs 24 the most popular way to incorporate custom color themes into Emacs was the color-theme package. While it usually got the job done it had some problems that I won’t be discussing here and more importantly - it’s a third-party package, that’s not part of Emacs proper.
finally introduced a new standard way of dealing with color themes
(based on Emacs’s built-in customize facility). While it doesn’t have
a proper name (as far as I know) it’s commonly referred to as the
deftheme facility, since
deftheme is the name of the macro you’d
use to create such a theme. (
deftheme has actually been around
since Emacs 23, but it was heavily improved in Emacs 24)
Emacs 24 comes with a selection of built-in themes that you can choose
from, so you’re no longer bound to the default theme (which I find
quite ugly). To choose a new theme just do a
M-x load-theme (tab
completion is available for the names of the available themes). At
this point you can give the command a try with the
tango theme. If you
like a theme so much that you’d want to use it all the time you can
put in your Emacs configuration (
init.el for instance) like this:
If you’d like to return to the default theme just do a
How do you create a
deftheme theme? Quite simply actually - just do
a M-x customize-create-theme. You’ll be presented with an UI
prompting you for a theme name, description and faces. After you save
the theme a file called
name-theme.el will be written on your
filesystem. Here’s its skeleton:
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Personally I dislike customize a lot, so when I needed to create an
Emacs 24 theme for the first time I just opened the source code of
tango theme and used it as a reference.
Once you’ve created the new theme you’ll have to drop it in a folder
that’s on the
custom-theme-load-path. I’d suggest the following:
If you’re an Emacs Prelude user
you’re already covered. This folder exists and is automatically added
custom-theme-load-path by Prelude, so all you have to do is drop
there the themes you’d want to try out. Prelude also uses the
Zenburn theme by default.
You may find the rainbow-mode useful when developing color themes. If fontifies strings that represent color codes according to those colors. The mode is known to be a great addition to css-mode, but I find it very helpful with color theme development as well. It’s also included (and enabled) in Prelude by default. Here you can see it in action.
I’d also advise you follow the proper naming convention
name-theme.el so that it’s apparent that your theme is
Oh, and one more thing - porting themes from
deftheme is really simple (just have a look at the old and the new
version of Zenburn in its repo), so you should really consider porting
all the themes you maintain to
deftheme. These days most of the
popular themes are
deftheme only, but I guess you might still
stumble on some theme that’s
Installing Additional Themes
The Emacs package manager
package.el (formerly known as ELPA) is
gaining a lot of popularity lately and the community repos
Marmalade already house many Emacs
24 themes that you can install from there. Assuming you’re using one
of the repos you can install
zenburn like this:
After it’s installed you can activate it like this:
Making Themes Package.el Friendly
If you’re developing a theme that you’d like to submit to MELPA &
Marmalade it’s imperative that the theme modifies the
custom-theme-load-path in an
autoload - otherwise it won’t be of
much use. Add the following snippet (or something similar) before the
provide-theme line if your custom theme:
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A note for OSX users
For color themes to be rendered correctly you need to build your Emacs with
srbg support. If you’re a homebrew user this means you have to
install Emacs like this:
The Emacs from Emacs for MacOS X is built without it and I would not recommend you using it.
Here’s how Zenburn looks with
And this is how it looks without it.
Some colors look lighter and a bit washed out without
Color theming in Emacs has never been easier.
Try many of the excellent themes available on MELPA & Marmalade!
Develop new themes & share them with everyone!
Port themes from
deftheme so we can finally say