Base16 Shell Tmux Vim Color Switching Dead Simple

I’ve been using base16 as my terminal color scheme for a while now, I used to use solarized. I’ve been pleased with the results. Over all the base 16 suite is a great looking set of themes that works well in the shell and in vim. Chris has done a great job on it.

One of the issues that I’ve had is my setup was theme specific, meaning after I chose a theme, I was committed and switching colorschemes mid-coding session was painful. There were ad-hoc times where the visibility of a light theme was crucial to taking pride of my environment. Basically:

Dark themes + shitty projectors == :(

Typically I use a dark theme, but when I have do an ad-hoc presentation or someone comes over to pair program, it’s easier on the eyes to use a light theme.

Attempt 1: iTerm Profiles + Environment variables

Intially I created dedicated iTerm profiles so that I can import the correct colorscheme which would set the 16 ansi colors to the exact color. I had my .bashrc and .vimrc check the ITERM_PROFILE setting provided by iTerm to set the proper themes in tmux and vim. The solution roughly consisted of the following:

  1. Manually Create a new iTerm profile titled with the name of the base16 theme I wanted to use. e.g. base16-default.dark
  2. Manually update my bashrc to include logic to source the right iterm-shell init script. The bashrc would also tell tmux to source the right color schemes.
  3. Manually update my vimrc to set the right colorscheme and background accordingly

While this worked for the most part, it required creating a new iTerm and was pretty kludgy overall.

The biggest problem was that switching profiles wouldn’t change the ITERM_PROFILE environment variable in tmux. Since tmux is a client/server app it would hold on to the ITERM_PROFILE that was initially used when the tmux server was created. Therefore creating new tmux shells would have the original theme not the latest.

Attempt 2: (Current solution) auto-generated bash functions

I created a that will automatically create base16_{theme}_{dark|light} functions that will quickly switch to that theme. in addition the functions will create ~/.vimrc_background and ~/.base16_theme files. These files allow the following:

  • the .vimrc_background file will configure vim to use the latest use base16 profile.
  • the .base16_theme is a soft link to the latest activated theme so that it can be sourced newly created shell

In action

Super quick setup:

Until I convince Chris to include this in his project, clone my fork

$ git clone

Add the following to your bashrc (change the location to match where you’ve cloned the base-16 shell):

if [ -n "$PS1" ]; then # if statement guards adding these helpers for non-interative shells
  eval "$(~/Development/base-16/shell/"

Install the chriskempson/base16-vim plugin for super quick vundle setup, add to your vimrc:

plugin 'chriskempson/base16-vim'

then install base16-vim using :PluginInstall

Lastly, Add the following to your vimrc:

if filereadable(expand("~/.vimrc_background"))
  let base16colorspace=256
  source ~/.vimrc_background


In new shells, use the bash functions to change the color scheme:

$ base16_default_dark

Quick and painless color switching, Enjoy.