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Mx. Leah Velleman

Coder, linguist, singer, occasional blogger. See my Github profile or my résumé and how I build it.

Showing what's reachable in Vim and Tmux

12 Dec 2020

This version of the post uses high-contrast colors for accessibility. I actually use a low-contrast color scheme called Solarized. Flip the switch to try both.

Accessible colors

I use Tmux to manage terminal window real estate and Vim to edit text. A year ago, my setup had a bunch of fancy status bars. Now it looks like this:

A plain multi-pane terminal layout, with some panes on a darker background

“Oh,” you might think, “This is going to be a lecture about simplicity. She’s going to tell me to make do with less information.”

But this isn’t less information. It’s just the right information. It tells me, moment by moment, what is possible from where I am.

Confusing possibilities

Using Tmux and Vim together meant the answers to questions like these were unpredictable:

  • What keybindings do I use to navigate to that piece of text? 1 1 Vim and Tmux have different keybindings for moving between regions. All Tmux keybindings begin with a leader, which it intercepts so that no Vim keybindings can use the same leader.

  • What macros can I use on it? 2 2 You can record a Vim macro that travels to other Vim windows, does things there, and returns. You can’t record a macro that travels to other Tmux panes.

  • Can I search in it from where I am? 3 3 Vim search using / highlights search results in other windows of the current session, but not in other Tmux panes. (Tmux search is similarly limited and less useful.)

  • What copy-and-paste features can I use to bring it to me? 4 4 Vim and Tmux use different clipboards. Now, ok, with enough cleverness, you can automatically take anything copied into one clipboard and duplicate it into the other one. This means you don’t have to remember whether something is in the Vim clipboard or the Tmux one. But isn’t a total solution. Vim actually has a much richer set of copy-and-paste features than Tmux: multiple named registers, for instance. So if you want to use a named register, you still have to know whether the place you’re copying to is in the same Vim session as the one you’re copying from.

  • Could I accidentally hide it by doing something mundane where I’m working? 5 5 If you suspend a Vim session using ^Z, all of its windows are hidden at once, but nothing in other Tmux panes is hidden.

  • Could I accidentally destroy data in it? 6 6 If you quit a Vim session without saving using :qa!, or if you kill its parent Tmux pane using ^B x, changes in all of its Vim windows are lost, but nothing in other Tmux panes is lost.

These are the very most important pieces of information to have about something on my screen. Without knowing the answers, I can’t work.

Using Vim alone, or Tmux alone, the answers are consistent. Using them together, the answers were different for different regions of my screen, and changed every time I moved to a different region. And when they did change, I didn’t get any visual indication of the new answers.

It was like cooking while somehow being unable to judge the distance to my tools. Sure, I could stop and think about whether that potholder was within reach. But I couldn’t just instinctively grab it when my pot boiled over.

The new setup

With the new setup, the answers are right there.

This pane, with a white background and a bright cursor line, is my current Vim pane. This is as far as I can “reach” with Vim editing commands and cursor movement commands.

A plain multi-pane terminal layout, with some panes on a darker background

If there are other panes with white backgrounds, they’re part of the same Vim session as me. This is as far as I can “reach” with Vim pane-switching commands (and macros that contain them), “carry” things with Vim registers, and so on.

A plain multi-pane terminal layout, with some panes on a darker background

Panes with dark backgrounds are outside my Vim session. I can only “reach” them using Tmux commands.

A plain multi-pane terminal layout, with some panes on a darker background

To support this, I’ve restyled nearly everything else to make background color immediately legible.

This means that when I look at a screen region, its reachability is the first thing I notice, before I even focus my eyes to read a word of text. And when I’m working in one region, I can tell what other regions my actions might affect without looking away, just by their color in my peripheral vision.

The details

.vimrc and .tmux.conf settings are personal. So I’m going to talk through this step-by-step and explain what the settings do. I think these work well as a package deal, but you might disagree.


This setup works with any color scheme that has two usable background colors and two usable foreground colors. The background colors should be similar to each other — so using black and white as your background colors is a bad idea, but using black and dark grey is great.

If you use a traditional light-background terminal color scheme that puts black, “bright black,” white, and “bright white” in the traditional places, then it will probably work fine. If it also has a “bright yellow” color that’s pale enough to use as a background, so much the better.

If you’re going to use a color scheme that monkeys with the traditional color locations, or a dark color scheme, you’ll need to make some substitutions.

Find Replace with
0 or colour0 A plain high-contrast foreground color
15 or colour15 A plain high-contrast background color
8 or colour8 A lower-contrast foreground color
7 or colour7 A lower-contrast background color
11 or colour11 A highlighted background color

Background colors

Give the current Tmux pane a higher-contrast color scheme: the darkest possible background and the lightest forground color. Give other Tmux panes a lower-contrast color scheme, which will again show through. In .tmux.conf:

set -g window-style 'fg=colour8, bg=colour7'
set -g window-active-style 'fg=colour0, bg=colour15'

Give Vim a transparent background so that the Tmux background colors show through. In .vimrc:

highlight Normal ctermfg=0 ctermbg=None

Only show the cursor line in the active Vim region. This distinguishes it from inactive ones in the same Tmux pane. In .vimrc:

set cursorline
autocmd WinEnter,BufEnter,BufWinEnter * set cursorline
autocmd WinLeave,BufLeave,BufWinLeave * set nocursorline
highlight CursorLine cterm=None ctermbg=11

If your color scheme has a color in slot 11 that’s unusably dark or distractingly bright, replace the 11 in the last line with 7.

Since the lower-contrast color scheme means “you interact with this using Tmux,” also give it to the Tmux status bar — but use a brighter foreground color for the name of the current window so that it stands out. In .tmux.conf:

set -g status-style 'fg=colour8, bg=colour7'
set -g window-active-status-style 'fg=colour8, bg=colour7'

Visual quiet

Faint borders

Traditional Vim windows are surrounded by a full character’s worth of color. Change it to something less eye-catching.

Vertically, the wide bar of color comes from the VertSplit highlight group. Override that by blanking the (wide) background and making visible the (narrow) foreground. In .vimrc:

highlight VertSplit cterm=None ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None

Horizontally, it comes from the status line.

Distinguish the status line

Traditionally, the status line has a strong background color.

Often people use a fancy status line, like Airline or Lightline, that is even more colorful than the default. If you’re using one of those, you’ll need to disable or uninstall it.

Instead, give the status line a blank background, a low-contrast text color, and underlined text. This underline forms the horizontal border for Vim windows.

In .vimrc:

highlight StatusLine cterm=underline ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight StatusLineNC cterm=underline ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None

Without a visible background, it’s possible to mistake the status line for a line of text or code. The low-contrast color helps some; but low-contrast text is also sometimes used for things like code comments.

If your terminal allows for italicized text and you don’t use it elsewhere, italicizing the status line is a nice option. Otherwise, I find it’s enough to distinguish it using strings of text that never appear in my day-to-day work. For instance, I never find myself editing a line of text that begins and ends with two periods and a space.

Write a bare-bones status line and style it with double periods.

In .vimrc:

set statusline=..\ %F\ ..
set statusline+=%=
set statusline+=..\ %l/%L\ ..

(Writing your own statusline is its own topic. Here %F produces the full path to the current file, \   produces a literal space, %= produces a horizontal gap, and %l and %L are the current line and the total line count.)

Line numbers, the sign column, and the fold column

To prevent swaths of misleading background color, specify a transparent background for special columns that appear to the left of a Vim window. Instead, distinguish them from surrounding text using the foreground color. In .vimrc:

highlight LineNr ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight LineNrAbove ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight LineNrBelow ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight CursorLineNr ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight FoldColumn ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None
highlight SignColumn ctermfg=8 ctermbg=None

Fold lines

The horizontal marks used for folds are especially tricky for this style, because by default they use both a background color and underlining. To prevent swaths of misleading background color or underlines that can be mistaken for region boundaries, mark them with foreground color instead.

In .vimrc:

highlight Folded cterm=bold ctermfg=2 ctermbg=None

Getting accustomed

Before I started using this setup, I formed a bad habit without really realizing it: if I wanted to move to a different region of my terminal window, I just kind of started flailing around, trying different keystrokes until I got my bearings. So I had to unlearn that, and cultivate instead the habit of actually looking at my screen to see what was possible.

Once I did that, I found myself using multi-pane layouts a lot more. They started feeling less like a hassle to be tolerated and more like something useful.