Introducing Vector Graphics and Inkscape

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Inkscape's vector graphics open a whole new world for creating art.

SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is an open W3C standard for describing two-dimensional graphics in a different way than traditional computer images, which are all bitmaps of some kind. A bitmap or raster graphic is, ignoring compression and other optimization techniques, simply one long list of all the pixels constituting an image, each one described in as much detail as possible—exact color, transparency and so on.

Instead, a vector graphics file contains a series of pseudo-mathematical instructions—such as draw a straight line from this to that coordinate, create a rectangle of this size, rotate it 47 degrees clockwise or fill it with red. The grandfather of vectorial formats is PostScript.

The first and main benefit of this alternative method is being completely separate from the capabilities of the physical display, be it a computer monitor or a piece of paper. More exactly, although it is still (obviously) impossible to see an ultra-crisp image on a low-resolution monitor or printer, a vector graphic has no intrinsic resolution nor limits to it. Vector graphics can be zoomed, shrunk or rotated as much as you wish or as many times as you wish without any degradation, even when printed. For an example, take a look at Figure 1, which shows two zoomed versions of the same drawing side by side, a raster drawing and a vector drawing. The vector one, on the left, is much crisper than the other, isn't it?

Figure 1. A clean vector image (left) compared to a raster image (right) pixilated when expanded.

Another big plus of vector image files is that, because they are sequences of instructions, the size of the image does not affect that of the file, saving both disk space and download time on slow connections.

Last but not least, creating or processing “a series of commands” is a task that can be delegated to a computer program easily and efficiently. SVG files can be mass-generated or modified in almost any way without human intervention. The SVG 1.1 specification also describes 16 filter primitives that make it possible to obtain very complex objects as well as highly realistic effects.

The main reason the world hasn't gone all vectorial yet is that bitmaps remain much better at reproducing the subtle differences in color and contrast that are present in photographs. Vector graphics, however beautiful, are “synthesized”, and it often shows. In spite of this, they remain extremely useful and are becoming more and more common among GNU/Linux desktops.

Go Vectorial with Inkscape!

The most basic GUI-based vector graphics tools for Linux is Figurine, which uses the same file format as the venerable Xfig, and Dia. A much more promising application is Karbon 14, the vector graphic component of KOffice. These days, however, the easiest way to get started with vector graphics on Linux is Inkscape, because of its larger on-line documentation (see Resources) and a wider, more active user and developer community. So, let's see how to start producing vector graphics with Inkscape.

The Interface

The Inkscape main window, shown in Figure 2, is pretty crowded. Right below the main menu is a row of shortcuts to the most commonly used commands, followed by a drawing-tool-dependant control bar. If you need to cooperate with other users, sharing not only text but graphic information, fire up the Pedro Xmpp client available (if your distribution included it and all its dependencies) under the Whiteboard menu. Two handy buttons with a wrench icon on the top-right corner give fast access to global Inkscape preferences and to those of the current document. The drawing tools are mapped to buttons on the right side—that's where you go to create rectangles, spirals, polygons, circles, stars and lines of any possible shape. All these objects have separate panes and control bars where you can set anything from the number of turns in a spiral to the points in a star. Finally, a bottom bar displays a color palette and some status information.

Starting a New Project

The first thing to do after you click on File→New is decide the geometric format of your drawing. There are several choices—from several DVD covers to desktop wallpapers—at all the standard computer and HDTV resolutions plus desktop icons, business cards and more.

To add objects to a drawing, you either can use the shape-related tools on the left or draw from scratch with the pencil, pen and calligraphy tools. Tools in the second group all draw paths defined by nodes. Existing paths can be modified with the node tool, which is the button right below the one with the arrow. After activating that tool, nodes are shown as small diamonds and can be deleted or moved around. To select all and only the nodes you want as quickly as possible, use the mouse wheel. Scrolling it up selects nodes starting with those nearest to the cursor; scrolling down deselects them. You also can smooth whole paths (Path→Simplify) as well as join or break them.

Figure 2. Tremor Values Applied to a Clean Vector Image of the Number Three

The tool for writing or anything else that must be drawn by hand with a mouse or a graphic tablet is the calligraphy pen, which is associated with the nib icon. There are several options for changing the appearance of the pen strokes and their general behavior in order to achieve a more realistic or personal look. Figure 2 shows the number three drawn with tremor values of 0 (on the left) and 1.00 (on the right).

Once you have created or imported an object, you can modify its appearance in many ways, thanks to the Inkscape filters, which can do things as different as fractalization, saturation adjustment and Gaussian blur. The latter is used to adjust a blur setting for an object.

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Articles about Digital Rights and more at http://stop.zona-m.net CV, talks and bio at http://mfioretti.com

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