Vector graphics encode high-level meaning about the shapes that make up a drawing allowing you to manipulate them in higher-level ways.
The Pixel Data chapter discusses working directly with pixels, the fundamental, low-level unit of raster graphics. This chapter looks at vector graphics, which represent images as high-level shapes. Scalable Vector Graphics, or
svg, is a common XML-based vector graphics format. SVG files look like this:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 360 144">
<rect fill="#092" y="89.43" width="360" height="54.57"/>
<rect fill="#0af" width="360" height="90"/>
<rect fill="#fff" x="252" y="54" width="36" height="36"/>
<polygon fill="#f00" points="288 54 270 36 252 54 288 54"/>
SVG files are fairly easy to read and write. One way to get started with vector drawing and code is to write SVG directly by hand and then view them in software like Illustrator or Figma. While this works, SVG is more of an interchange format and isn’t really intended for hand coding. In particular, SVG is declarative and doesn’t have the imperative control structures—like
if conditionals and
Compare creating scenes using direct mark making vs. cut-out shapes.
Divide class into groups. Give some groups felt and scissors and the other group paper and makers.
Groups, 5 minutes
Using only the materials on your group’s table, create a side-view depiction of a car.
Before you begin, consider the elements that will make up your image of the car: wheels, doors, windows.
Individually, 2 minutes
Look around the room at what the other groups have made.
Groups, 5 minutes
Class, 5 minutes
Vector graphics must be converted to raster graphics—a process called rasterization—in order to be viewed on a pixel-based display. Vector graphics contain all the information necessary to do so, but you can not directly convert from raster images to vector images: In order to do so you would have to make inferences about the meaning implied by the raster image. Form is ambiguous and inferences are just guesses; they may be wrong.
Consider the image below. What would the image look like if the black circle were removed?
We might infer that a red circle lies behind the black one.
The red shape might be a crescent instead. Or it could be something else entirely. We don’t know.
We don’t know if the blue background should continue either.
When we look at the image, we quickly infer that it represents two overlapping circles on a blue rectangle, but the raster image doesn’t contain information about shapes at all. It contains only blue, red, and black pixels. Humans are very, very good at inferring meaning from visual forms. We fill in meaning without conscious thought. When we look at the image above we see the circles automatically.
Humans are so good at inferring visual meaning that it can be difficult for us to separate our inferences from our direct observations. In Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Robert A. Heinlein explores this idea. One of the book’s characters is a fair witness, a person who has trained themselves to carefully observe and report what they see without drawing inferences.
Anne was on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?”
Anne looked, then answered, “It’s white on this side.”
Jubal went on to Jill: “You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked—and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.”
Because we are so good at inferring meaning, meaning is always available to us. Computers are not good at inferring meaning from form. A human can guess that a red circle lies behind the black one, but a computer can’t—so the human can imagine the drawing without the circle, and the computer can’t.
This is the key advantage of vector graphics over raster graphics: vector graphics contain high-level meaning about the image that they represent. They are built from semantic units like rectangles and ellipses instead of nonsemantic pixels. This meaning allows computers to easily make high-level changes: we can scale the vector image up and perfectly fill in the needed additional detail; we can change the fonts used to render text; we can remove a shape and reveal what is behind it.
Actually, computers can infer meaning from images, they just need to be programmed to do so. This is an extremely active area of research, and the rate of progress in recent years is staggering. This research is already making its way to consumer tools—Photoshop introduced Content-Aware Fill in 2010. Current approaches are actually better than humans at many specific tasks.
The Two Minute Papers channel on YouTube summarizes graphics and AI research papers. Here are some great videos:
Using a vector-based graphics library allows us to computationally generate images, export them in a way that preserves their high-level shape information, and then further manipulate them in vector editing software.
Top: Vector Output
Middle: Illustrator » Effect » Stylize » Round Corners…
Bottom: Illustrator » Custom Pattern Brush
Building a workflow like this, that combines custom coding with manual manipulation and prebuilt vector effects, can be a powerful approach to exploring form.
Paper.js is an open source vector graphics scripting framework that runs on top of the HTML5 Canvas. It offers a clean Scene Graph / Document Object Model and a lot of powerful functionality to create and work with vector graphics and bezier curves, all neatly wrapped up in a well designed, consistent and clean programming interface.
You can also use PaperScript with this site’s code example editor. You can tell the editor you are using PaperScript with a special comment:
// language paperscript.
Here is an example of a Paper.js program written in PaperScript:
var path = new Path();
let path = new paper.Path();
PaperScript lets you use mathematical operators to work with Point and Size objects. You can see this on line 12 in the example above.
circle1Location + new Point(100, 0) adds two points together by adding their components.
var point1 = new Point(5, 10);
var point2 = new Point(10, 20);
var result = point1 + point2;
const point1 = new paper.Point(5, 10);
const point2 = new paper.Point(10, 20);
const result = point1.add(point2);
ConstDo Not Work in PaperScript
var point1 = new Point(5, 10);
let point1 = new paper.Point(5, 10);
The p5.js library is an immediate mode graphics library. When you call
ellipse(), p5.js immediately draws the shape to the canvas.
Paper.js is a retained mode graphics library. When you call
Path.Ellipse(), Paper.js creates object instances to represent those shapes and adds them to a scene graph. The scene graph is editable: you can add, remove, and reorder shapes in the graph and you change their properties. The shapes in the scene graph are all drawn to the canvas at once, when you are done making changes to it.
Creating an animation in p5.js involves constructing and drawing the entire canvas every frame. In contrast, Paper.js redraws the shapes in your scene graph every frame. To create an animation all you have to do is change the properties of your already existing shapes.
Notice that we don’t need to create the rectangle or the ellipse in every
onFrame() call. They are created only once before the animation begins. We also don’t need to set the color of the circle every frame. We can set it just when it changes, and that information is also stored in the scene graph.
Since Paper.js works in retained mode and stores your drawing as a vector scene graph, you can export your scene as an
svg drawing that you can open in a vector editor like Adobe Illustrator.
Project.exportSVG() function will create an
svg representation of your project as a string. You need to do a little more work to download this data as a file. You can use the
downloadAsSVG() in the example below to export your sketches. To export the example click it to focus it, and then press the
s key to download the export.
This pretty minimal example shows the basics of drawing lines with Paper.js. It shows how to create and configure a path object, and how to add points to the path with
A super-useful feature of Paper.js is the ability to combine shapes with boolean operations. This allows you to describe complex shapes by building them from primitives.
Explore this chapter’s example code by completing the following challenges.
.strokeCapof both lines to
Math.random(). This will get you a random value between 0 and 500:
Math.random() * 500.
subtract. Tip: You’ll need to do this in two steps.
Paper Garden is a program that generates stylized drawings of plants arranged in a wall garden. It is writen in about 300 lines of PaperScript using Paper.js. Read the case study to learn about how this program works and explore the code.
Explore using Paper.js. Consider using a hybrid workflow: start with code and Paper.js, export as SVG, and then work manually in vector illustration software.
Displaying vector art on a pixel-based display, inkjet printer, or laser printer requires rasterization. It is possible, however, to display vector art without rasterizing using a laser cutter or pen plotter. Explore these tools in combination with creative coding by creating a laser cut or pen plotted design in paper.js.