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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

By Bruce Byfield on September 29, 2008 (9:00:00 PM)

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Over the last decade, vector graphics have gone from being a revolutionary format to a standard method of rendering computer images -- so much so that they are standard in the KDE 4 desktops. This popularity is based on the fact that, because they represent images as mathematical equations -- usually in SVG format -- vector graphics open faster, render better on screen, and can be resized more readily than raster graphics, in which an image is created pixel by pixel. Free software includes a number of options for working with vector graphics, including several simple ones: OpenOffice.org's Draw, KOffice's Karbon14, and Inkscape, which is currently the premier vector graphic editor in free software.

The easiest way to edit vector graphics is to import them into the GIMP, the standard raster graphics editor in free software. As you open an .SVG file in the GIMP, you can set the width and height of the file, as well as its resolution. If you plan to print the file, you will almost certainly want to increase the resolution, but, that done, you can then edit the file using the GIMP's complete collection of tools. The drawback is that the GIMP does not save to .SVG format, so you should only resort to it if you are willing to give up the advantages of the format.

If your needs are simple, you might also get by with Sodipodi, which Inkscape originally forked from. Sodipodi is no longer in development, but its code is still available to run on modern distributions. It opens with a floating window with seven collapsible views. Although it never reached more than 0.34 release, its basic functionality is reasonably complete, and includes basic object manipulation and grouping, text, and the editing of nodes or key points. It has weaknesses -- notably a limited set of primitives (that is, basic shapes), a lack of support for layers, and a reliance on lpr, rather than CUPS, for printing -- but it is still adequate for basic editing.

Another basic editor is Skencil, formerly known as Sketch. While Skencil development is slow, it is more complete than Sodipodi, with controls for layers and object styles, as well as tools for fine-tuning gradients and managing user-added guidelines and simple color separation for those doing high-end printing. Unfortunately, this functionality is handicapped by an interface that positions features in non-standard places. The View menu, for example, is placed seven menus from the left instead of the more standard three, and Layer controls are under Windows. These arrangements might make some users decide that learning Skencil takes more time that it is worth.

OpenOffice.org Draw

Draw is probably the most underestimated application in OpenOffice.org. Its node editing is hidden in a right-click menu, and, like OpenOffice.org as a whole, its color selection, definition, and manipulation is weak compared to other graphics editors. However, for all these weaknesses, Draw is ideal for several types of documents.

To start with, because Draw shares a common code base with Impress, OpenOffice.org's slideshow program, it handles multipage documents more easily than any other vector graphics program. With the Pages pane on the left of the screen, you can easily add new pages and move between them, making it a sort of basic desktop publishing program slightly above the level of Microsoft Publisher.

Just as importantly, like the rest of OpenOffice.org, Draw has a strong collection of primitives in its toolbar. Besides the usual collection of rectangles, ovals, and curves, Draw's collection includes arrows, flow chart shapes, and callouts, making it suitable for various types of diagrams.

Other strong features in Draw are character and paragraph settings and spellchecking for text and extensive object styles that are especially well-suited to documents with many similar objects, such as an organizational chart, or those with long passages of text.

Karbon14

Karbon14 (often known simply as Karbon) is overlooked almost as often as Draw, although it does have a group of loyal users.

Karbon opens in a window full of panes. On closer investigation, you'll find that these panes are actually docked floating palettes, and that, by dragging on their top edges, you can position them anywhere on the desktop, giving you more room for viewing the actual document in the editing window. If you have a wide monitor, this arrangement can be ideal, with tools such as the ones for stroke and fill or layers always available. On anything less than a 19-inch standard screen, though, you are likely to find that using Karbon involves too much flipping back and forth between windows. Fortunately, you can select which palettes to display from the View menu.

Unlike Draw, Karbon lacks strong text or multipage support, and has a relatively small set of primitives. Nor can you save in more than a few formats: besides the native format, only SVG, .EPS, and PostScript are available. However, it does boast several convenient features, such as a split view in the editing window, and an Undo history palette that makes reverting to an earlier version of a file as easy as a mouse click.

Karbon is currently undergoing a major revision to take advantage of KDE 4, as is the rest of KOffice. Since Karbon already has a convenient workflow and some sound fundamentals, the new version should be well worth investigating.

Inkscape

Don't be deceived by the fact that Inkscape is only at version 0.46. The truth is that Inkscape is one of the most conservatively numbered applications ever, and is more than ready for serious work.

On opening Inkscape, you can choose between several dozen different document formats, including letter, A4, business cards, icons, Web banners, and various desktop sizes -- far more than any other vector graphics program discussed here.

When the editing window opens, you should have little trouble navigating if you have ever worked with any other graphics editor. If you do run into difficulties, Inkscape is well-designed for trial and error discovery; with the basic toolkit on the left side of the window and the color picker on the bottom for objects' fill and strokes, you can quickly learn some of the basics, although you may want to read some of the documentation on the project site first.

Although many of Inkscape's tools are standard ones, such as the node editor and the selection of primitives, at least two are standouts. Its calligraphic tool, with settings for brush width, angle (which imitates the way a real brush would be held), and thinning (the amount that the width of a line varies on a curve) is actually a freehand drawing tool that is the next best thing to a drawing tablet. Another standout is the text tool, which allows text to be easily placed upon an angled or curved path, and supports pixel-by-pixel kerning of letters.

The only serious problem with Inkscape is that it supports object styles (that is, storage of a set of attributes for later re-use) only indirectly in duplicating objects, and, unlike Draw, has no ability to store them independently. Some, too, might miss the diagram-building primitives of Draw -- although, with the recent addition of connectors for charts, Inkscape seems to be slowly adding this capacity. However, with its ease of use, Inkscape seems destined to be the free vector graphics editor of choice within a few years. For many, it has reached that stage already.

Problems with the SVG format

No matter which vector graphics program you use, you should note that saving graphics to .SVG format can cause problems when you go to use them. For one thing, Internet Explorer does not support the format, which prevents it from being used extensively in Web graphics, though it is ideally suited for them.

For another, because the SVG specification is still being developed, each editor interprets it in slightly different ways. That means that you cannot assume that saving to the format in one graphics editor will allow you to open it without problems in another. For instance, text added in Inkscape may lose its alignment when opened in the GIMP. Similarly, a graphic created in Draw may be inverted, with various elements scattered about the canvas, when you open it in Karbon. For this reason, if you are sharing a vector graphic file between editors, you may be better off converting it to PostScript or another more standardized format, even at the expense of changing to a raster format.

These caveats aside, among all the available editors, you should find working with vector graphics is, if not flawless, much easier than it was a few years ago. You may have to try more than one to find the best program for your purposes, but at least with all the available choices, you have a good chance of finding the features that you need.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

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Xara?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.102.0.51] on September 29, 2008 09:30 PM
What about Xara? I'm not exactly sure how it fits into the above, but Xara is certainly one of the most complete packages available for vector editing that I know of. It started out as a commercial project before going open source, and easily competes with Inkscape.

Or am I wrong?

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Re: Xara?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.176.56.2] on October 14, 2008 09:15 AM
your wrong

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 29, 2008 10:07 PM
One of the critical components is still proprietary - the part that makes it really fast and it is progressing at a snails pace. It only does basic things and cannot even cut and paste text to or from it or export to any vector format. The Windows version is lights years ahead of the Linux version.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 29, 2008 10:13 PM
From my experience moving vector graphics between applications is that EPS is not standardized and I wouldn't expect full support for it in any application other than Adobe's. The SVG format can be exchanged amongst a number of applications as well as PDF in some cases, which I have had more success with than with EPS.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 134.96.56.27] on September 29, 2008 10:44 PM
> vector graphics open faster, render better on screen, and can be resized more readily than raster graphics
Open faster? But only when the hdd is slow, the cpu fast and the graphic is not very complex.
Resize more readily? Same as above.

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 29, 2008 11:34 PM
I agree - I just converted about 50 photos to vector SVG with the source photos at only 640 x 480 resolution with Inkscape and laid them out on about 25 pages with Scribus and it was very slow to save although the PDF compiling was pretty fast. I bet it would have been much faster with a bitmap format but I didn't want to worry about getting the right resolution. Vector graphics are not a way to solve all graphics problems. When you vectorize photos to get them to look the same as the bitmap versions you don't save any in size. And although vector graphics will scale up in resolution, you still can't scale up detail.
[Modified by: Benjamin Huot on September 29, 2008 11:35 PM]

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Re(1): Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.190.191.242] on September 30, 2008 08:01 AM
Are you seriously using a vector format for photographed content? That's like eating soup with a knife...

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Re(2): Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 30, 2008 10:31 PM
It is unusual, but everybody I have shown it too thinks it looks really cool and it makes the PDF file size much smaller as I have it available on the web as well as need to upload it to Lulu.com after each revision for the print version.
[Modified by: Benjamin Huot on September 30, 2008 10:31 PM]

[Modified by: Benjamin Huot on September 30, 2008 10:32 PM]

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 208.91.137.67] on September 30, 2008 01:13 AM
With Vector Graphics, documentation and tutorials are extremely important. Those learning Inkscape would do well to look at the video tutorials by heathenx at: http://screencasters.heathenx.org/.

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér on September 30, 2008 11:12 AM
I echo the recommendation for http://screencasters.heathenx.org/ - these videos are brilliant.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 139.168.173.3] on September 30, 2008 05:23 AM
Fireworks makes all these programs look very silly. As a web designer i cannot move to linux and use applications with the look, feel and function of 90s equivalents on Windows or Mac.

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 165.139.169.189] on September 30, 2008 01:19 PM
You do know that Fireworks is a raster graphics package right?

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: PerlCoder on September 30, 2008 06:05 AM
Just wanted to say thanks for the article. It coincided well with a small project I was starting on.

Interesting, what you mentioned about IE not supporting .SVG files -- that does seem unfortunate.

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sk1project?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.62.141.112] on September 30, 2008 07:29 AM
What about the sk1project (http://sk1project.org/)? It won the third prize on the the Hackontest event (http://www.hackontest.org) at the OpenExpo 2008 in Zurich and it looks promising...

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 96.53.1.14] on September 30, 2008 09:31 AM
Scare mongering. "you should note that saving graphics to .SVG format can cause problems when you go to use them" - nothing but scare mongering. The problems listed are NOT SVG issues. SVG not working in IE is an IE problem. MS has consistently refused to support the SVG format. But this is no different than using anything that is not fully "accepted" across the industry. The versioning issue is no different than any other application.

If there are problems with SVG, then tells us about the SVG specific issues.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 96.53.1.14] on September 30, 2008 09:37 AM
Re: scare mongering above. SVG *IS* supported under IE via an Adobe component. Unfortunately Adobe is discontinuing support for that application in the near future. But that reflects badly on MS in that the app has been around for years, SVG support therefore has been in demand, and MS is ignoring the demand.

In addition, SVG is just a graphic format. Build your graphics using SVG, and when ready to publish to the web, save the work as PNG or some other suitable format. Or if the tool you are using doesn't support saving to different formats, then do a conversion before publishing.

I for one will create my graphics in SVG (via Inkscape). When I am editing a photograph, then I will use a raster graphics tool such as The Gimp, or Photoshop.

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.128.24.189] on September 30, 2008 02:26 PM
Yes, Using the right tools are important. If GIMP is the equivalent to Photoshop, then a vector editor would be the equivalent of Adaobe Illustrator

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 98.100.173.154] on September 30, 2008 09:45 PM
Inkscape is great. The best of the bunch, but the one thing that really, really needs to be helped is figuring out some way to get it to be able to work with files from Adobe Illustrator and vice-versa. If someone can do that, then you'll REALLY be cooking with gas! Take it from me, a fella who uses IL/PS/IN everyday for a career!

I wish I could do it but alas, I am not that smart :(

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xfig

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 137.82.113.217] on October 01, 2008 12:51 AM
Vector graphics are nothing new. I use xfig, which has a copyright dating back to 1985. I export to EPS for inclusion in LaTeX documents, but I just checked and it supports SVG as well.

The interface may not be sexy by gnome/kde standards which may deter the uninitiated from using it. But it's powerful and well tested (after 20+ years!) It's a shame that you didn't include this classic piece of software in your review.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.123.166.41] on October 01, 2008 01:22 AM
Have you guys tried http://www.inkscape.org/ ? I was a Windows/CorelDraw user before for vectorial graphics, and found this tool exactly what I needed in Linux.

Bruno Braga
http://www.brunobraga.net

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 194.250.98.243] on October 03, 2008 04:12 PM
Have *you* read the article?
Inkscape is the third program in the list.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.60.155.29] on October 01, 2008 12:11 PM
someone mentioned Xaralx already, but it is the best vector graphics app for linux hands down. The license for the "engine" doesn't matter if you're a end-user, that only matters to devs. Tried inkscape, it is clumsy way too much clicky clicky to get anything done plus its very unstable and slow. In one hours use inkscape crashed several times.... I'm really hoping the development of xaralx will continue.

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Re: Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 01, 2008 02:35 PM
The license does matter to end users especially since they are not getting any new developers joining them because of it. Inkscape doesn't crash on me very often, but Xara on Linux sure does. I don't know how you can think the Xara port to Linux has more features than Inkscape - Xara on Linux can't even do copy and paste text from the clipboard either to or from the application and cannot export any vector formats.

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Inkscape manual

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 96.237.71.200] on October 01, 2008 02:51 PM
One of the big things that Inkscape has lacked in the past is a solid manual/users-guide. The volunteers over at FLOSSManuals.net have put together a really great inkscape manual, here <http://en.flossmanuals.net/inkscape>. I highly recommend checking it out if you are interested in using Inkscape. But, I also recommend looking into FLOSSManuals in general. They have a lot going on! It's a great project and it's growing quickly.

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Tools for editing vector graphics in GNU/Linux

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 01, 2008 08:36 PM
I don't do much photo editing as my photos generally come out fine.

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