Published: 2013-04-15

Python Cairo Tutorial

Recently I was looking for a way to draw some nice vector images from Python. I had been using Matplotlib, but since I was sort of shoe-horning my application into it, performance was terrible and the images looked pretty bad.

Enter Cairo. Cairo is a vector graphics library written in C but with bindings available for a number of languages, including Python. Performance is quite good, and the images come out looking really nice. It supports output to either SVG or PNG as well.

I found the existing tutorials a bit lacking, so I decided to put together my own. This is partly for my own purposes (memory enhancement in the future) but hopefully others will find it useful as well.

Getting Started

The Cairo documentation is quite nice, though it covers the C version of the API, so it will be less useful for anyone not familiar with C or anyone who is in a hurry. There is also documentation specific to Pycairo

Cairo images are created by defining a "surface", which primarily handles outputting the image you create to a file, and a "context", which provides the actual drawing tools that you will use to define an image on a surface.

Cairo is incredibly powerful, and I'm only going to cover a small part of it. Specifically, how to create basic vector and raster image files. Let's start with an example.

Simple Example

Let's take a look at a simple example that demonstrates several of the interesting and useful aspects of Cairo.

The first thing to note is that a Context is literally what it sounds like. The context object holds the current "state" of the drawing. This should be familiar to people who have worked with other graphics packages before, such as OpenGL.

I think the easiest way to think about this is to imagine a pen or a brush hovering over a sheet of paper (the analogy isn't perfect, but it is close enough for our purposes). The move_to method moves the pen to the specified coordinates without letting it touch the paper. The line_to method does the same, only with the pen or brush pressed to the paper.

The set_source_rgb method (and its cousin, set_source_rgba that includes an alpha, or transparency, channel) change the color of the brush. Note that this is a stateful change, so changing the color will affect all future drawing unless the color is changed again, either manually or using the save and restore methods.

The save and restore methods allow us to remember the current state of the context. We can then change it, for instance we might want to use a different color, and retrieve the saved state later with restore. This saves us from having to specify complicated settings more than once.

Finally, note that creating a PNG differs quite a bit from creating an SVG. This is something that I researched quite a bit and actually had a hard time believing. Basically, to write the SVG you have to be completely finished with your drawing. You then call the finish method, which writes the file, but also prevents you from further modifying the surface (attempting to do so will raise an exception). On the other hand, saving a PNG is simple and can be done multiple times.

Domain-Specific Abstraction

Of course the kind of thing shown in the example above is nice for messing around, but when you have a specific purpose in mind you will generally want to abstract Cairo's generic tools a bit. For instance, I wanted to draw circles, each of which represented a particle in a 2D simulation. Below is a function that would map my problem domain into Cairo in a fairly simple manner.

def draw_particle(context, particle):
    context.arc(particle.x, particle.y, particle.r, 0, 2 * pi)

Note that the fill and stroke methods have two versions each. The plain old method and a _preserve variant. The difference is that the default behavior is to forget about the line or other shape that has been defined after it has been stroked or filled. The _preserve methods don't have this behavior, so you can stroke a shape, then fill it without having to redefine it.