Use the fascinating Inkscape graphics editor to create attractive layout designs, images, and icons for your website
Vector graphics are made up of paths. Each path is basically a line with a start and end point, curves, angles, and points that are calculated with a mathematical equation. These paths are not limited to being straight—they can be of any shape, size, and even encompass any number of curves. When you combine them, they create drawings, diagrams, and can even help create certain fonts.
These characteristics make vector graphics very different than JPEGs, GIFs, or BMP images—all of which are considered rasterized or bitmap images made up of tiny squares which are called pixels or bits. If you magnify these images, you will see they are made up of a grid (bitmaps) and if you keep magnifying them, they will become blurry and grainy as each pixel with bitmap square’s zoom level grows larger.
Computer monitors also use pixels in a grid. However, they use millions of them so that when you look at a display, your eyes see a picture. In high-resolution monitors, the pixels are smaller and closer together to give a crisper image.
How does this all relate to vector-based graphics? Vector-based graphics aren’t made up of squares. Since they are based on paths, you can make them larger (by scaling) and the image quality stays the same, lines and edges stay clean, and the same images can be used on items as small as letterheads or business cards or blown up to be billboards or used in high definition animation sequences. This flexibility, often accompanied by smaller file sizes, makes vector graphics ideal—especially in the world of the Internet, varying computer displays, and hosting services for web spaces, which leads us nicely to Inkscape, a tool that can be invaluable for use in web design.
What is Inkscape and how can it be used?
Inkscape is a free, open source program developed by a group of volunteers under the GNU General Public License (GPL). You not only get a free download but can use the program to create items with it and freely distribute them, modify the program itself, and share that modified program with others.
Inkscape uses Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), a vector-based drawing language that uses some basic principles:
- A drawing can (and should) be scalable to any size without losing detail
- A drawing can use an unlimited number of smaller drawings used in any number of ways (and reused) and still be a part of a larger whole
SVG and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web standards are built into Inkscape which give it a number of features including a rich body of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) format with complete descriptions and animations. Inkscape drawings can be reused in other SVG-compliant drawing programs and can adapt to different presentation methods. It has support across most web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, Internet Explorer).
When you draw your objects (rectangles, circles, and so on.), arbitrary paths, and text in Inkscape, you also give them attributes such as color, gradient, or patterned fills. Inkscape automatically creates a web code (XML) for each of these objects and tags your images with this code. If need be, the graphics can then be transformed, cloned, and grouped in the code itself, Hyperlinks can even be added for use in web browsers, multi-lingual scripting (which isn’t available in most commercial vector-based programs) and more—all within Inkscape or in a native programming language. It makes your vector graphics more versatile in the web space than a standard JPG or GIF graphic.
There are still some limitations in the Inkscape program, even though it aims to be fully SVG compliant. For example, as of version 0.48 it still does not support animation or SVG fonts—though there are plans to add these capabilities into future versions.
Inkscape is available for download for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, or Solaris operating systems.
To run on the Mac OS X operating system, it typically runs under X11—an implementation of the X Window System software that makes it possible to run X11-based applications in Mac OS X. The X11 application has shipped with the Mac OS X since version 10.5.
When you open Inkscape on a Mac, it will first open X11 and run Inkscape within that program. Loss of some shortcut key options will occur but all functionality is present using menus and toolbars.
Let’s briefly go over how to download and install Inkscape:
- Go to the official Inkscape website at: http://www.inkscape.org/ and download the appropriate version of the software for your computer.
- For the Mac OS X Leopard software, you will also need to download an additional application. It is the X11 application package 2.4.0 or greater from this website: http://xquartz.macosforge.org/trac/wiki/X112.4.0.
Once downloaded, double-click the X11-2.4.0.DMG package first. It will open another folder with the X11 application installer. Double-click that icon to be prompted through an installation wizard.
- Double-click the downloaded Inkscape installation package to start the installation.
For the Mac OS, a DMG file is downloaded. Double-click on it and then drag and drop the Inkscape package to the Application Folder. For any Windows device, an .EXE file is downloaded. Double-click that file to start and complete the installation. For Linux-based computers, there are a number of distributions available. Be sure to download and install the correct installation package for your system.
- Now find the Inkscape icon in the Application or Programs folders to open the program.
- Double-click the Inkscape icon and the program will automatically open to the main screen.
The basics of the software
When you open Inkscape for the first time, you’ll see that the main screen and a new blank document opened are ready to go.
If you are using a Macintosh computer, Inkscape opens within the X11 application and may take slightly longer to load.
The Inkscape interface is based on the GNOME UI standard which uses visual cues and feedback for any icons. For example:
- Hovering your mouse over any icon displays a pop-up description of the icon.
- If an icon has a dark gray border, it is active and can be used.
- If an icon is grayed out, it is not currently available to use with the current selection.
- All icons that are in execution mode (or busy) are covered by a dark shadow. This signifies that the application is busy and won’t respond to any edit request.
- There is a Notification Display on the main screen that displays dynamic help messages to key shortcuts and basic information on how to use the Inkscape software in its current state or based on what objects and tools are selected.
Main screen basics
Within the main screen there is the main menu, a command, snap and status bar, tool controls, and a palette bar.
You will use the main menu bar the most when working on your projects. This is the central location to find every tool and menu item in the program—even those found in the visual-based toolbars below it on the screen. When you select a main menu item the Inkscape dialog displays the icon, a text description, and shortcut key combination for the feature. This can be helpful while first learning the program—as it provides you with easier and often faster ways to use your most commonly used functions of the program.
Let’s take a general tour of the tool bars seen on this main screen. We’ll pay close attention to the tools we’ll use most frequently.
If you don’t like the location of any of the toolbars, you can also make them as floating windows on your screen. This lets you move them from their pre-defined locations and move them to a location of your liking. To move any of the toolbars, from their docking point on the left side, click and drag them out of the window. When you click the upper left button to close the toolbar window, it will be relocated back into the screen.
This toolbar represents the common and most frequently used commands in Inkscape:
As seen in the previous screenshot you can create a new document, open an existing one, save, print, cut, paste, zoom, add text, and much more. Hover your mouse over each icon for details on its function. By default, when you open Inkscape, this toolbar is on the right side of the main screen.
Also found vertically on the right side of the main screen, this toolbar is designed to help with the Snap to features of Inkscape. It lets you easily align items (snap to guides), force objects to align to paths (snap to paths), or snap to bounding boxes and edges.
This toolbar’s options change depending on which tool you have selected in the toolbox (described in the next section). When you are creating objects, it provides you all the detailed options—size, position, angles, and attributes specific to the tool you are currently using. By default, it looks like the following screenshot:
(Move the mouse over the image to enlarge.)
You have options to select/deselect objects within a layer, rotate or mirror objects, adjust object locations on the canvas, and scaling options and much more. Use it to define object properties when they are selected on the canvas.
You’ll use the tool box frequently. It contains all of the main tools for creating objects, selecting and modifying objects, and drawing. To select a tool, click the icon. If you double-click a tool, you can see that tool’s preferences (and change them).
If you are new to Inkscape, there are a couple of hints about creating and editing text. The Text tool (A icon) in the Tool Box shown above is the only way of creating new text on the canvas. The T icon shown in the Command Bar is used only while editing text that already exists on the canvas.