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Get Started With Inkscape

Jake Guild on Flickr

Inkscape is an excellent free and open-source vector graphics program that you can run on Windows, macOS, or Linux to create illustrations, artwork, and designs for all kinds of projects. But what do we mean by “Vector Graphics”?

Vector and non-vector graphics are two kinds of computer images. An example of a non-vector graphic is a digital photograph, an image made up of potentially millions of individual colored dots laid out in lines typically so close together that the photograph looks very high quality. But, as you may know, if you keep zooming in to view a smaller section of the photograph, the image quality starts to get worse. This is because there aren’t enough dots in the zoomed-in area.

Vector graphics are completely different. If we draw a line in Inkscape and want to color it red, Inkscape doesn’t create a load of red dots to make the line. Rather, it notes the starting coordinate of the line (or “path” as it is often called in Inkscape). The endpoint, the angle, and the direction between these points make up a vector. Inkscape then applies a “stroke”, like a pen stroke, to the path along the vector between those points and colors the stroke red.

Using the vector approach means that, if we keep zooming in closer and closer to our red line, it will never ever reduce in quality or become pixelated. This makes Inkscape excellent for designing things that we might want to make very large or small at some point such as a logo for a project. We might want to print that logo in a variety of sizes from a 2cm sticker up to a 5-meter-wide billboard. With vector graphics, we could do that with no loss of quality.

There is another reason why vector graphics are really useful. As we said earlier, vector graphics often consists of lots of “paths” that make up parts of the design and these paths can often be read by machines, meaning that your designs may be produced using things like a laser cutter, vinyl cutting machine, CNC router, or even a computer-controlled embroidery machine.

To get started with your own Inkscape project, download and install Inkscape (https://inkscape.org/). Open Inkscape and create a new document. Don’t be overwhelmed when you see all the tools and icons on display, it’s an incredibly powerful program, and you can learn it a little at a time.

Starting with the absolute basics, you’ll see some tool icons that look like squares or circles. Let’s left-click the circle tool. With the circle tool selected, left-click and hold anywhere over the page. Move the cursor away from where you clicked using your mouse or touchpad. You should see a circle or an oval shape start to appear. Drag it to any size that you like. (If you hold the control key on your keyboard, it makes it easier to draw a perfect circle.)

The circle or oval shape will be created once you let go of the click. You’ll see that the circle has an outside edge color (the “stroke”) and an inside color called the “fill”. Whenever you want to change the stroke or the fill of an object in Inkscape, you can use the “Fill and Stroke” tools. Just click the “Object” drop-down menu and then click “Fill and Stroke…”. You should see a panel open on the right-hand side of your screen and at the top of the panel there are three tabs “Fill”, “Stroke Paint” and “Stroke Style”.

If you click the “Fill” tab, you can change the fill settings. There is a row of little tool icons that range between no-fill for the icon marked with an X and a solid square icon, giving an even full fill to the selected object. The other icons give choices for color gradients and patterns. Click each one and see what happens. Make sure your circle is selected first or it won’t work. Click the black arrow icon towards the left of the screen which is the general selection tool and click once on the circle or oval you drew to select it. You can now change the fill and stroke settings of that object.

The stroke settings are also straightforward. Back in the Fill and Stroke tool window, click the “Stroke Paint” tab. Here you can adjust the color of the stroke around the outside of your circle or oval. Finally, click the “Stroke Style” tab and you can change the width of the stroke line of your object. Notice with the stroke width you can change the units among various options like mm, pixels, imperial units, and more.

Returning to the selection tool, if you select an object in Inkscape with a single left click you might notice as you hover over the object that sometimes the tool turns into a four-pointed cross and if you press and hold a left click, you can then drag the object around to position it. Also, when an object is selected, you’ll notice the highlighted box around the object has arrows on it.

Left-clicking and dragging any of the arrows allow you to resize the object by stretching and pulling. Finally, if you double-click an object with the selection tool you will see that the arrows move to the corners of the highlighted box and are now curved. If you click and drag one of these arrows you can rotate the object. Let’s leave your circle or oval for the time being and draw a square or a rectangle using the “create rectangles and squares tool”. It works in the same way as the circle tool in that you click and drag to create a square or rectangle. Again, you can use the control key to help you draw a perfect.

Draw your square or rectangle so that it overlaps your earlier circle or oval. One way to create more complex shapes and designs is to combine different shapes in different ways. A simple example of this is the “Union” tool. With your rectangle and oval overlapping, select both items. We can do this either by pressing Control A to select everything in the active document, or we can left-click on one item using the selection tool and then hold shift and left-click the second item. With both objects selected, click the “Path” dropdown menu and select “Union”. You should now see that the two objects have been combined into one object with one stroke around the whole shape.

You’ll notice below the “Union” option there are other options like “Difference” and “Intersection”. It’s definitely worth drawing two shape objects that overlap and seeing what all of these options do.

Armed with these few techniques, you can start to create interesting designs. Since Inkscape is free and open-source, there are a lot of resources and tutorials online that can help you to learn more. As a final challenge, try making a version of this “Beanz!” sign we quickly drew.

We used the circle and rectangle tools and the union technique. As a little hint, you could explore the “Align and Distribute” tools found in the “Object” drop-down, and you can probably find the text input and editing tools. Give it a go.