Inkscape Adventures
Introduction 2: Introduction to Inkscape


Introduction 1: A General Introduction Index Tutorial 1: Slime To Start!

Introduction to the Introduction

So you have got your hands on the latest copy of Inkscape (if not, go do so!) You are probably wanting to get started on making fabulous masterpieces of vector art. But you might be wondering if there's anything you need to know about this vector graphics tool before you start.

Well, actually I recommend playing around as one of the best ways to learn how to use Inkscape. That is how I've learnt nearly everything I know; from experimenting and trying new things out to see how things work out. To that end you might want to play around yourself for a bit, running through Inkscape's own tutorials, trying to make your own art and figuring out some of the basics. Or if you have already done that you might want to continue on to Tutorial 1 to start with a practical example.

However, to give you a jump start on wrapping your head around the possibilities on Inkscape I will spend this first tutorial briefly going over the basic tools from my perspective as a budding artist. While I expect that most of you will want to jump straight into the more arty tutorials (once they're completed!), you might want to skim over this tutorial first to get an idea of what each of the tools can do.

Before we begin: note that I by no means know everything there is to know about Inkscape; I am still learning new tips and tricks as I go. There is also the issue that given my familiarity with the basics I might overlook some important details that are important for a beginner to know. As such this is to be treated as a "living document", where new material and corrections may be added without warning or ceremony.

Before We Begin...

Before we begin with the overview of Inkscape, there are a few things you should do and know first!

Inkscape's Own Tutorials

Inkscape helpfully comes with it's own tutorials, accessible through the "Help" menu. I highly recommend that the very first thing you do is work your way through these. The tutorials themselves are Inkscape documents, and helpfully contain their own mini-exercises within themselves where you can play around with SVG objects in the tutorial itself. At the least, it should give you a basic understanding of how to manipulate objects in Inkscape, which is very, very important to using Inkscape productively. However if you are like me, you probably will not learn enough about how to actually do something from these tutorials alone (hence the reason for this tutorial!) But they definitely should be the first thing you look at once you fire up Inkscape, and I will assume that you have at least glanced through them once.

Inkscape Key Sheet

The other thing that will really speed up your work is knowing the keyboard shortcuts. If you find when you are working on your Inkscape masterpiece you are frequently having to scroll over to press buttons on the interface, then check up the key list to see if there is a keyboard shortcut you can use. Inkscape contains a "Keys and Mouse" SVG sheet under the "Help" menu which tells you all these keys. Unfortunately, this SVG sheet is not the best at readability: for me, the sheet is slow and you have to keep zooming in and out to actually read anything. Personally, I prefer the HTML version, which is kept under the "doc" subdirectory off where you installed Inkscape. However you can learn most keyboard shortcuts from either the description provided in the menu, the tool tips help description that appears when you hover the mouse over a button, or from the context sensitive help that appears at the bottom of the screen (this one is really useful!)

Save and Save Often!

While Inkscape is reasonably stable these days, crashes sometimes do happen, and even one crash is enough to be an issue. So far Inkscape has done a sterling job in saving a backup of my work every time it has crashed, but I doubt this would help with situations such as a power blackout. You don't want to suffer the creeping horror that you have lost the last two hours of work, and that awesome picture that you just got perfect that you know you will not be able to reproduce exactly a second time.

This applies to all software tools, but remember to save your Inkscape files, and save often! And on large projects, save to different files for extra backups in case something goes wrong!

By the way, in Inkscape Ctrl+S saves just like with nearly every other tool. Remember to mash that key combination often!

Okay, now we can begin with the basics of the features of the Inkscape!

Basics of the Inkscape Interface

Open up Inkscape and you will be greeted with a screen much like this one (minus the arrows and labels, of course!). This is the main window of Inkscape, and your familiarity with what everything can do will greatly help with your art. Many of the advanced fiddly options I will leave for you to play around or will explain when I use them in a further tutorial, otherwise this particular description will go on forever. Truth be told, I probably should explore some of these options to a greater depth myself. But for now, I will briefly cover what everything on this main screen does and how useful I have found it for art work. Let us begin with the all important toolbox and work our way around clockwise from there.

Toolbox

This list of icons on the left is the toolbox, which contains all the vector tools provided in Inkscape. These are what we will be using to construct our brilliant works of vector art! Given that these tools are so important I will be going into greater detail of each of these later on in this tutorial (see "Tools of the Trade"). Note for now how most of these tools have function keys (or control modified function keys) as their shortcuts. If you are the keyboard shortcut using type you may want to learn some of these, although the icons in this particular toolbox are large enough to be actually usable.

Menu Bar

This top bar with all the words is the menu bar (no surprises there!), and contains many commands that are not easily accessable from the main interface itself. If you really want to become good at Inkscape I recommend going through each and every one of these and seeing what they do. Of particular importance are the commands in the "Path" menu, which I personally use all the time. The Inkscape tutorials cover some of these, but it won't hurt to play around with these yourself. While I will not cover the menu items myself in this tutorial, I will explain the tools that I use in specific detail in other tutorials as I use them, so you can learn these by application if you wish.

Command Bar

The next bar down is the command bar, which contains icon shortcuts for many useful commands, such as saving, exporting (saving to PNG), undoing, grouping and many more. Personally I do not use these much these days as I know the shortcuts for all of these commands that I frequently use. However until those shortcuts become second-nature it will be useful to know what these buttons do. Scroll over them to read exactly what they do; most of these should be pretty straight-forward.

Tool Control Bar

This third bar, the tool control bar, contains the commands that are relevant to the presently selected tool in the toolbox. In the diagram shown I have the "select and transform objects" tool selected (represented by the mouse pointer arrow icon). If you select another tool, the icons shown in this bar will change.

Given the link between these commands and the tools I will explain some of these in the "Tools of the Trade" section below. Some of these options are extremely useful and given I have not learnt all the shortcuts for these commands yet I tend to frequently use some of these; in particular the ones for the selection and node tools.

Ruler

Below the tool control bar is the horizontal ruler; the vertical ruler is on on the left of the screen. The rulers are useful if you need to have objects exactly a particular size, such as the length of body segments when drawing characters.

If you click on a ruler and drag into the image you can create ruler guidelines. Double click on a guideline and you can specify exactly where you want it to be. If you want to modify how close objects need to be to snap to the guidelines, you can change this in the "Document Properties". There are three ways to open this menu: either look in the menu under "File", click the icon in the command bar on the far right, or use the keyboard shortcut Shift+Ctrl+D.

Page Border

The page border is useful if you need to draw something to a specific size. Note that vector art can be easily scaled, so if your drawing is too large or too small it is a cinch to scale it to the appropriate size. For art where the specific dimensions do not really matter, I just draw it any old size and then resize when needed.

Zoom

It is extremely useful to zoom in to do fine detail work, so you should be zooming around your artwork quite often. While you can change the zoom in this little box, it is mostly useful if you need to type in a specific zoom level. Most often you will be using the zoom tool or the equivalent keyboard shortcuts. I will explain these vital commands in the "Tools of the Trade" section below.

Palette

This is a new feature, and a darn useful one at that. The palette at the bottom of the screen provides an easy way to change an object's fill colour (that's the inside colouring) and stroke (that's the border). Just click on the colour you like for the fill, or shift click for the stroke. You can change which palette you see with the little arrow button on the far right.

Context Sensitive Help

This litte description bar at the bottom helps tell you what you can do with each little doohicky on the main screen. Pay attention to what this bar says! I find it the most use in reminding me what each of the meta modifier keys does in a situation; often by holding down control, alt, shift or a combination of these while dragging the mouse will modify the normal behaviour in a useful way. It is a great little tool for mastering the fine detail of how to manipulate things in Inkscape.

Layer Commands

This little section containing the drop box slightly off from the bottom left corner contains the layer commands, which are very useful. Layers are a huge benefit in raster art programs because you can work on individual parts of an image in isolation, shift them around at later stages, reorder how they appear and do heaps of other neat things.

In a vector art program like Inkscape they are not quite as vital; every object itself has its own order and acts like a layer of itself. However they are useful to group similar sets of objects, as some tools (such as Select All (Ctrl+A)) operate on individual layers, or at least can be set up that way (if you go into "Inkscape Preferences" (Shift+Ctrl+P)). It is also really useful to be able to lock down access to a layer through the "lock" icon in this section, allowing you to work on whatever subset of the image you wish at a time. Also, you can change whether a layer is visible or not with the "eye" icon, which is handy for layers of rough sketches or guide marks.

Fill and Stroke

Finally, the bottom left corner shows the "fill" and "stroke" of the selected object. To remind you, the "fill" is the interior colour or pattern of the object, and the "stroke" is the border around the edge. If you click on this section, or use the shortcut Shift+Ctrl+F, you can modify the fill and stroke directly in a dialog box. You can also modify the opacity if you are wanting to play around with transparancy effects.

Tools of the Trade

Now we get to the real core of Inkscape; the tools. Compared to many other art programs the number of tools is quite small, and in practice I tend to only frequently use a couple of these. Nevertheless, to be effective in Inkscape you will need a good undestanding of how each of these tools can help you.

Sadly while the tutorials in Inkscape neatly cover the basics of what each of the tools can do, they do not offer much advice on how they can be used efectively for art. Practice again is the key here; I am still experimenting with which combination of tools is best for my work. However there are a few basic uses for most of these tools that form the basis of how I approach art with Inkscape.

One of the lessons that took me a while to learn is that working with vectors requires a slightly different approach to working with a standard raster-based tool. In general, I like to think of vector art as more in common with collage than paint or ink. The approach to art is in the construction of each individual shape, piecing them together, maybe trimming around the edges a bit to get your final result. I will go into this in more detail when I work through some practical examples in later tutorials, but keep in mind that the approach I take to vector art may be different from what you are used to with other art tools like Paint, Photoshop or The GIMP.

Onto the tools! Given the Inkscape tutorials cover the basics of the functionality of these tools I won't recap all of that here. However I will point out some tips on how I use each tool for my art.

Select and Transform Tool

The select and transform tool (shortcut key: F1 or s, Space to toggle between selector and another tool) is one of the most fundamental in Inkscape, and one you will use a lot. While it is important to get used to how it operates, this tool is relatively straight-forward and you will master this one with practice. Moving, resizing and rotating is pretty intuitive.

One thing to note is the Ctrl Alt and Shift keys are very important when using the select and transform tool. When selecting objects, holding down Ctrl allows you to select objects within groups - grouping objects (Ctrl+G to group, Shift+Ctrl+G to ungroup) is a great way to cluster objects together to manipulate at once, but sometimes it is nice to move a group member without having to ungroup it first. Holding down Shift allows you drag out a selection box even if your initial mose click is on an object - very useful in a cluttered art piece. Alt allows you to cycle your selection between many objects in the same position - also very useful when you have many objects layered on top of each other.

When moving objects, Ctrl allows you to fix moving the object to positions directly vertical or horizontal to the original position of the object. Holding Alt also lets you move the selected object if you drag the mouse off the object.

When scaling objects, holding Ctrl lets you fix the vertical and horizontal ratios, which is what you want to use if you just wish to resize the object rather than make it shorter/taller or thinner/fatter. Holding Shift scales based on the center of the object rather than the opposite corner. Often you wish to hold both Ctrl and Shift to do both of these at once. Alt allows you to scale at a fine level for small adjustments. Also note the scaling options presented in the tool control bar that allow to choose whether you wish to scale the stroke (the outline) of objects.

If you click on an object twice to rotate an object, Ctrl now snaps the rotation angle to fixed increments, whereas Shift rotates on the opposite corner rather than the center, and Alt again does fine adjustments. Note that you can move the cross that defines the center of the object to where-ever you wish (even outside the object), which is useful if you wish to adjust rotation around a different point (say if you were positioning objects around a circle).

This might be a bit of a rehash of the Inkscape tutorials, but knowing the effect of the meta keys can really help when moving objects.

Node Tool

While the select and transform key is used for moving or stretching objects, you will need the node tool (shortcut key: F2 or n) for the fine detail work in shaping objects. It too is a fundamental tool that I probably spend the most time using. It is also one of the most fiddly to use, so you will need some time practicing moving nodes and their handles in order to understand it. Given proper use of the node tool is a bit hard to explain, I will try to explain this in more detail in the practical example in Tutorial 2.

Once again note that Ctrl, Alt and Shift help in modifying the action of moving nodes and their handles. You can get an idea of what each button does by reading the context sensitive help.

The node tool is also the one in which the commands in the tool control bar are extremely useful. Unfortunately the shortcut keys seem to be left out of the tool tips for many of these, but they are very useful to know as unless you wish to work purely with geometric shapes you will be working with nodes a lot. Have a look at the shortcut key listing (either under "Help" or look at the HTML file in the doc subdirectory of where you installed Inskcape). There are too many to list here, but I will give any shortcuts I use when I do a walkthrough.

It will also to important to learn the difference between when to use cusp (or corner) nodes and smooth nodes, how to add and delete nodes, smoothing paths etc. but frankly I think all of those is best learnt with an example. Note for now that playing with nodes is pretty much the core of using Inkscape, so don't be afraid of getting your hands dirty moving around those nodes and trying new things.

Zoom Tool

The zoom tool (shortcut key: F3 or z) is pretty simple; click to zoom in, shift-click to zoom out.

Note that you can drag and click to zoom to that particular box. It is handy to zoom to a particular region, but sometimes if you hold the mouse button too long you can accidently zoom all the way in to a infintessimal little point, so do not panic if that ever happens.

While the zoom tool is useful, more often than not I just use the shortcut keys for zooming. Plus zooms in, minus zooms out. The number keys also have various zoom functions. 1 zooms to 100%, 2 zooms to 50%. 3 is one of the more useful ones; it zooms to the present selection which is handy to get a good view of what you are presently working on. 4 zooms to show the entire drawing, which is handy as a "zoom all the way out" shortcut. 5 and 6 zoom to various intervals of the page size. Pretty simple stuff but being able to quickly snap the view in and out to useful sizes comes in handy.

Shape Tools

Now at last we come to the tools that actually create things on the screen! The first of these are the "shape tools". Since all of these are pretty similar I will cover them as a group. The shape tools consist of:

The rectangle and square tool (shortcut key: F4 or r). You can also round the corners of these to make hybrid rectangle/ovals.

The oval and circle tool (shortcut key: F5 or e). This can also make arcs, sectors and segments.

The polygon and star tool (shortcut key: * or Shift+F9). Probably one of the most fun to play with!

The spiral tool (shortcut key: F9 or i). Frankly I don't get much use out of this one, so I will ignore it in the rest of this section.

The Inkscape shape tutorial does a fine job in covering the basics of how to make these shapes and what their handles do. There is not much point just recovering that information, so instead I will briefly describe how I usually use these shapes in art.

The great thing about the first three shape tools is that between them they cover the fundamental building blocks of comic style art. Pretty much anything can be broken down to rectangular parts (boxes or cylinders), circles (spheres), or triangles (cones, pyramids). The shape tools make a great way to quickly block out the basic structure of your art. Most often I need to make some slight modifications to the shape for it to be perfect, of course, so after getting the rough structure I usually convert a shape to a path in order to play with nodes. You can convert an object to a path using the command "Object to Path" under the "Path" menu, but usually I just use the keyboard shortcut Shift+Ctrl+C. Then I can add, delete or modify nodes until the shape is exactly what I want.

Freehand Tool

The freehand or pencil tool (shortcut key: F6 or p) lets you draw whatever shapes you wish. As such, it is a great tool for creating odd shapes quickly, especially if you have a graphics tablet. However if you wish to have clean smooth vector art with a minimum of notes often it might be easier to modify one of the simpler shapes than drawing your own.

One important way I use the freehand tool is in conjunction with the calligraphic pen. To colour in art drawn by the calligraphic tool, the best method I've found by trial and error is to use the freehand tool to quickly draw a shape roughly the right size, possibly making small adjustments to get it just right. I like to think of it a bit like cutting out tone to colour in an ink drawing. You will need a graphics tablet to do this easily, but it seems to work quite well.

Another good use of the freehand tool is putting the final touches on an art piece, adding in shadows and highlights. However again if I want a simple piece of vector art it sometimes is quicker to use basic shapes and modify the nodes. You will need to practice different techniques to see what suits you the best.

Curve/Line Tool

The curve and line tool, otherwise known as the bezier or pen tool (shortcut key: Shift+F6 or b) is a handy way to draw simple shapes, such as single lines or curved triangles. I find this tool easier to use with the mouse than with a tablet. Similar to the freehand tool, this is also a good way to draw finishing touches such as shadows and highlights. I also use often to draw mouths and details around eyes. It's a great tool to use if you want to use the smallest number of nodes to create a shape and don't want to modify a circle, rectangle or existing shape.

Calligraphic Tool

The calligraphic tool (shortcut key: Ctrl+F6 or c) is a fantastic tool for simulating brush strokes. With a graphics tablet you can get a nice looking brush effect that provides a great vector equivalent to ink. With the options provided in the tool control bar, you can change the characteristics of the pen to simulate a variety of different pen types.

The only downside is the "brush strokes" are not actually "Inkscape strokes"; the pen marks are actually entire shapes with the ink colour being fill (or interior shape colour). This means if you want to colour in an enclosed shape drawn with the calligraphic tool you will need to create another shape to provide the interior.

Also worth noting is the calligraphic pen only works well with a graphics tablet; it's the pressure sensitivity that provides the nice width changing effect. With the mouse it doesn't look nearly as good; the results look similar to what can be provided with the freehand tool.

Text Tool

While vitally important if you are using Inkscape to make diagrams, the text tool (shortcut key: F8 or t) is also useful for making logos, labelling pictures or for the words in comics. Inkscape allows a few neat effects with getting text to follow the contours of shapes.

It's worth noting that out of all the tools the text tool is the one that that I have the most problems with. I've had the most crashes when trying to use text, and I've had problems with linking text to more complex shapes and paths, particularly with moving text boxes or grouping them. This isn't a major problem, and might be due to unfamiliarity with the way the text tool works (I don't use it that often; mainly for labelling and the odd comic style speech bubble) but something to consider when using Inkscape text.

Connector Tool

The connector tool (shortcut key: Ctrl+F2 or o) can provide arrow links between Inkscape objects. To be honest I haven't found much use for this tool; it's only of use with diagrams, and even then I prefer to make my own arrows.

Gradient Tool

The gradient tool (shortcut key: Ctrl+F1 or g) provides an easy way to create gradient effect in your Inkscape objects. Just click on the object where you want the effect to start, and drag to provide the distance and direction of effect. Inkscape supports both linear and elliptical gradient effects, and you can blend between more than two colours if you wish.

Personally I tend to stay away from gradients except for background effects; partly because I like nice solid cartoony colours in my characters, and partly because I think they're overused in vector art. However they're there if you want to try them out, so feel free to play around to see what works well for you.

Colour Picker

The colour picker or dropper tool (shortcut key: F7 or d) is a good way to select a colour from within your image. With an object selected, click to change the fill (the interior), and shift click to change the stroke (the outline). You can also drag the mouse to select the average colour in a region.

Conclusion

Phew! That was a lot of typing and I feel I have only scratched the surface of all the functionality , but I hope something in there was useful. Inkscape is not that difficult to learn through use though, so the more you use it the more natural these tools will be. Do not worry if at the moment things seem a bit confusing, hopefully things will become more obvious as we work through some examples.

Next tutorial, we will get stuck into actually using this gizmo for some proper art with our first game creature!


Introduction 1: A General Introduction Index Tutorial 1: Slime To Start!

Back to top Last updated: 22nd September, 2006 by David Shaw