Inkscape: A Quality Open Source Vector Illustration Program

Inkscape: A Quality Open Source Vector Illustration Program

There are many vector programs to be found on the internet, ranging from freeware to around $400. Industrial standard programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw are in use by most businesses, but their high prices make it difficult for most small business owners and freelance designers to legally acquire their most up-to-date versions. There are many good freeware alternatives to the commercial software, however. One which really stands out is Inkscape, an open-source, multi-platform program.
Inkscape at first glance looks fairly plain. It has many features of Serif’s DrawPlus and several more, but for free. It has the basics of quickshapes – ellipses, rectangles, stars and polygons(with the ability to adjust the number of points and length of spokes), and spirals. While DrawPlus has more quickshapes and other options such as quick3D which allows the user to give shapes 3D effects, Inkscape has other capabilities such as converting an object to a repeating pattern and a calligraphy pen tool which behaves almost like a raster brush.
Much like DrawPlus, Inkscape has several shortcut buttons under the menu bar for tasks such as grouping and ungrouping, selecting, flipping, rotating, and arranging the selected objects. There are even boxes which allow the user to adjust the object’s position, length and width more precisely. One of the shortcuts shown on top of the screen instead of in the brushes menu is the text tool, which opens a selection window similar to that of most early Windows graphics and text programs, with the name, styles, and previews of each font. Another shortcut switches to the Fill and Stroke window, allowing the user to quickly edit the fill, stroke, gradient, and patterns for an object.
While Inkscape lacks what even the free DrawPlus has – dropshadows – those are often not needed as there are ways to work around that problem. The trick is to make a copy of the object and turn it black, a shade of gray or tone of a desired color, then stretch distort the objects shape with the free transform tool(a black arrow) or node editor(a smaller black arrow shown editing a curved line with nodes) and then go to the Object menu and select “Fill and Stroke.” In the “Fill” tab which will appear to the right of the drawing screen, you will find two slider controls: Blur and Opacity %, which you can use to make an object translucent and add some ‘feathering’ or blurry edges to the selected object. The fill style can also be changed, as can the color, so it is possible to select a precise custom color for the Inscape document.
To create a dropshadow, first create an object or group two or more together. Next, make a copy of the object and give it a black, gray, or dark tone, then either right click on the object and select “Fill and Stroke,” click a button in the top right area of the window’s menu bar that has a paintbrush, press Shift+Control+F, or go to the Object menu for that. In the Fill and Stroke tab, adjust the opacity to your liking. It might be good to tweak the Opacity % or “A”(alpha) sliders to make a more realistic shadow for complex pictures, with translucent objects and shadows. Last, position your shadow and object until you are satisfied.
Gradients can also be edited in that tab, though they are limited to linear and radial – Inkscape, at least the one for Windows, does not currently have any support for gradient meshes, but even that has a workaround with the use of the blur slider. The Fill and Stroke tab also has a button for pattern fills, which includes a list of premade patterns one can use for screentoning in Manga, letterheads for black and white faxes, and more. It is even possible to create custom patterns in Inkscape by going to the Object menu, then to the submenu Pattern and then selecting from that submenu Objects to Pattern. Next, use the node editor to change the position, angle and size of the pattern and even the shape which contains the pattern from rectangular to ellipse. The top left and bottom right nodes control the new object’s size, while the top right has two circle nodes which control the roundness of the shape. The middle node square changes the size of the pattern while the top middle circle node changes the angle. With this, it is possible to make repeating patterns for other objects and create a scrapbook effect in presentations, and the pattern can even be converted back to objects using the “Pattern to Objects” selection. To place the pattern in another shape’s fill, simply create the shape and invoke the Fill and Stroke window, then select the pattern button, and in the pattern fill dropdown menu, select one of the patterns above the default ones. It might have a name such as ‘pattern6063’.

For a gradient mesh effect, simply use the freehand or benzier curve tools to draw the highlight or shadow area on your object, then go to the Fill and Stroke tab, change the color if you haven’t already to lighter for highlights and darker for shadows(it doesn’t need to be pure black and darker colors actually look more natural) and then adjust the Blur and Opacity % sliders to give the effect of a gradient.
Inkscape has many other important tools to look for, including effects for raster(which are reminiscent of the Adobe software) and the options in the Path menu which allow the user to use objects to cut or join with other objects. There even tools for adding and subtracting nodes, making selections into corners, curves, or line segments, and for joining paths or creating paths from an object’s stroke. For fans of the classic spirograph, there is an option to make one in the Render submenu of Effects.

Working with type is a little difficult, though it is not impossible to do many of the same tricks used in illustrator. This tutorial by heathenxyt on youtube, and one person who commented had trouble as I did with rotating and kerning individual characters. The solution was to go to the Text menu and select ‘Convert to Text’ in order to unflow the type. It’s not as intuitive as Adobe Illustrator or Serif DrawPlus but it is workable, and the text selection tool is far more convenient than that of the Adobe software, showing previews only of the selected font.
Transforming shapes can also be a bit difficult for those who are not used to Inkscape. First click invokes the resize option, while the second click invokes the rotate and skew. To skew the object, just click and drag on the arrows on the sides, between the corners while the object is in rotate/skew mode. Skewed text can even still be edited as long as it has not been converted to a path.

With all these features and tools, and even some web-editor capabilities, Inkscape is a must for any illustrator or graphic designer with a low budget. It is absolutely free, and since it’s open source, any programmer can play around with the source code of Inkscape or just look inside and see how it works. Inkscape is still being developed, and hopefully will become more user-friendly with future versions. Download the current build, version .46 at the inkscape homepage and download this outstanding free program. It makes a great companion to other free raster and vector programs such as:

Project Dogwaffle

Inkscape is proof that you don’t need to break the bank for quality vector illustration program.
heathenxyt, “Inkscape Tutorial by heathenx: Manual Text Kerning.” Youtube.