Inkscape - cloning and tiling

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(Original version written by Dmitry Kirsanov for LXF issue 75.)

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Inkscape: Cloning and tiling

PART 2 Dmitry Kirsanov’s evil twin introduces cloning, one of the most exciting Inkscape features

Inkscape is a vector graphics editor. Usually, the term vector is explained as “scalable without loss of quality”. Even Inkscape’s native file format, SVG, stands for Scalable Vector Graphics. But there’s much more to vector graphics than just scalability. Perhaps the most important thing about vector (rather than bitmap) representation of graphics, is that it is much closer to how we – people, not computers – tend to think about images.

When we imagine a circle, we do not think in terms of a grid of pixels. What we have in mind is a complete self-sufficient of SVG, which means they will look as intended in any object with properties such as radius, centre coordinates, colour and so on. And that’s exactly how a vector format would represent a circle as well. As a result, vector representation enables you to manipulate objects in a drawing just as easily as you would manipulate them in your mind. It’s like a high-level programming language whose building blocks make it much easier to express complex algorithms than the ‘compiled binary’ of a bitmap image format.

One simple idea that comes naturally from the vector way of TIME thinking is that of a clone of an object. A clone looks like a copy of the original object, but it’s more than that: a clone is a linked copy that changes whenever the original changes. Simply put, a clone is not a real object, but just a command: “Display a copy of the object here.” The document stores that command, not an object copy. Actual copying is done only in memory, whenever you edit the original, so that the clone always stays up to date.

Inkscape’s clones are an implementation of the use element of SVG, which means they will look as intended in any compliant SVG renderer (in fact, this is true for any other Inkscape-created SVG graphics). Any type of object can be cloned – path, shape, text or bitmap. If you need to get a clone of several objects at once, just group them together and clone the group.

As we’ll see in this tutorial, reasons to use clones include artistic (watching several objects change live when you edit only one is an exciting experience, opening many creative possibilities) and technical (using clones instead of duplicates makes the SVG document smaller and faster to display). Map symbols, repeated design elements such as bullets or icons, various symmetrical designs or patterns – all these are easy to do with clones. Few, if any, other vector editors allow you to create live linked copies of objects so easily.

Now without further ado, I will instruct my good twin to take you through the basics of Inkscape cloning.


Create a clone


Select any object (A) and do Edit > Clone or press Alt+D (this shortcut is easy to remember as Ctrl+D creates a plain non-linked duplicate). The clone will be positioned on top of the original (B); drag it away to reveal the original and the clone (C). We’ve added the arrow from the original to its clone for clarity. (such as node editing on paths or handle dragging on shapes) copy/paste the original In Inkscape you can always find out which object a clone is taken from by selecting the clone and pressing Shift+D.

Transform it


You can move both the clone and its original without one disturbing the other (A). You can also scale, rotate, or skew the clone independently; however, scaling, rotating, or skewing of the original is passed on to all its clones (B). Any shape editing (such as node editing on paths or handle dragging on shapes) of the original is also passed on to its clones, whereas you cannot edit shape of a clone at all (C).

Clones of clones


An object can have any number of clones, all of which are updated simultaneously when the original is edited. Moreover, a clone can be cloned too. However, if what you need is multiple identical copies of an object (this is the most common scenario), it is better to use multiple clones of the same object (A) than a clone-of-clone chain (B). To get another clone of the original, you can select any of its existing clones and duplicate it (Ctrl+D).

Change a clone’s style


Any style property, such as fill colour or stroke width, can be changed in a clone to be different from the original. But this is only possible if that style property is unset on the original object. To unset fill or stroke on an object, select it, open the Fill and Stroke dialog and use the button with the question mark (A); after that you can select a clone and assign any fill or stroke style to it (B).

Partial styling of a cloned group


If you are cloning a group, you can unset fill or stroke on any object within the group, and that object will become ‘paintable’ in the clones. For example, here the original is a group of five objects (A), of which one – the bottom ellipse – has its fill unset (B). Clones of this group can then be painted any colours (C), and these colours will affect only the bottom ellipse, whereas the highlights and shadows will remain the same as in the original.

Unlinking clones


If necessary, a clone is easy to convert to a regular object – that is, to cut its link to the original. For this, go to Edit > Unlink Clone or press Alt+Shift+D when the clone is selected. You can unlink many clones at once. This operation does not change any visible aspect of the drawing; only the invisible link to the clone is severed. Do this only if you really need to do something that you can’t do to a clone, such as edit its shape.


Pattern symmetries


The very powerful Tile Clones dialog is, in essence, a clone factory, which will create any number of clones of the selected object, then move and transform them to create a pattern according to one of the 17 plane symmetry groups. Use the controls at the bottom of the dialog to specify the number of rows and columns in the pattern. This illustration demonstrates patterns using CM, P4, P4G, and P31M symmetries.

Shifts, scales, rotates, opacities


The Tile Clones dialog can also move, scale, rotate, or change opacity of the pattern tiles by specified percentages, per row or per column. Any of these changes can be randomised to a given degree. These controls are on the corresponding tabs of the dialog; here, the Shift tab is shown. With this, a wide variety of exciting effects becomes possible: fadeouts, spreadouts, gradients, ‘force fields’, ‘explosions’ and more.

Play with colour


The Colour tab of the Tile Clones dialog allows you to assign fill or stroke colours to the clones in the pattern, while varying the hue, saturation, and/or lightness per row or per column. The starting colour to which the changes apply can be selected by clicking on the Initial Colour button. A lot of effects ranging from tidy rainbows (A) to randomly patched quilts (B) are easy to achieve with such algorithmic colouring.

Trace shapes


The Tile Clones dialog has one more trick in its bag. Using the controls on the Trace tab, you can trace the existing image under the pattern – that is, pick a value (such as an HSL or RGB colour channel) in the area under each clone and apply that value to that clone’s size, colour, opacity or probability of presence. Shown here is an example of tracing a shape by the grid of glass buttons.




One of the impressive graphical feats that Inkscape makes almost trivial is creating tessellations, that is, complex patterns that completely cover the plane with no holes or gaps. Starting from almost any clone tiling, it’s easy to tweak the original’s shape so that its clones fit each other exactly in the tiling. This example tessellation was created in about ten minutes, starting from a P6-symmetric tiling made of triangles.

Optimising icons


Almost all interface icons used by Inkscape are rendered during program launch from the single SVG document called icons.svg. Naturally, the size and complexity of that file are critical for quick startup of the program. As shown in this illustration, repeated elements in the Zoom tool icons are in fact clones of a single original. The total of 106 clones in the entire icons.svg make that file smaller by almost 40%.