General Concepts

After you start up Ipe, you will see a window with a large gray area containing a white rectangle. This area, the canvas, is the drawing area where you will create your figures. The white rectangle is your sheet of paper, the first page of your document. (While Ipe doesn’t stop you from drawing outside the paper, such documents generally do not print very well.)

At the top of the window, above the canvas, you find two toolbars: one for snapping modes, grid size and angular resolution; and another one to select the current mode.

On the left hand side of the canvas you find an area where you can select object properties such as stroke and fill color, pen width, path properties, text size, and mark size. Below it is a list of the layers of the current page.

All user interface elements have tool tips - if you move the mouse over them and wait a few seconds, a short explanation will appear.

The mode toolbar allows you to set the current Ipe mode. Roughly speaking, the mode determines what the left mouse button will do when you click it in the figure. The leftmost five buttons select modes for selecting and transforming objects, the remaining buttons select modes for creating new objects.

Pressing the right mouse button pops up the object context menu in any mode.

In this chapter we will discuss the general concepts of Ipe. Understanding these properly will be essential if you want to get the most out of Ipe.

Order of objects

An Ipe drawing is a sequence of geometric objects. The order of the objects is important—wherever two objects overlap, the object which comes first in Ipe’s sequence will hide the other ones. When new objects are created, they are added in front of all other objects. However, you can change the position of an object by putting it in front or in the back, using Edit ‣ Front and Edit ‣ Back.

The current selection

Whenever you call an Ipe function, you have to specify which objects the function should operate on. This is done by selecting objects. The selected objects (the selection) consists of two parts: the primary selection consists of exactly one object (of course, this object could be a group). All additional selected objects form the secondary selection. Some functions (like the context menu) operate only on the primary selection, while others treat primary and secondary selections differently (the align functions, for instance, align the secondary selections with respect to the primary selection.)

The selection is shown by outlining the selected object in color. Note that the primary selection is shown with a slightly different look.

The primary and secondary selections can be set in selection mode. Clicking the left mouse button close to an object makes that object the primary selection and deselects all other objects. If you keep the Shift key pressed while clicking with the left mouse key, the object closest to the mouse will be added to or deleted from the current selection. You can also drag a rectangle with the mouse—when you release the mouse button, all objects inside the rectangle will be selected. With the Shift key, the selection status of all objects inside the rectangle will be switched.

To make it easier to select objects that are below or close to other objects, it is convenient to understand exactly how selecting objects works. In fact, when you press the mouse button, a list of all objects is computed that are sufficiently close to the mouse position (the exact distance is set as the select_distance in prefs.lua). This list is then sorted by increasing distance from the mouse and by increasing depth in the drawing. If Shift was not pressed, the current selection is now cleared. Then the first object in the list is presented. Now, while still keeping the mouse button pressed, you can use the Space key to step through the list of objects near the mouse in order of increasing depth and distance. When you release the right mouse button, the object is selected (or deselected).

When measuring the distance from the mouse position to objects, Ipe considers the boundary of objects only. So to select a filled object, don’t just click somewhere in its interior, but close to its boundary.

Another way to select objects is using the Select all function from the Edit menu. It selects all objects on the page. Similarly, the Select all in layer function in the Layer menu selects all objects in the active layer.

Moving and scaling objects

There are four modes for transforming objects: translate, stretch, rotate, and shear. If you hold the shift key while pressing the left mouse button, the stretch function keeps the aspect ratio of the objects (an operation we call scaling), and the translate function is restricted to horizontal and vertical translations.

Normally, the transformation functions work on the current selection. However, to make it more convenient to move around many different objects, there is an exception: When the mouse button is pressed while there is no current selection, then the object closest to the cursor is moved, rotated, scaled, or sheared.

By default, the rotate function rotates around the center of the bounding box for the selected objects. This behavior can be overridden by specifying an axis system. If an axis system is set, then the origin is used as the center.

The scale, stretch, and shear functions use a corner of the bounding box for the selected objects as the fix-point of the transformation. Again, if an axis system is set, the origin of the system is used instead. In this case, the shear function will use your x-axis as the fixed axis of the shear operation (rather than a horizontal line).

It is often convenient to rotate or scale around a vertex of an object. This is easy to achieve by setting the origin of the axis system to that vertex, using the Snap to vertex function for setting the axis system.

Stroke and fill colors

Path objects can have two different colors, one for the boundary and one for the interior of the object. The Postscript/PDF terms stroke and fill are used to denote these two colors. Stroke and fill color can be selected independently in the Properties window. Imagine preparing a drawing by hand, using a pen and black ink. What Ipe draws in its stroke color is what you would stroke in black ink with your pen. Probably you would not use your pen to fill objects, but you would use a brush, and maybe even a different kind of paint like water color. Well, the fill color is Ipe’s “brush.”

When you create a path object, you’ll have to tell Ipe whether you want it stroked, filled, or both. This is set in the Path properties field. Clicking near the right end of the field will cycle through the three modes stroked, stroked & filled, and filled. You can also use the context menu of the path properties field.

Text objects and arrows only use the stroke color, even for the filled arrows. You would also use a pen for these details, not the brush.

The mark shapes disk and square also use only the stroke color. You can make bicolored marks using the mark shapes fdisk and fsquare.

Pen, dash style, arrows, and tiling patterns

The path properties field is used to set all properties of path objects except for the pen width, which is set using the selector just above the path properties field. The dash-dot pattern (solid line, dashed, dotted etc.) effect for the boundaries of path objects, such as polygons and polygonal lines, splines, circles and ellipses, rectangles and circular arcs. It does not effect text or marks.

Line width is given in Postscript/PDF points (1/72 inch). A good value is something around 0.4 or 0.6.

By clicking near the ends of the segment shown in the path properties field, you can toggle the front and rear arrows. Only polygonal lines, splines, and circular arcs can have arrows.

If you draw a single line segment with arrows and set it to filled only, then the arrows will be drawn using the fill color (instead of the stroke color), and the segment is not drawn at all. This is sometimes useful to place arrows that do not appear at the end of a curve.

Various shapes and sizes of arrows are available through the context menu in the path properties field. You can add other shapes and sizes using a stylesheet.

The arrow shapes arc and farc are special. When the final segment of a path object is a circular arc, then these arcs take on a curved shape that depends on the radius of the arc. They are designed to look right even for arcs with rather small radius.

The arrow shapes whose name starts with mid are also special: Those arrows are not drawn at the endpoint of a curve, but at its midpoint. (This is currently only implemented for polylines, that is curves that do not contain circular arcs or splines.)

A tiling pattern allows you to hatch a path object instead of filling it with a solid color. Only path objects can be filled with a tiling pattern. The pattern defines the slope, thickness, and density of the hatching lines, their color is taken from the object’s fill color. You can select a tiling pattern using the context menu in the path properties field. You can define your own tiling patterns in the documents stylesheet.


Ipe supports a simple model of transparency. You can set the opacity of path objects, text objects, and images: an opacity of 1.0 means a fully opaque object, while 0.5 would mean that the object is half-transparent. All opacity values you wish to use in a document must be defined in its stylesheet.

Symbolic and absolute attributes

Attributes such as color, line width, pen, mark size, or text size, can be either absolute (a number, or a set of numbers specifying a color) or symbolic (a name). Symbolic attributes must be translated to absolute values by a stylesheet for rendering.

One purpose of stylesheets is to be able to reuse figures from articles in presentations. Obviously, the figure has to use much larger fonts, markers, arrows, and fatter lines in the presentation. If the original figure used symbolic attributes, this can be achieved by simply swapping the stylesheet for another one.

The Ipe user interface is tuned for using symbolic attribute values. You can use absolute colors, pen width, text size, and mark size by clicking the button to the left of the selector for the symbolic names.

When creating an object, it takes its attributes from the current user interface settings, so if you have selected an absolute value, it will get an absolute attribute. Absolute attributes have the advantage that you are free to choose any value you wish, including picking arbitrary colors using a color chooser. In symbolic mode, you can only use the choices provided by the current stylesheet.

The choices for symbolic attributes provided in the Ipe user interface are taken from your stylesheet.

Zoom and pan

You can zoom in and out the current drawing using a mouse wheel or the zoom functions. The minimum and maximum resolution can be customized. Ipe displays the current resolution at the bottom right (behind the mouse coordinates).

Related are the functions Normal size (which sets the resolution to 72 pixels per inch), Fit page (which chooses the resolution so that the current page fills the canvas), Fit objects (which chooses the resolution such that the objects on the page fill the screen), and Fit selection (which does the same for the selected objects only). All of these are in the Zoom menu.

You can pan the drawing either with the mouse in Pan mode, or by pressing the x key (here) with the mouse anywhere on the canvas. The drawing is then panned such that the cursor position is moved to the center of the canvas. This shortcut has the advantage that it also works while you are in the middle of any drawing operation. Since the same holds for the zoom in and zoom out buttons and keys, you can home in on any feature of your drawing while you are adding or editing another object.


It is often convenient to treat a collection of objects as a single object. This can be achieved by grouping objects. The result is a geometric object, which can be moved, scaled, rotated etc. as a whole. To edit its parts or to move parts of it with respect to others, however, you have to un-group the object, which decomposes it into its component objects. To un-group a group object, select it, bring up the object menu, and select the Ungroup function.

Group objects can be elements of other groups, so you can create a hierarchy of objects.

A second function of groups is that they allow you to add additional information to an object or group of objects. In particular, group objects allow you to set a clipping path on part of your drawing, to create links to external documents or websites, and to decorate objects. See group objects for details.


A page of an Ipe document consists of one or more layers. Each object on the page belongs to a layer. There is no relationship between layers and the back-to-front ordering of objects, so the layer is really just an attribute of the object.

The layers of the current page are displayed in the layer list, at the bottom left of the Ipe window. The checkmark to the left of the layer name determines whether the layer is visible. The layer marked with a yellow background is the active layer. New objects are always created in the active layer. You can change the active layer by left-clicking on the layer name (on Windows, double-click on the layer name).

By right-clicking on a layer name, you open the layer context menu that allows you to change layer attributes, to rename layers, to delete empty layers, and to change the ordering of layers in the layer list (this ordering has no other significance).

A layer may be editable or locked. Objects can be selected and modified only if their layer is editable. Locked layer are displayed in the layer list with a pink background. You can lock and unlock layers from the layer context menu, but note that the active layer cannot be locked.

A layer may have snapping on or off—objects will behave magnetically only if their layer has snapping on. By default, snapping is on when the layer is visible, but you can choose to turn it off entirely, or to keep it on even when the layer is not visible.

Layers are also used to create pages that are displayed incrementally in a PDF viewer. Once you have distributed your objects over various layers, you can create views, which defines in what order which layers of the page are shown.

Mouse shortcuts

For the beginner, choosing a selection or transformation mode and working with the left mouse button is easiest. Frequent Ipe users don’t mind to remember the following shortcuts, as they allow you to perform selections and transformations without leaving the current mode:


Left Mouse

Right mouse



context menu








select non-destructively






translate horizontal/vertical


The middle mouse button always pans the canvas. Without a keyboard-modifier, the right mouse button brings up the object context menu.

If you have to use Ipe with a two-button mouse, where you would normally use the middle mouse button (for instance, to move a vertex when editing a path object), you can hold the Shift-key and use the right mouse button.

If you are not happy with these shortcuts, they can be changed easily.