An Introduction to Plotting in Python

After having some Applied Math friends rant to me at how awful plotting was in Python I decided to write up a quick guide to hopefully change their minds.


This assumes a basic familiarity with numpy, although I’ll go over the basics really quickly just in case. The syntax/API is very similar to MATLAB, so any familiarity with MATLAB will help.

We can initialize an array from a normal list using array(), create ranges using arange(), or create evenly distributed numbers using linspace().

Operations can be applied to these arrays on an element-wise basis.

Indexing can be done on any axis (up to the max number of axes the array has). Given some n-dimensional array, the first index corresponds to the first row, the second index corresponds to the first column, etc.

Let’s talk about matplotlib

By default, matplotlib provides two different interfaces to control plotting.

  1. A State-Machine Interface (very similar to MATLAB)
  2. An Object-Oriented Interface (more pythonic)

We’ll go over both, especially since they can be used in tandem and both provide easy ways to approach problems.

For the official documentation click here.

Let’s talk pyplot

The pyplot module provides this state-machine interface, where the global state of all figures is maintained without the user directly specifying which figure they’re editing.

Let’s assume we have some generic dataset. I’ll create a random one just for an example that uses f(x) = x^2.

So let’s plot it.

Object Oriented Approach

We can use pyplot for the initial figure creation, or we can be more verbose and use the object oriented approach (which is very similar).

This creates the same plot as above.


Given the basic structure above, we can tweak settings and change things around. Let’s go over common configurations (code provided for both approaches)

  1. Figure-size – Add arguments to the figure creation
    • plt.figure(figsize=(width, height)) (same for both)
  2. Labels – Use xlabel and ylabel
    • plt.xlabel('Some X Axis Label') (state machine)
    • ax.set_xlabel('Some X Axis Label') (object oriented)
  3. Title – Use title
    • plt.title('Some Amazing Plot Title') (state machine)
    • ax.set_title('Some Amazing Plot Title') (object oriented)


We can also use pandas, which is built on matplotlib for its plotting. pandas is very powerful and can create amazing plots in very few lines of code.

For more examples see the official visualization docs here.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t mean to be a comprehensive guide on plotting in Python, but rather an argument that plotting isn’t some giant nightmare like my mathematician friends are convinced it is. If you have questions or want a follow up article on something specific, let me know in the comments down below.

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