Some earlier posts on this site have featured drawings I made with pen and ink back in the nineteen-eighties. I’m thinking in particular of Another slice and Cigar shop. The process of getting from paper to digital was interesting. After scanning to JPEG I wanted to get the images into an SVG format, and the command-line utility potrace was the perfect tool for the job.

As a preparatory step, I found I had to convert the JPEG to a BMP. ImageMagick made short work of that:

    convert image.jpg image.bmp

Then all I had to do was run potrace like so:

    potrace -s image.bmp

The -s flag here tells potrace to give us an SVG file. There are many other options, but two of the handiest are -t, --turdsize n and -k, --blacklevel n. The “turdsize” tells potrace to ignore speckles smaller than a certain size, and it has the overall effect of cleaning things up and smoothing things out. The trade-off is in acuity, so for a given image you’ll want to experiment. The “blacklevel” is a number between 0 and 1 that determines the threshold for whether a given pixel of input will be treated as black or transparent in the output. At -k 1 everything will be black; at -k 0 everything will be transparent.

For my black and white line drawings getting the right blacklevel was unproblematic, but things can get trickier when starting from a color photograph, and I have found it helpful to do some prep work with an image editor like GIMP. Let’s walk through an example, and since this is the Internet, let’s start with a picture of a cat:

Color photograph of cat in a bucket

Original photograph

The first thing I’ll do is open the image in GIMP and desaturate it (make it black and white). I use Colors > Desaturate > Lumosity to do that:

Desaturated photograph of cat in a bucket

Desaturated photograph

Ultimately I’ll be wanted to detect edges, so to help things along I first heighten the contrast and brightness. I find that option under Colors > Brightness-Contrast… and I fiddle with different levels until I get this:

Desaturated photograph of cat in a bucket with heightened contrast

Desaturated photograph with heightened contrast

Now I’m ready to detect the edges. Under Filters > Edge-Detect I choose Difference of Gaussians and again fiddle a bit with the settings until I get something that looks good:

Photograph of cat with edges detected

Edges detected

At this point I bump up the contrast again, though that may not have been necessary:

Photograph of cat with high-contrast edges

High-contrast edges

Next I convert the JPEG to a BMP using ImageMagick as described above, and finally I run potrace on that BMP:

    potrace -s -t 80 -k 0.9 image.bmp

That gives us our SVG:

Scalable vector graphic of cat

Scalable vector graphic

And then it’s finally time to play with the cat:

Orange cat

Scalable orange cat