CSS Art – How to Make Vector Shapes with path()

Make basic and advanced shapes with CSS path() function and Scalable Vector Graphics (SVGs). Find out how in this step-by-step article.

CSS Art – How to Make Vector Shapes with path()

Introduction

Scalable Vector Graphics or SVGs are XML-based images that are used all over the web. They’re super lightweight and highly scalable.

We’ll explore how to make SVGs in this article. Starting with basic shapes such as rectangles and ellipses. We’ll show you how to make them with text.

Next we’ll tackle more advanced shapes such as hearts, crosses, and Bézier curves.

Preview

Preview of the shapes we will be creating. We will combine horizontal, vertical lines and Bézier curves in making these shapes.

SVG Smooth Curve
SVG Smooth Curve

Let’s explore how to make these smooth Bézier curves.

SVG Cross
SVG Cross

We will combine multiple lines, both vertical and horizontal, to make this simple cross.

Prerequisites

We don’t assume prior knowledge of CSS or HTML, but it helps if you have some familiarity with how they work. Jump over to this article if you require an HTML and CSS primer.

We assume that you have set up tools to create CSS art. If you haven’t, this article will show you how to set them up.

HTML Structure

HTML code for our examples.

<!-- CSS art code here -->
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-square"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-rectangle"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-circle"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-ellipse"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-triangle"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-cross"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-quad"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-cubic"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-smooth-curve"></div>
</div>
<div class="container">
  <div class="svg-path-heart"></div>
</div>

<div class="container"> enables us to center the art and put a light gray border. The rest of divs represent each of our shape examples.

What are Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)?

Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) defines SVG as follows:

Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) are an XML-based markup language for describing two-dimensional based vector graphics.

It's a text-based, open Web standard for describing images that can be rendered cleanly at any size and are designed specifically to work well with other web standards including CSS, DOM, JavaScript, and SMIL.

SVG is, essentially, to graphics what HTML is to text.

SVG images and icons are all over the web. Compared to other graphics formats such as JPEG or PNG, SVGs are mathematical vectors. They can be rendered at any size without losing image quality. It scales well and doesn’t get pixelated.

SVG are XML-based text. The examples that we will show in this article can all be edited with your favorite text editor. Being text, you can search, index, script and compress them.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been developing SVG since 1999.

The Grid

Before making SVGs, let us talk about the Grid system that it uses.

All elements in SVG utilizes a coordinate system, commonly called a grid system. The top-left corner of the document is the point of origin or (0,0). Take not that most computer drawing routines uses the same grid system.

X and Y Grid System
X and Y Grid System

Positions are then measured in pixels from the top-left corner. The positive x-axis or horizontal direction goes to the right. Positive y-axis or vertical directions points downwards.

Note that this is different from how it was explained in school, where the direction of the y-axis is flipped.

Implementing SVG

There are multiple ways to implement, make SVGs.

You can use HTML tags to make them. Sample code for a rectangle followed by a circle.

<!-- Rectangle -->
<rect x="10" y="10" width="30" height="30" stroke="black" fill="transparent" stroke-width="5"/>

<!-- Circle -->
<circle cx="25" cy="75" r="20" stroke="red" fill="transparent" stroke-width="5"/>

Another way is to insert them in CSS clip-path path() function. Sample code for a rectangle followed by an ellipse.

/* Rectangle */
clip-path: path("M 45 80 L 445,80 L 445,350 L 45,350 Z");

/* Ellipse */	
clip-path: path("M 240,365 A 190,130 0 1 0 239,365 Z");

For all the following examples, we will use the CSS clip-path path() method.

SVG Path Commands

SVG defines 2 line categories and 6 types of path commands, for a total of 20 commands.

  • An uppercase letter specifies absolute coordinates.
  • A lowercase letter specifies relative coordinates.

Line commands

  • Move To: M, m
  • Line To: L, l, H, h, V, v
  • Close Path: Z, z

Curve commands

  • Cubic Bézier Curve: C, c, S, s
  • Quadratic Bézier Curve: Q, q, T, t
  • Elliptical Arc Curve: A, a

Let’s explore basic SVG shapes in the next section.

Basic Shapes

Square

CSS Code:

.svg-path-square {
	width: 500px;
	height: 450px;
	background: burlywood;
	clip-path: path("M 90,75 L 420,75 L 420,380 L 90,380 Z");
}
SVG Square
SVG Square

Let’s go ahead and breakdown the code within the path() function.

  • M 90,75
    The M or Move To command picks up our SVG pen and moves it 90 on the x or horizontal axis and 75 on the y or vertical axis. To make it more readable, we put a comma between the x and y values. You can replace the comma , with a space if you find it more readable.
  • L 420,75
    Next, the L or Line To command draws a line from x:90, y:75 to x:420, y:75.
  • L 420, 380
    Same as above, we draw a line from the last coordinates, x:420, y:75, to x:420, y:380.
  • L 90, 380
    Our last Line To command draws a line from x:420, y:380 to x:90, y:380.
  • Z
    The Close Path or Z command closes our path. For this example, a line will be automatically drawn from x:90, y:380 to our start point, x:90, y:75, to make a closed square.

Our next example is a rectangle.

Rectangle

CSS Code:

.svg-path-rectangle {
	width: 500px;
	height: 450px;
	background-color: burlywood;
	clip-path: path("M 45,80 L 445,80 L 445,350 L 45,350 Z");
}
SVG Rectangle
SVG Rectangle

Rectangles are elongated squares. With some minor tweaks, the commands and values we used for the square applies to the rectangle example.

Next up, circle.

Circle

CSS Code:

.svg-path-circle {
	width: 500px;
	height: 450px;
	background-color: burlywood;
	clip-path: path("M 240,365 A 150,150 0 1 0 239,365 Z");
}
SVG Circle
SVG Circle

Circles use the A(a) or the Elliptical Arc Curve command. Let’s go over the syntax.

/* Absolute coordinates */
A rx ry x-axis-rotation large-arc-flag sweep-flag x y

/* Relative coordinates */
a rx ry x-axis-rotation large-arc-flag sweep-flag dx dy
  • A 150,150
    150
    is our x-radius, the following 150 is our y-radius value. You can control the dimension of the circle by increasing or decreasing both values.
  • 0
    This values is our x-axis rotation. Give it a positive value, the arc will move clockwise. A negative value will move the arc counter-clockwise.
  • 1
    We use this parameter to turn on, or off, the large-arc-flag. This flag determines if the arc should be greater than or less than 180 degrees. A value of 1 means it’s turned on.
  • 0
    Our second parameter, sweep-flag determines if the arc should begin moving at positive angles or negative ones. 0 means it’s turned off.
  • 239,365
    This is our end coordinates, 239 on the x-axis and 365 on the y-axis.

The large-arc-flag and sweep-flag may be hard to understand at first. Use this interactive tool to play around with the parameters and see how each affects the circle shape.

Ellipse

CSS Code:

.svg-path-ellipse {
	width: 500px;
	height: 450px;
	background-color: burlywood;
	clip-path: path("M 240,365 A 190,130 0 1 0 239,365 Z");
}
SVG Ellipse
SVG Ellipse

The ellipse shape is a slightly modified version of the circle shape.

  • A 190,130
    Our x-radius, 190, and y-radius, 130, gives our ellipse a horizontally elongated shape.

Change both radii to modify the ellipse shape.

Our last basic shape is the triangle.

Triangle

CSS Code:

.svg-path-triangle {
	width: 500px;
	height: 450px;
	background-color: burlywood;
	clip-path: path("M 250,70 L 70,350 L 430,350 Z");
}
SVG Triangle
SVG Triangle

To create a triangle, the logic is similar to making squares and rectangles. We use the L command to draw the lines. The Z command auto-closes the path. This means we don’t have to explicitly draw a line from x:430, y:350 to our starting coordinates.

Advanced Shapes

Our first advanced shape will be a cross.

In the basic shapes example, we used L or Line To command to draw lines. For the cross shape, we will demonstrate how to use the H(h) or Horizontal Line command and V(v) or Vertical Line command.

As their names imply, they can only move in one direction, vertically or horizontally.