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MEP14: Text handling


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Issue #253 demonstrates a bug where using the bounding box rather than the advance width of text results in misaligned text. This is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but it should be addressed as part of this MEP.


By reorganizing how text is handled, this MEP aims to:

  • improve support for Unicode and non-ltr languages
  • improve text layout (especially multi-line text)
  • allow support for more fonts, especially non-Apple-format TrueType fonts and OpenType fonts.
  • make the font configuration easier and more transparent

Detailed description

Text layout

At present, matplotlib has two different ways to render text: "built-in" (based on FreeType and our own Python code), and "usetex" (based on calling out to a TeX installation). Adjunct to the "built-in" renderer there is also the Python-based "mathtext" system for rendering mathematical equations using a subset of the TeX language without having a TeX installation available. Support for these two engines in strewn about many source files, including every backend, where one finds clauses like

if rcParams['text.usetex']: # do one thing else: # do another

Adding a third text rendering approach (more on that later) would require editing all of these places as well, and therefore doesn't scale.

Instead, this MEP proposes adding a concept of "text engines", where the user could select one of many different approaches for rendering text. The implementations of each of these would be localized to their own set of modules, and not have little pieces around the whole source tree.

Why add more text rendering engines? The "built-in" text rendering has a number of shortcomings.

  • It only handles right-to-left languages, and doesn't handle many special features of Unicode, such as combining diacriticals.
  • The multiline support is imperfect and only supports manual line-breaking -- it can not break up a paragraph into lines of a certain length.
  • It also does not handle inline formatting changes in order to support something like Markdown, reStructuredText or HTML. (Though rich-text formatting is contemplated in this MEP, since we want to make sure this design allows it, the specifics of a rich-text formatting implementation is outside of the scope of this MEP.)

Supporting these things is difficult, and is the "full-time job" of a number of other projects:

Of the above options, it should be noted that harfbuzz is designed from the start as a cross platform option with minimal dependencies, so therefore is a good candidate for a single option to support.

Additionally, for supporting rich text, we could consider using WebKit, and possibly whether than represents a good single cross-platform option. Again, however, rich text formatting is outside of the scope of this project.

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and add these features to matplotlib's "built-in" text renderer, we should provide a way to leverage these projects to get more powerful text layout. The "built-in" renderer will still need to exist for reasons of ease of installation, but its feature set will be more limited compared to the others. [TODO: This MEP should clearly decide what those limited features are, and fix any bugs to bring the implementation into a state of working correctly in all cases that we want it to work. I know @leejjoon has some thoughts on this.]

Font selection

Going from an abstract description of a font to a file on disk is the task of the font selection algorithm -- it turns out to be much more complicated than it seems at first.

The "built-in" and "usetex" renderers have very different ways of handling font selection, given their different technologies. TeX requires the installation of TeX-specific font packages, for example, and can not use TrueType fonts directly. Unfortunately, despite the different semantics for font selection, the same set of font properties are used for each. This is true of both the FontProperties class and the font-related rcParams (which basically share the same code underneath). Instead, we should define a core set of font selection parameters that will work across all text engines, and have engine-specific configuration to allow the user to do engine-specific things when required. For example, it is possible to directly select a font by name in the "built-in" using, but the same is not possible with "usetex". It may be possible to make it easier to use TrueType fonts by using XeTeX, but users will still want to use the traditional metafonts through TeX font packages. So the issue still stands that different text engines will need engine-specific configuration, and it should be more obvious to the user which configuration will work across text engines and which are engine-specific.

Note that even excluding "usetex", there are different ways to find fonts. The default is to use the font list cache in which matches fonts using our own algorithm based on the CSS font matching algorithm. It doesn't always do the same thing as the native font selection algorithms on Linux (fontconfig), Mac and Windows, and it doesn't always find all of the fonts on the system that the OS would normally pick up. However, it is cross-platform, and always finds the fonts that ship with matplotlib. The Cairo and MacOSX backends (and presumably a future HTML5-based backend) currently bypass this mechanism and use the OS-native ones. The same is true when not embedding fonts in SVG, PS or PDF files and opening them in a third-party viewer. A downside there is that (at least with Cairo, need to confirm with MacOSX) they don't always find the fonts we ship with matplotlib. (It may be possible to add the fonts to their search path, though, or we may need to find a way to install our fonts to a location the OS expects to find them).

There are also special modes in the PS and PDF to only use the core fonts that are always available to those formats. There, the font lookup mechanism must only match against those fonts. It is unclear whether the OS-native font lookup systems can handle this case.

There is also experimental support for using fontconfig for font selection in matplotlib, turned off by default. fontconfig is the native font selection algorithm on Linux, but is also cross platform and works well on the other platforms (though obviously is an additional dependency there).

Many of the text layout libraries proposed above (pango, QtTextLayout, DirectWrite and CoreText etc.) insist on using the font selection library from their own ecosystem.

All of the above seems to suggest that we should move away from our self-written font selection algorithm and use the native APIs where possible. That's what Cairo and MacOSX backends already want to use, and it will be a requirement of any complex text layout library. On Linux, we already have the bones of a fontconfig implementation (which could also be accessed through pango). On Windows and Mac we may need to write custom wrappers. The nice thing is that the API for font lookup is relatively small, and essentially consist of "given a dictionary of font properties, give me a matching font file".

Font subsetting

Font subsetting is currently handled using ttconv. ttconv was a standalone commandline utility for converting TrueType fonts to subsetted Type 3 fonts (among other features) written in 1995, which matplotlib (well, I) forked in order to make it work as a library. It only handles Apple-style TrueType fonts, not ones with the Microsoft (or other vendor) encodings. It doesn't handle OpenType fonts at all. This means that even though the STIX fonts come as .otf files, we have to convert them to .ttf files to ship them with matplotlib. The Linux packagers hate this -- they'd rather just depend on the upstream STIX fonts. ttconv has also been shown to have a few bugs that have been difficult to fix over time.

Instead, we should be able to use FreeType to get the font outlines and write our own code (probably in Python) to output subsetted fonts (Type 3 on PS and PDF and SVGFonts or paths on SVG). Freetype, as a popular and well-maintained project, handles a wide variety of fonts in the wild. This would remove a lot of custom C code, and remove some code duplication between backends.

Note that subsetting fonts this way, while the easiest route, does lose the hinting in the font, so we will need to continue, as we do now, provide a way to embed the entire font in the file where possible.

Alternative font subsetting options include using the subsetting built-in to Cairo (not clear if it can be used without the rest of Cairo), or using fontforge (which is a heavy and not terribly cross-platform dependency).

Freetype wrappers

Our FreeType wrapper could really use a reworking. It defines its own image buffer class (when a Numpy array would be easier). While FreeType can handle a huge diversity of font files, there are limitations to our wrapper that make it much harder to support non-Apple-vendor TrueType files, and certain features of OpenType files. (See #2088 for a terrible result of this, just to support the fonts that ship with Windows 7 and 8). I think a fresh rewrite of this wrapper would go a long way.

Text anchoring and alignment and rotation

The handling of baselines was changed in 1.3.0 such that the backends are now given the location of the baseline of the text, not the bottom of the text. This is probably the correct behavior, and the MEP refactoring should also follow this convention.

In order to support alignment on multi-line text, it should be the responsibility of the (proposed) text engine to handle text alignment. For a given chunk of text, each engine calculates a bounding box for that text and the offset of the anchor point within that box. Therefore, if the va of a block was "top", the anchor point would be at the top of the box.

Rotating of text should always be around the anchor point. I'm not sure that lines up with current behavior in matplotlib, but it seems like the sanest/least surprising choice. [This could be revisited once we have something working]. Rotation of text should not be handled by the text engine -- that should be handled by a layer between the text engine and the rendering backend so it can be handled in a uniform way. [I don't see any advantage to rotation being handled by the text engines individually...]

There are other problems with text alignment and anchoring that should be resolved as part of this work. [TODO: enumerate these].

Other minor problems to fix

The mathtext code has backend-specific code -- it should instead provide its output as just another text engine. However, it's still desirable to have mathtext layout inserted as part of a larger layout performed by another text engine, so it should be possible to do this. It's an open question whether embedding the text layout of an arbitrary text engine in another should be possible.

The text mode is currently set by a global rcParam ("text.usetex") so it's either all on or all off. We should continue to have a global rcParam to choose the text engine ("text.layout_engine"), but it should under the hood be an overridable property on the Text object, so the same figure can combine the results of multiple text layout engines if necessary.


A concept of a "text engine" will be introduced. Each text engine will implement a number of abstract classes. The TextFont interface will represent text for a given set of font properties. It isn't necessarily limited to a single font file -- if the layout engine supports rich text, it may handle a number of font files in a family. Given a TextFont instance, the user can get a TextLayout instance, which represents the layout for a given string of text in a given font. From a TextLayout, an iterator over TextSpans is returned so the engine can output raw editable text using as few spans as possible. If the engine would rather get individual characters, they can be obtained from the TextSpan instance:

class TextFont(TextFontBase):
    def __init__(self, font_properties):
        Create a new object for rendering text using the given font properties.

    def get_layout(self, s, ha, va):
        Get the TextLayout for the given string in the given font and
        the horizontal (left, center, right) and verticalalignment (top,
        center, baseline, bottom)

class TextLayout(TextLayoutBase):
    def get_metrics(self):
        Return the bounding box of the layout, anchored at (0, 0).

    def get_spans(self):
        Returns an iterator over the spans of different in the layout.
        This is useful for backends that want to editable raw text as
        individual lines.  For rich text where the font may change,
        each span of different font type will have its own span.

    def get_image(self):
        Returns a rasterized image of the text.  Useful for raster backends,
        like Agg.

        In all likelihood, this will be overridden in the backend, as it can
        be created from get_layout(), but certain backends may want to
        override it if their library provides it (as freetype does).

    def get_rectangles(self):
        Returns an iterator over the filled black rectangles in the layout.
        Used by TeX and mathtext for drawing, for example, fraction lines.

    def get_path(self):
        Returns a single Path object of the entire laid out text.

        [Not strictly necessary, but might be useful for textpath

class TextSpan(TextSpanBase):
    x, y      # Position of the span -- relative to the text layout as a whole
              # where (0, 0) is the anchor.  y is the baseline of the span.
    fontfile  # The font file to use for the span
    text      # The text content of the span

    def get_path(self):
        pass  # See TextLayout.get_path

    def get_chars(self):
        Returns an iterator over the characters in the span.

class TextChar(TextCharBase):
    x, y      # Position of the character -- relative to the text layout as
              # a whole, where (0, 0) is the anchor.  y is in the baseline
              # of the character.
    codepoint # The unicode code point of the character -- only for informational
              # purposes, since the mapping of codepoint to glyph_id may have been
              # handled in a complex way by the layout engine.  This is an int
              # to avoid problems on narrow Unicode builds.
    glyph_id  # The index of the glyph within the font
    fontfile  # The font file to use for the char

    def get_path(self):
        Get the path for the character.

Graphic backends that want to output subset of fonts would likely build up a file-global dictionary of characters where the keys are (fontname, glyph_id) and the values are the paths so that only one copy of the path for each character will be stored in the file.

Special casing: The "usetex" functionality currently is able to get Postscript directly from TeX to insert directly in a Postscript file, but for other backends, parses a DVI file and generates something more abstract. For a case like this, TextLayout would implement get_spans for most backends, but add get_ps for the Postscript backend, which would look for the presence of this method and use it if available, or fall back to get_spans. This kind of special casing may also be necessary, for example, when the graphics backend and text engine belong to the same ecosystem, e.g. Cairo and Pango, or MacOSX and CoreText.

There are three main pieces to the implementation:

  1. Rewriting the freetype wrapper, and removing ttconv.
  1. Once (1) is done, as a proof of concept, we can move to the upstream STIX .otf fonts
  2. Add support for web fonts loaded from a remote URL. (Enabled by using freetype for font subsetting).
  1. Refactoring the existing "builtin" and "usetex" code into separate text engines and to follow the API outlined above.
  2. Implementing support for advanced text layout libraries.

(1) and (2) are fairly independent, though having (1) done first will allow (2) to be simpler. (3) is dependent on (1) and (2), but even if it doesn't get done (or is postponed), completing (1) and (2) will make it easier to move forward with improving the "builtin" text engine.

Backward compatibility

The layout of text with respect to its anchor and rotation will change in hopefully small, but improved, ways. The layout of multiline text will be much better, as it will respect horizontal alignment. The layout of bidirectional text or other advanced Unicode features will now work inherently, which may break some things if users are currently using their own workarounds.

Fonts will be selected differently. Hacks that used to sort of work between the "builtin" and "usetex" text rendering engines may no longer work. Fonts found by the OS that weren't previously found by matplotlib may be selected.