Effectively Using Matplotlib


The python visualization world can be a frustrating place for a new user. There
are many different options and choosing the right one is a challenge.
For example, even after 2 years, this article is one of the top posts that
lead people to this site. In that article, I threw some shade at matplotlib
and dismissed it during the analysis. However, after using tools such as pandas,
scikit-learn, seaborn and the rest of the data science stack in python – I
think I was a little premature in dismissing matplotlib. To be honest, I
did not quite understand it and how to use it effectively in my workflow.

Now that I have taken the time to learn some of these tools and how to use them with
matplotlib, I have started to see matplotlib as an indispensable tool.
This post will show how I use matplotlib and provide some recommendations for users getting
started or users who have not taken the time to learn matplotlib. I do firmly believe
matplotlib is an essential part of the python data science stack and hope this
article will help people understand how to use it for their own visualizations.

Why all the negativity towards matplotlib?

In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons why matplotlib is challenging for
the new user to learn.

First, matplotlib has two interfaces. The first is based on MATLAB and uses a state-based interface.
The second option is an an object-oriented interface. The why’s of this dual approach
are outside the scope of this post but knowing that there are two approaches is
vitally important when plotting with matplotlib.

The reason two interfaces cause confusion is that in the world of stack overflow
and tons of information available via google searches, new users will stumble
across multiple solutions to problems that look somewhat similar but are not the same.
I can speak from experience. Looking back on some of my old code, I can tell that there
is a mishmash of matplotlib code – which is confusing to me (even if I wrote it).

Key Point
New matplotlib users should learn and use the object oriented interface.

Another historic challenge with matplotlib is that some of the default style
choices were rather unattractive. In a world where R could generate some really
cool plots with ggplot, the matplotlib options tended to look a bit ugly in
comparison. The good news is that matplotlib 2.0 has much nicer styling capabilities
and ability to theme your visualizations with minimal effort.

The third challenge I see with matplotlib is that there is confusion as to when you
should use pure matplotlib to plot something vs. a tool like pandas or seaborn that is
built on top of matplotlib. Anytime there can be more than one way to do something,
it is challenging for the new or infrequent user to follow the right path. Couple
this confusion with the two different API’s and it is a recipe for frustration.

Why stick with matplotlib?

Despite some of these issues, I have come to appreciate matplotlib because it
is extremely powerful. The library allows you to create almost any visualization
you could imagine. Additionally, there is a rich ecosystem of python tools
built around it and many of the more advanced visualization tools use matplotlib as
the base library. If you do any work in the python data science stack, you will
need to develop some basic familiarity with how to use matplotlib. That is
the focus of the rest of this post – developing a basic approach for effectively
using matplotlib.

Basic Premises

If you take nothing else away from this post, I recommend the following steps
for learning how to use matplotlib:

  1. Learn the basic matplotlib terminology, specifically what is a

    and an

  2. Always use the object-oriented interface. Get in the habit of using it from the start of your analysis.
  3. Start your visualizations with basic pandas plotting.
  4. Use seaborn for the more complex statistical visualizations.
  5. Use matplotlib to customize the pandas or seaborn visualization.

This graphic from the matplotlib faq is gold. Keep it handy to understand the
different terminology of a plot.

Matplotlib parts

Most of the terms are straightforward but the main thing to remember is that the

is the final image that may contain 1 or more axes. The

represent an
individual plot. Once you understand what these are and how to access them through
the object oriented API, the rest of the process starts to fall into place.

The other benefit of this knowledge is that you have a starting point when you
see things on the web. If you take the time to understand this point, the rest
of the matplotlib API will start to make sense. Also, many of the advanced python
packages like seaborn and ggplot rely on matplotlib so understanding the basics
will make those more powerful frameworks much easier to learn.

Finally, I am not saying that you should avoid the other good options
like ggplot (aka ggpy), bokeh, plotly or altair. I just think you’ll need a basic understanding
of matplotlib + pandas + seaborn to start. Once you understand the basic visualization
stack, you can explore the other options and make informed choices based on your needs.

Getting Started

The rest of this post will be a primer on how to do the basic visualization
creation in pandas and customize the most common items using matplotlib. Once
you understand the basic process, further customizations are relatively straightforward.

I have focused on the most common plotting tasks I encounter such as
labeling axes, adjusting limits, updating plot titles, saving figures and adjusting legends.
If you would like to follow along, the notebook includes additional detail that should be helpful.

To get started, I am going to setup my imports and read in some data:

import pandas as pd
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from matplotlib.ticker import FuncFormatter

df = pd.read_excel("https://github.com/chris1610/pbpython/blob/master/data/sample-salesv3.xlsx?raw=true")
account numbernameskuquantityunit priceext pricedate
0740150Barton LLCB1-200003986.693380.912014-01-01 07:21:51
1714466Trantow-BarrowsS2-77896-163.16-63.162014-01-01 10:00:47
2218895Kulas IncB1-699242390.702086.102014-01-01 13:24:58
3307599Kassulke, Ondricka and MetzS1-654814121.05863.052014-01-01 15:05:22
4412290Jerde-HilpertS2-34077683.21499.262014-01-01 23:26:55

The data consists of sales transactions for 2014. In order to make this
post a little shorter, I’m going to summarize the data so we can see the
total number of purchases and total sales for the top 10 customers. I am also
going to rename columns for clarity during plots.

top_10 = (df.groupby('name')['ext price', 'quantity'].agg({'ext price': 'sum', 'quantity': 'count'})
          .sort_values(by='ext price', ascending=False))[:10].reset_index()
top_10.rename(columns={'name': 'Name', 'ext price': 'Sales', 'quantity': 'Purchases'}, inplace=True)

Here is what the data looks like.

0Kulas Inc94137351.96
4Fritsch, Russel and Anderson81112214.71
5Barton LLC82109438.50
6Will LLC74104437.60
7Koepp Ltd82103660.54
8Frami, Hills and Schmidt72103569.59
9Keeling LLC74100934.30

Now that the data is formatted in a simple table, let’s talk about plotting these
results as a bar chart.

As I mentioned earlier, matplotlib has many different styles available for
rendering plots. You can see which ones are available on your system using




Using a style is as simple as:


I encourage you to play around with different styles and see which ones you like.

Now that we have a nicer style in place, the first step is to plot the data
using the standard pandas plotting function:

top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name")
Pandas plot 1

The reason I recommend using pandas plotting first is that it is a quick and
easy way to prototype your visualization. Since most people are probably already
doing some level of data manipulation/analysis in pandas as a first step, go ahead
and use the basic plots to get started.

Customizing the Plot

Assuming you are comfortable with the gist of this plot, the next step is
to customize it. Some of the customizations (like adding titles and
labels) are very simple to use with the pandas

function. However,
you will probably find yourself needing to move outside of that functionality
at some point. That’s why I recommend getting in the habit of doing this:

fig, ax = plt.subplots()
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)

The resulting plot looks exactly the same as the original but we added an additional call

and passed the

to the plotting function. Why
should you do this? Remember when I said it is critical to get access
to the axes and figures in matplotlib? That’s what we have accomplished here. Any future
customization will be done via the



We have the benefit of a quick plot from pandas but access to all the power from
matplotlib now. An example should show what we can do now. Also, by using
this naming convention, it is fairly straightforward to adapt others’ solutions
to your unique needs.

Suppose we want to tweak the x limits and change some axis labels? Now that we have the
axes in the

variable, we have a lot of control:

fig, ax = plt.subplots()
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)
ax.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax.set_xlabel('Total Revenue')
Pandas plot 2

Here’s another shortcut we can use to change the title and both labels:

fig, ax = plt.subplots()
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)
ax.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax.set(title='2014 Revenue', xlabel='Total Revenue', ylabel='Customer')
Pandas plot 3

To further demonstrate this approach, we can also adjust the size of this image.
By using the

function, we can define the

in inches.
We can also remove the legend using

fig, ax = plt.subplots(figsize=(5, 6))
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)
ax.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax.set(title='2014 Revenue', xlabel='Total Revenue')
Pandas plot 4

There are plenty of things you probably want to do to clean up this plot. One
of the biggest eye sores is the formatting of the Total Revenue numbers. Matplotlib
can help us with this through the use of the

. This versatile
function can apply a user defined function to a value and return a nicely
formatted string to place on the axis.

Here is a currency formatting function to gracefully handle US dollars in the
several hundred thousand dollar range:

def currency(x, pos):
    'The two args are the value and tick position'
    if x >= 1000000:
        return '${:1.1f}M'.format(x*1e-6)
    return '${:1.0f}K'.format(x*1e-3)

Now that we have a formatter function, we need to define it and apply it to the
x axis. Here is the full code:

fig, ax = plt.subplots()
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)
ax.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax.set(title='2014 Revenue', xlabel='Total Revenue', ylabel='Customer')
formatter = FuncFormatter(currency)
Pandas plot 5

That’s much nicer and shows a good example of the flexibility to define your
own solution to the problem.

The final customization feature I will go through is the ability to add
annotations to the plot. In order to draw a vertical line, you can use

and to add custom text, you can use


For this example, we’ll draw a line showing an average and include labels showing
three new customers. Here is the full code with comments to pull it
all together.

# Create the figure and the axes
fig, ax = plt.subplots()

# Plot the data and get the averaged
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax)
avg = top_10['Sales'].mean()

# Set limits and labels
ax.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax.set(title='2014 Revenue', xlabel='Total Revenue', ylabel='Customer')

# Add a line for the average
ax.axvline(x=avg, color='b', label='Average', linestyle='--', linewidth=1)

# Annotate the new customers
for cust in [3, 5, 8]:
    ax.text(115000, cust, "New Customer")

# Format the currency
formatter = FuncFormatter(currency)

# Hide the legend
Pandas plot 6

While this may not be the most exciting plot it does show how much power you have
when following this approach.

Figures and Plots

Up until now, all the changes we have made have been with the indivudual plot.
Fortunately, we also have the ability to add multiple plots on a figure as well
as save the entire figure using various options.

If we decided that we wanted to put two plots on the same figure, we should have
a basic understanding of how to do it. First, create the figure, then the axes, then
plot it all together. We can accomplish this using


fig, (ax0, ax1) = plt.subplots(nrows=1, ncols=2, sharey=True, figsize=(7, 4))

In this example, I’m using


to specify the size
because this is very clear to the new user. In sample code you will frequently
just see variables like 1,2. I think using the named parameters is a little easier
to interpret later on when you’re looking at your code.

I am also using

so that the yaxis will share the same labels.

This example is also kind of nifty because the various axes get unpacked to


. Now that we have these axes, you can plot them like the examples
above but put one plot on

and the other on


# Get the figure and the axes
fig, (ax0, ax1) = plt.subplots(nrows=1,ncols=2, sharey=True, figsize=(7, 4))
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Sales", x="Name", ax=ax0)
ax0.set_xlim([-10000, 140000])
ax0.set(title='Revenue', xlabel='Total Revenue', ylabel='Customers')

# Plot the average as a vertical line
avg = top_10['Sales'].mean()
ax0.axvline(x=avg, color='b', label='Average', linestyle='--', linewidth=1)

# Repeat for the unit plot
top_10.plot(kind='barh', y="Purchases", x="Name", ax=ax1)
avg = top_10['Purchases'].mean()
ax1.set(title='Units', xlabel='Total Units', ylabel='')
ax1.axvline(x=avg, color='b', label='Average', linestyle='--', linewidth=1)

# Title the figure
fig.suptitle('2014 Sales Analysis', fontsize=14, fontweight='bold');

# Hide the legends
Pandas plot 7

Up until now, I have been relying on the jupyter notebook to display the figures
by virtue of the
%matplotlib inline

directive. However, there are going
to be plenty of times where you have the need to save a figure in a specific format
and integrate it with some other presentation.

Matplotlib supports many different formats for saving files. You can use


to see what your system supports:

{'eps': 'Encapsulated Postscript',
 'jpeg': 'Joint Photographic Experts Group',
 'jpg': 'Joint Photographic Experts Group',
 'pdf': 'Portable Document Format',
 'pgf': 'PGF code for LaTeX',
 'png': 'Portable Network Graphics',
 'ps': 'Postscript',
 'raw': 'Raw RGBA bitmap',
 'rgba': 'Raw RGBA bitmap',
 'svg': 'Scalable Vector Graphics',
 'svgz': 'Scalable Vector Graphics',
 'tif': 'Tagged Image File Format',
 'tiff': 'Tagged Image File Format'}

Since we have the

object, we can save the figure using multiple options:

fig.savefig('sales.png', transparent=False, dpi=80, bbox_inches="tight")

This version saves the plot as a png with opaque background. I have also specified
the dpi and

in order to minimize excess white space.


Hopefully this process has helped you understand how to more effectively use
matplotlib in your daily data analysis. If you get in the habit of using this approach
when doing your analysis, you should be able to quickly find out how to do whatever you
need to do to customize your plot.

As a final bonus, I am including a quick guide to unify all the concepts.
I hope this helps bring this post together and proves a handy reference for
future use.

Matplotlib example

Source From: pbpython.com.
Original article title: Effectively Using Matplotlib.
This full article can be read at: Effectively Using Matplotlib.

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