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Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

Drawing attractive figures are important. When making figures for yourself, as you explore a dataset, it’s nice to have plots that are pleasant to look at. Visualizations are also central to communicating quantitative insights to an audience, and in that setting, it’s even more necessary to have figures that catch the attention and draw a viewer in. 

Matplotlib is highly customizable, but it can be hard to know what settings to tweak to achieve an attractive plot. Seaborn comes with several customized themes and a high-level interface for controlling the look of matplotlib figures. 

import numpy as np  
import seaborn as sns  
import matplotlib.pyplot as plot  

Let’s define a simple function to plot some offset sine waves, which will help us see the different stylistic parameters we can tweak. 

def sinplot(flip=1):  
 x = np.linspace(0, 14, 100)  
 for i in range(1, 7):  
 plt.plot(x, np.sin(x + i * .5)*(7 - i)*flip)  

This is what the plot looks like with matplotlib defaults 


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Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

To switch to seaborn defaults, simply call the set_theme() function. sns.set_theme()  


Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

Note that in versions of seaborn before 0.8, set_theme() was called on import. In later versions, it must be explicitly invoked. 

Seaborn splits matplotlib parameters into two independent groups. The first group sets the aesthetic style of the plot, and the second scale various elements of the figure so that it can be easily incorporated into different contexts. 

The interface for manipulating these parameters are two pairs of functions. To control the style, use the axes_style() and set_style() functions.  

To scale the plot, use the plotting_context() and set_context() functions. In both cases, the first function returns a dictionary of parameters, and the second sets the matplotlib defaults.

Seaborn figure styles  

There are five preset seaborn themes: darkgrid, whitegrid, dark, white,  and ticks. They are each suited to different applications and personal preferences. The default theme is darkgrid. As mentioned above, the grid helps the plot serve as a lookup table for quantitative information,  and the white-on grey helps to keep the grid from competing with lines that represent data. The whitegrid theme is similar, but it is better suited  to plots with heavy data elements 


data = np.random.normal(size=(20, 6)) +  

np.arange(6) / 2  


matplotlib figures

For many plots, especially for settings like talks, where you primarily want to use figures to provide impressions of patterns in the data, the grid is less necessary. 



Controlling figure aesthetics using seabornRemoving axes spines  

Both the white and ticks styles can benefit from removing the top and right axes spines, which are not needed. The seaborn function  despine() can be called to remove them 



matplotlib figures

Some plots benefit from offsetting the spines away from the data, which  can also be done when calling despine()

f, ax = plt.subplots()  
sns.despine(offset=10, trim=True); 
matplotlib figures

You can also control which spines are removed with additional  arguments to despine() 

sns.boxplot(data=data, palette="deep")  
matplotlib figures

Temporarily setting figure style  

Although it’s easy to switch back and forth, you can also use the  axes_style() function in a with statement to temporarily set plot  parameters. This also allows you to make matplotlib figures with differently-styled  axes 

f = plt.figure(figsize=(6, 6))  
gs = f.add_gridspec(2, 2)  
with sns.axes_style("darkgrid"):  
 ax = f.add_subplot(gs[0, 0])  
with sns.axes_style("white"):  
 ax = f.add_subplot(gs[0, 1])  
with sns.axes_style("ticks"):  
 ax = f.add_subplot(gs[1, 0])  
with sns.axes_style("whitegrid"):  
 ax = f.add_subplot(gs[1, 1])  
matplotlib figures

Overriding elements of the seaborn styles  

If you want to customize the seaborn styles, you can pass a dictionary of parameters to the rc argument of axes_style() and set_style(). Note that you can only override the parameters that are part of the style definition through this method. However, the higher level set_theme() function takes a dictionary of any matplotlib parameters. 

If you want to see what parameters are included, you can just call the  function with no arguments, which will return the current settings: 


You can then set different versions of these parameters: sns.set_style(“darkgrid”, {“axes.facecolor”: “.9″})  sinplot() 

Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

Scaling plot elements  

A separate set of parameters control the scale of plot elements, which should let you use the same code to make plots that are suited for use in settings where larger or smaller plots are appropriate. 

First let’s reset the default parameters by calling set_theme()  sns.set_theme()  

The four preset contexts, in order of relative size, are paper, notebook,  talk, and poster. The notebook style is the default and was used in the  plots above. 



Controlling figure aesthetics using seabornsns.set_context(“talk”)  


Controlling figure aesthetics using seabornsns.set_context(“poster”)  


Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

Most of what you now know about the style functions should transfer to  the context functions.

You can call set_context() with one of these names to set the parameters, and you can override the parameters by providing a  dictionary of parameter values. 

You can also independently scale the size of the font elements when changing the context. This option is also available through the top-level set() function. 

sns.set_context("notebook", font_scale=1.5,  rc={"lines.linewidth": 2.5})  


Controlling figure aesthetics using seaborn

Similarly, you can temporarily control the scale of matplotlib figures nested under a with the statement. Both the style and the context can be quickly configured with the set() function. This function also sets the default color palette, but that will be covered in more detail in the next section of the tutorial.

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