Improvements to Clipping in the R Graphics Engine

The R graphics engine performs some clipping of output regardless of whether the graphics device it is sending output to can perform clipping itself. For example, output that is sent to the postscript() device, which can do its own clipping, is still clipped by the graphics engine to the edges of the device.

This is useful for devices that cannot clip, e.g., the xfig() device, and was historically useful as protection against very large values being sent to a device. The latter case used to be relevant when PostScript was a very important format and the ghostview viewer for PostScript files could not handle very large values.

Unfortunately, the clipping that the graphics engine performs can introduce artifacts. For example, if we draw a very thick line, with a square line end style, that extends beyond the edges of the graphics device, the graphics engine clips the line to the edge of the device and the thick square end of the clipped line is visible in the output (like the left end of the line below).

Furthermore, the defence against large values may no longer be necessary for important modern graphics devices, formats, and viewers.

The implementation of clipping in the graphics engine has been modified in several ways to improve the situation, the most important being:

  • Graphics devices can now specify canClip = NA_LOGICAL to indicate that the graphics engine should perform no clipping at all for that device.

  • When the graphics engine clips output for a device that can clip itself (canClip = TRUE), the output is clipped to a region much larger than the device, rather than to the edges of the device. This removes artifacts like the thick square end of the clipped line above; the new, corrected result is shown below.

Several other minor improvements have also been made; see here for more details.

The main impact of these changes should be improved output thanks to the removal of graphics engine clipping artifacts.

Maintainers of R packages that provide graphics devices may wish to experiment with the new canClip setting in case that provides a performance improvement (by removing graphics engine clipping calculations).

Maintainers of R packages that perform visual difference testing (e.g., using the ‘vdiffr’ or ‘gdiff’ packages) may need to update their “model” output files to adjust for the removal of clipping artifacts.