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Working with Graphics Objects

Graphics Objects

Graphics objects are the basic elements used to display graphs. These objects are organized into a hierarchy, as shown by the following diagram.

When you call a plotting function, MATLAB® creates the graph using various graphics objects, such as a figure window, axes, lines, text, and so on. Each object has a fixed set of properties, which you can use to control the behavior and appearance of the graph.

For example, the following statement creates a bar graph from the data in the variable y and sets properties that how the bars look:

y = [75 91 105 123.5 131 150 179 203 226 249 281.5];

Common Graphics Objects

When you call a function to create a graph, MATLAB creates a hierarchy of graphics objects. For example, calling the plot function creates the following graphics objects:

  • Figure — Window that contains axes, toolbars, menus, and so on.

  • Axes — Coordinate system that contains the object representing the data

  • Line — Lines that represent the value of data passed to the plot function.

  • Text — Labels for axes tick marks and optional titles and annotations.

Different types of graphs use different objects to represent data. Because there are many kinds of graphs, there are many types of data objects. Some are general purpose, such as lines and rectangles and some are highly specialized, such as errorbars, colorbars, and legends.

Access Object Properties

Plotting functions can return the objects used to create the graph. For example, the following statements create a graph and return the line object created by the plot function:

x = 1:10;
y = x.^3;
h = plot(x,y);

Use h to set the properties of the line object. For example, set its Color property.

h.Color = 'red';

You can also specify the line properties when you call the plotting function.

h = plot(x,y,'Color','red');

You can query the line properties to see the current value:

ans =

Finding the Properties of an Object

To view the properties of an object, type:


MATLAB returns a list of the object's properties with the current values.

To view an object's properties with information about possible values, type:


Setting Object Properties

You can set multiple properties at once using the set function.

Setting Properties of Existing Objects

To set the same property to the same value on multiple objects, use the set function.

For example, the following statements plot a 5-by-5 matrix (creating five line objects, one per column), and then set the Marker property to square and the MarkerFaceColor property to green.

y = magic(5);
h = plot(y);

In this case, h is a vector containing five handles, one for each of the five lines in the graph. The set statement sets the Marker and MarkerFaceColor properties of all lines to the same value.

To set a property value on one object, index into the handle array:

h(1).LineWidth = 2;

Setting Multiple Property Values

If you want to set the properties of each line to a different value, you can use cell arrays to store all the data and pass it to the set command. For example, create a plot and save the line handles:

y = magic(5);
h = plot(y);

Suppose you want to add different markers to each lines and color the marker's face color the same color as the line. You need to define two cell arrays—one containing the property names and the other containing the desired values of the properties.

The prop_name cell array contains two elements:

prop_name(1) = {'Marker'};
prop_name(2) = {'MarkerFaceColor'};

The prop_values cell array contains 10 values: five values for the Marker property and five values for the MarkerFaceColor property. Notice that prop_values is a two-dimensional cell array. The first dimension indicates which handle in h the values apply to and the second dimension indicates which property the value is assigned to:

prop_values(1,1) = {'s'};
prop_values(1,2) = {h(1).Color};
prop_values(2,1) = {'d'};
prop_values(2,2) = {h(2).Color};
prop_values(3,1) = {'o'};
prop_values(3,2) = {h(3).Color};
prop_values(4,1) = {'p'};
prop_values(4,2) = {h(4).Color};
prop_values(5,1) = {'h'};
prop_values(5,2) = {h(5).Color};

The MarkerFaceColor is always assigned the value of the corresponding line's color (obtained by getting the line Color property).

After defining the cell arrays, call set to specify the new property values:


Functions for Working with Objects

This table lists functions commonly used when working with objects.




Find all children of specified objects.


Find ancestor of graphics object.


Copy graphics object.


Delete an object.


Find all graphics objects (including hidden handles).


Find the handles of objects having specified property values.


Return the handle of the current axes.


Return the handle of the current figure.


Return the handle of the current object.


Query the values of an object's properties.


True if the value is a valid object handle.


Set the values of an object's properties.

Passing Arguments

You can define specialized plotting functions to simplify the creation of customized graphs. By defining a function, you can pass arguments like MATLAB plotting functions.

The following example shows a MATLAB function that evaluates a mathematical expression over the range specified in the input argument x, and then plots the results. A second call to the plot function plots the mean value of the results as a red line.

The function modifies the y-axis ticks based on the values calculated. Axis labels and a title finish the custom graph.

function plotFunc(x)
   y = 1.5*cos(x) + 6*exp(-.1*x) + exp(.07*x).*sin(3*x);
   ym = mean(y);
   hfig = figure('Name','Function and Mean');
   hax = axes('Parent',hfig);
   hold on
   plot(hax,[min(x) max(x)],[ym ym],'Color','red')
   hold off
   ylab = hax.YTick;
   new_ylab = sort([ylab, ym]);
   hax.YTick = new_ylab;
   title ('y = 1.5cos(x) + 6e^{-0.1x} + e^{0.07x}sin(3x)')
   xlabel('X Axis')
   ylabel('Y Axis')

Define a value for the input argument and call the function.

x = -10:.005:40;

Finding the Handles of Existing Objects

The findobj function enables you to obtain the handles of graphics objects by searching for objects with particular property values. With findobj you can specify the values of any combination of properties, which makes it easy to pick one object out of many. findobj also recognizes regular expressions.

Finding All Objects of a Certain Type

Because all objects have a Type property that identifies the type of object, you can find the handles of all occurrences of a particular type of object. For example,

h = findobj('Type','patch');

finds the handles of all patch objects.

Finding Objects with a Particular Property

You can specify multiple properties to narrow the search. For example,

h = findobj('Type','line','Color','r','LineStyle',':');

finds the handles of all red dotted lines.

h = 

  5x1 Line array:


Limiting the Scope of the Search

You can specify the starting point in the object hierarchy by passing the handle of the starting figure or axes as the first argument. For example,

h = findobj(gca,'Type','text','String','\pi/2');

finds π/2 only within the current axes.

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