Plotting backend details


The plotting backend API is currently being re-designed and should be considered experimental.

Plotting in Sherpa is done through plotting backends. The term backend is used in two related ways in Sherpa. First, a backend is an external package that performs the plotting such as matplotlib, i.e. it creates a canvas and puts color on paper or on the screen. The Sherpa plotting classes are written in a backend-independent way; they work with any plotting backend that is supported by Sherpa. We also use the term backend to refer to Sherpa classes that connect the Sherpa plot objects with the plotting backend by translating Sherpa options into backend-specific commands. The details of that are explained below, but, in short, a backend class would translate the sherpa backend-independent “plot a line in red from here to there” into backend specific plt.plot(x,y, linecolor='r') (if the backend is matplotlib).

Instead of utilizing Sherpa classes and commands to plot data, users can alternatively just access the data in the Sherpa data objects (e.g. the x and y values of a dataset) and perform plotting operations directly with any plotting backend that is available to them. This method may be less convenient, but it works for plotting backends not (yet) supported by Sherpa.

Which backend is used?

When the sherpa.plot module is first imported, Sherpa tries to import the backends installed with Sherpa in the order listed in the options.plot_pkg setting from the sherpa.rc startup file. The first module that imports successfully is set as the active backend. The following command prints the name and the location on disk of that module:

>>> from sherpa import plot
>>> print(


Of course, you could be tempted to write:

>>> from sherpa.plot import backend
>>> print(

However, backend is now a reference to the backend that was active when the import was done. If the backend is changed later, backend will still refer to the old backend. Thus, always use plot.backend to access the active backend.

Change the backend


When the plotting backend is changed, new plotting objects must be initialized because objects like e.g. sherpa.plot.DataPlot keep a copy of all default parameters of the backend that was active when they are initialized. A different backend might not understand all those parameters.

In particular, Sherpa’s UI layer (which contains functions such as sherpa.astro.ui.plot_data) keeps a reference to specific plot objects. Changing the backend by itself will not change those references, and thus those function might not work with a new backend.

After the initial import, the backend can be changed by loading one of the plotting backends shipped with sherpa (or any other module that provides the same interface):

>>> from sherpa.plot import set_backend
>>> set_backend('pylab')

Sherpa also provides a context manager to change the backend for just one plot:

>>> from sherpa.plot import TemporaryPlottingBackend
>>> with TemporarypPlottingBackend('pylab'):
...     x = [1,2,3,4]
...     # do some plotting with x

The list of available plotting backend names and the classes that implement them is:

>>> from sherpa.plot.backends import PLOT_BACKENDS
>>> print(PLOT_BACKENDS.keys())

Which backends are available depends on which packages are installed in your Python environment, e.g. the "pylab" backend requires matplotlib.

Backend-independent plotting options

Sherpa defines a number of plotting options that can be used with any backend, thus code that limits itself to those options can run independent of which backend is set up in Sherpa. All default settings and most examples use only backend-independent plotting options. The resulting plots will not look identical in each backend, e.g. thickness of a line or the font type of an annotation might differ, but they will convey the same information. For example, “a blue dotted line” will generally appear blue and dotted, even though the shade of blue or the size of the dots might differ between plotting backends.

In some cases, a plotting backend might not support all Sherpa plot options (for example, a plotting backend might not have a command to change the line style). In those rare cases, a setting might be ignored; but a setting from Sherpa’s list of backend independent values will never raise an error.

The names of plotting options and values that all Sherpa plotting backends accept are chosen to match common matplotlib settings which are familiar to many scientific Python users, and to maintain backwards compatibility with previous version of Sherpa. They offer limited choices, but those are sufficient for most plots.

The following settings are accepted for all Sherpa plotting backends:


Colors are used for the color of lines, symbols, error bars etc.

  • 'b' (blue)

  • 'r' (red)

  • 'g' (green)

  • 'k' (black)

  • 'w' (white),

  • 'c' (cyan)

  • 'y' (yellow)

  • 'm` (magenta)

  • None (plotting backend default)

Line styles

Because of legacy from both Chips and matplotlib backends, line styles can be specified in more than one form:

  • 'noline' or '' (empty string) or 'None' (as a string) means that no line shall be plotted.

  • 'solid' or '-' for solid lines,

  • None for the default style - usually a solid line, too,

  • 'dot' or ':' for dotted lines,

  • 'dash' or '--' (dashed) for dashed lines, and

  • 'dashdot' or '-.' for a dot-dashed line.


  • "None" as a string or "" (empty string) means that no marker will be shown,

  • "." shows dots,

  • "o" shows circles (filled or unfilled depending on the backend),

  • "+" shows plus signs,

  • "s" shows squares.

Additional backend-specific settings

Most plotting backends accept more than just the backend-independent options listed above. For example, matplotlib allows many different ways to specify colors to cover the entire RGB range, such as color=(.3, .4, .5, .2) or color='xkcd:eggshell'. The Sherpa plotting methods will pass any value to the underlying backend:

>>> from import Data1D
>>> from sherpa.plot import DataPlot
>>> d = Data1D('example data', [1, 2, 3], [3, 2, 5])
>>> dplot = DataPlot()
>>> dplot.prepare(d)
>>> dplot.plot(markerfacecolor='xkcd:eggshell')

will succeed with the PylabBackend (activated with sherpa.plot.set_backend("pylab")), but raise an error if the active backend is BokehBackend. In contrast, color='k' is also not understood by bokeh natively, but because it is on the backend-independent list, Sherpa will translate 'k' to a form that bokeh does understand ('black' in this case).

Backends may also accept additional keywords to specify more plotting properties such as the transparency of an element or a URL that is opened when clicking on an element. Those can simply be passed to the Sherpa plotting command, which will pass them through to the plotting backend:

>>> from import Data1D
>>> from sherpa.plot import DataPlot
>>> d = Data1D('example data', [1, 2, 3], [3, 2, 5])
>>> dplot = DataPlot()
>>> dplot.prepare(d)
>>> dplot.plot(url='')

Since Sherpa does not process those options itself, but just passes them on to the underlying backend module, they are not documented here - see the documentation of the specific plotting module for details. Also, they will fail and raise an error if the plotting backend in use does not understand the url keyword.

In some cases, the Sherpa plotting commands create several visualization elements at the same time (lines, symbols, error bars, axes, labels). This makes using Sherpa classes convenient, but it also means that the plotting functions do not offer options to customize each and every part. In general, the plotting functions pass color, line style etc. to the elements that describes the data (line, marker) and generate labels or axes grids using default settings. Backend specific code can be used to change the properties of the current figure after the Sherpa plotting.

Backend interface


This section is mostly relevant for developers or advanced users who write new Sherpa plot classes or new backends.

This section describes the API that all Sherpa backends offer to explain how to use it and why it was designed this way. See sherpa.plot.backends.BaseBackend for a complete listing of the calling signature for each function. The BasicBackend backend extends BaseBackend by raising a warning message for plotting functions (plot, image, histogram etc.) that are not implemented. It is the base for any real functional backend, which will override those methods, but offer useful user feedback for any method not provided. This future-proofs any backend derived from this class: When sherpa adds new functions to its backend definition, they will be added here with a warning message. Thus, any backend derived from this class will always provide the interface that sherpa requires from a plotting backend.

Plotting functions

Each backend shall support the plotting functions listed below, where “support” means “has to provide these functions and accept a standard list of arguments without crashing or raising an exception”. We explicitly allow for backends that implement some of these as a no-op, e.g. because the underlying plotting library does not support 2D data. In that case, the backend would typically issue a warning.

The plotting functions are not separated by “how things look on paper” (thus “plot” is a long method that is responsible for points, lines, and error bars), but by “what is the input data type”:

  • plot (for scatter plots with marker style set, for line plots with line style set, and for error bars with xerr or yerr set to True); accepts (x, y) data with optional error bars in each dimension. Data can be scalar (for a single marker), or array-like. Note that x and y can also be None, which should create an empty plot.

  • histo (similar to plot, but with “histogram-style” lines); accepts (xlo, xhi, y) data with optional xerr, yerr.

  • contour for (x0, x1, z) data.

If called with empty data, a plotting function shall at a minimum create an empty plot.


Backends should also implement the following annotation functions. They do not depend on the data plotted, but just annotate the plot, e.g. a RatioPlot shows the ratio between data and model and can use an annotation to mark the ratio=1 line.

  • hline (horizontal across the entire axes)

  • vline (vertical across the entire axes)

Other annotations (e.g. text labels) might be added to the API in the future. For this reason new backends should inherit from BasicBackend. Any function added to the API will be implemented in BasicBackend as a no-op with a warning to the user like “Feature XYZ is not available in your backend”. That way, all Sherpa plots can immediately make use of newly added functions without breaking existing plotting backends; the worst that happens is that not all annotation will be visible in every backend.

Return values

Sherpa does not expect a specific return argument from any plotting function, but they are allowed to have return values if that is helpful for their internal implementation, e.g. in the PylabBackend backend, plotting a line might return a line object so that error bars plotted later can use line.color to match the color of that line.

Creating plots and panels, clearing and overplotting

Each of the plotting functions above accepts the following arguments: title, xlabel, ylabel, xlog, ylog, overplot, clearwindow

Multi-panels plot can be set with set_subplot` and set_jointplot (from sherpa.plot.backends.BaseBackend).

Interaction with interactive plots in the UI

Each backend also acts as a context manager: All plotting commands in the UI are wrapped in a with statement like this:

>>> with sherpa.backend():
...     plotobj.plot()

That allows the backend to execute any finishing code after the plots are done, e.g. to save the plot to disk or to display it in a window.

Other methods

Backends need to have a few more methods:

  • as_html_XXX (where XXX is a plot type) that are used for interactive display in the notebook with _repr_html_. These functions take a plot object and return a html representation as a string.

  • get_XXX_plot/hist_prefs (where XXX is a plot type) which returns a dictionary of preferences that is used for displaying this plot.

  • get_latex_for_string to format latex in strings.

  • colorlist(n) generates a list of n distinct colors. In backends that only have a limited number of colors available, the list might repeat.

How do I implement a new backend?

Example for a modified backend

Since Sherpa backends are defined using inheritance, new backends can be created to change the appearance of plots in ways that are beyond the options offered as keyword arguments for the existing backends. As an example, the PylabErrorArea backend changes the way that x-errors are visualized in plots from simple error bars to a shaded area.

class PylabErrorArea(PylabBackend):
    '''A Matplotlib backend displaying data uncertainties as shaded regions

    This class changes the behavior of the plotting in a way that is not
    possible with just setting parameters alone: For 1D data with y-errors
    the error range is not shown with error bars as in 
    `sherpa.plot.backends.PylabBackend`, but instead with shaded regions.

    This class does not display x errors, even if they are given.

    def name(self):
        '''An easy-to-read string name for a plotting backend.'''
        return self.__class__.__name__

    def plot(self, x, y, *,
             yerr=None, xerr=None, title=None,
             xlabel=None, ylabel=None,
             overplot=False, clearwindow=True,
             # derives from PylabBackend, which has "barsabove", so plot might be called with
             # that parameter from e.g. histogram. So, we allow that parameter, but ignore it.

        axes = self.setup_axes(overplot, clearwindow)

        # Set up the axes
        if not overplot:
            self.setup_plot(axes, title, xlabel, ylabel, xlog=xlog, ylog=ylog)

        if yerrorbars and yerr is not None:
            axes.fill_between(x, y - yerr, y + yerr, alpha=.2,
                              linewidth=0, color=ecolor)
        if x is None or y is None:
            return None
        return axes.plot(x, y,

Testing backends and plotting code

Currently, Sherpa does not employ pixel-level tests that compare a generated image pixel-by-pixel to a reference image. While testing like that guarantees that any and all changes are found, they are susceptible to failing for reasons unrelated to Sherpa, such as minor changes in the default of matplotlib.

Instead, the plotting tests in Sherpa fall into the following categories:

  • Tests that do not depend on the output of a plotting package. Those tests could check e.g. the prepare stage of a plotting object. They work with any backend (since Sherpa has sherpa.plot.backends.BasicBackend there is always a backend). For those tests, no special setup is needed and they will just be run with whatever backend is loaded based on the installed packages and the .sherpa.rc file.

  • Tests that should work with all backends. In particular, the sherpa.plot.backends.IndepOnlyBackend does not perform any plotting, but it does raise a warning when plotting options that are not on the list of backend-independent parameters are used. Users will never use this backend, but running our tests with it ensures that we don’t hardcode defaults specific to matplotlib into any of our objects. In principle, most plotting tests fall into this category, since most code needs to work for all backends. However, running every plotting test with every possible backend can make the runtime for the tests long. In practice, we thus do not run every test that we could for all backends. To run a test for all backends, add the sherpa.conftest.all_plot_backends pytest fixture:

    >>> def test_this_plotting_feature(all_plot_backends):
    ...     x = [1,2,3,4]
    ...     y = [2,3,4,5]
    ...     # plot x and y in some way in your test.

    This fixture will execute the test several times with different active backends. Alternatively, sherpa also has a fixture that runs all backends except for the sherpa.plot.backends.IndepOnlyBackend: plot_backends. This is useful if a test makes use of options that are not on the Backend-independent list and needs to avoid the extra warning that sherpa.plot.backends.IndepOnlyBackend would emit.

  • Tests for a specific backend using code such as assert plt.gca().xlabel == "text"). These tests can either use the “require” decorators from sherpa.utils.testing or, if parts of the test are useful for other backends as well, but skip specific statements if the wrong backend is active:

    >>> import numpy as np
    >>> from sherpa import plot
    >>> from import Data1D
    >>> def test_something_that_also_uses_matplotlib(all_plot_backends):
    ...     d = Data1D('x', np.asarray([2, 4, 10]), np.asarray([2, 4, 0]))
    ...     r = d._repr_html_()
    ...     if == 'pylab':
    ...         assert f'<summary>{summary} Plot</summary>' in r
    ...     else:
    ...         assert f'<summary>{summary} Data (' in r