5 Best Ways to Enable Interactive Plots in Spyder with IPython and Matplotlib

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: Interactive plots are crucial for detailed data analysis and visualization in Spyder using the IPython console and Matplotlib. Users often need to zoom, pan, or update plots on the fly. This article details how to regain interactive plotting capabilities when they are not functioning as expected.

Method 1: Use the %matplotlib magic command

An effective way to enable interactive plots in Spyder is to use the %matplotlib magic command within the IPython console. This command configures Matplotlib to work interactively. You can specify different backends based on your requirements, such as qt, inline, or notebook, to tailor the interactivity to the environment.

Here’s an example:

%matplotlib qt
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
plt.plot([1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6])

The plot window will allow interactive features like zooming and panning.

With this code snippet, you’re manually specifying the Qt backend, which enables a separate window for interactive plots. The plt.ion() function call activates the interactive mode in Matplotlib.

Method 2: Adjust Preferences in Spyder

Spyder has a feature to set preferences for the IPython console, including the graphics backend, which can affect interactivity. By navigating to the preferences and adjusting the backend setting to an interactive one like ‘Automatic’ or specific interactive backends, users can regain interactive plotting capabilities.

Here’s an example:

# No code needed; simply navigate in Spyder to:
# Tools > Preferences > IPython Console > Graphics
# and set the Backend to "Automatic" or an interactive backend of your choice.

After setting the preferences and restarting the IPython console, plots should be interactive.

This method doesn’t involve writing any code. Instead, the adjustments are made within Spyder’s GUI, taking effect upon restarting the IPython console.

Method 3: Use the Interactive Backend from Code

If you prefer setting the backend programmatically each time you start a new IPython session, without changing the global preferences, use Matplotlib’s use() function at the start of your session. Select an interactive backend such as ‘Qt5Agg’ to ensure plots are interactive.

Here’s an example:

import matplotlib
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
plt.plot([1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6])

This will generate an interactive plot window with the specified backend.

This method sets the Matplotlib backend on a per-session basis. Remember to call matplotlib.use() before importing pyplot to avoid any conflicts.

Method 4: Update Matplotlib and Spyder

Occasionally, interactive plotting issues can stem from compatibility problems between Spyder and Matplotlib. Ensuring that you have the most recent versions of both can often restore interactive plotting functionality. This can be done using package managers like pip or conda.

Here’s an example:

# For pip users
pip install --upgrade matplotlib spyder

# For conda users
conda update matplotlib spyder

After updating, restart Spyder to check if the interactivity has been restored.

Often, issues with interactive plots can be resolved by updating to the latest versions of the software, as bugs and compatibility issues are regularly addressed by the developers.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Toggle Interactive Mode

For a quick one-liner solution, simply toggle the interactive mode in the IPython console using Matplotlib’s ion() and ioff() functions. Call ion() to turn on interactive mode and ioff() to turn off.

Here’s an example:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
plt.ion()    # Turn interactive mode on
plt.plot([1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6])

This will enable interactive plotting in the current IPython session.

Calling plt.ion() immediately enables interactive plotting within the environment without needing to specify a backend or restart the console.


  • Method 1: %matplotlib magic command. Offers quick backend selection within the console. May require additional tweaks for specific environments.
  • Method 2: GUI Preference adjustment. Permanent solution; no code required. Must restart the IPython console for changes to take effect.
  • Method 3: Programmatically use matplotlib.use(). Flexible and session-specific. Must precede imports of pyplot.
  • Method 4: Update Spyder and Matplotlib. Addresses compatibility issues. Requires restarting Spyder and can disrupt existing environments.
  • Method 5: Toggle interactive mode with plt.ion(). Simple and instant. Best for quick toggles rather than persistent settings.