How to Use Processing from the Command Line to Generate Images

The Processing project provides a great Java-based visual programming environment with a number of compelling features, including cross-platform support and OpenGL-accelerated graphics. We’ve used it at Constant Contact Labs for a number of internal data visualization projects, and it’s worked very well for us. Lately we’ve had reason to work out a way to have it run in a “headless,” command-line-driven mode for periodic graph generation. Read on for the method and code.

Processing logoFirst, About Processing

Briefly, Processing is a Java-based programming language designed expressly for the creation of rich visuals – for example, images, interactive graphics, and animations. It normally runs as either a desktop Java application or as an applet embedded in a web page. It’s supported for Windows, Mac and Linux, provided a Java VM is available. You can learn more at

Example Labs Uses

At Constant Contact Labs, we’ve used Processing for a few small internal data visualization projects: for example, we’re using it on a daily basis to present a map of the world with live web site traffic overlaid:

Live Site Traffic

We’re also using it embedded as an applet in a web page to provide a Google Maps-style floorplan directory of our offices:


Generating Images from the Command Line

Processing works well for generating live and interactive graphics, but for various reason we’d also like to use it to generate custom graphs for server monitoring purposes. For this, we need to write a Java application that can run as a headless batch job over SSH, regularly generating PNG images representing the current state of the system. Here’s an example of the type of graph we can build using Processing (this is just sample data):

To generate an image without a windowing system, you’ll need to step outside of the Processing IDE and build a straight Java application. You’ll need to subclass the main Processing graphics object, PApplet, in order to retrieve a graphics context for drawing. Fortunately, this is pretty straightforward to do. Here’s code for a simple, that draws a sample image and saves it out to the filesystem with a given filename:

import processing.core.*;

public class GraphRenderer

    // our headless Processing applet, to which we're drawing
    private PApplet applet = null;

    // the graphics context of the applet - all drawing operations are performed on this object
    private PGraphics context = null;

        // this space intentionally left blank
    } // constructor

    void initialize(int _width, int _height)
        // create a PApplet object and retrieve its graphics context
        applet = new PApplet();
        context = applet.createGraphics(_width, _height, PApplet.P3D);
        applet.g = context;
    } // initialize

    // call this function to perform drawing operations and save the results to an image.
    void render(String _filename)
        if (applet == null || context == null)
            System.out.println("error: GraphRenderer::render(): call initialize() before rendering.");

	// tell the context we're starting to draw

        // perform drawing using normal Processing methods

	// tell the context we're finished drawing

	// save the contents of the rendering context to a file;

    } // render

} // class GraphRenderer

Now that we’ve created a GraphRenderer class, we just need a main to instantiate it and tell it what to do. Here’s

public class Grapher

    public static void main(String args[])
	// create a GraphRenderer object
        GraphRenderer g = new GraphRenderer();

	// initialize it, passing the length and width of the desired target image
        g.initialize(400, 400);

	// have the GraphRenderer render out to a file; the file extension determines the output format
} // class Grapher

From the command line you can build this example using:


To run it, use:

java Grapher

A file, test.png, will be created in the working directory. Here’s what it looks like:

This image corresponds to the drawing commands issued in GraphRenderer::render().

Wrapping Up

This example has demonstrated one way to use the Processing environment from within a standard Java application to generate images. Hopefully this example will be useful to you. I’ll be happy to answer any questions or comments – please feel free to post up below.

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