graphics (version 3.6.2)

contour: Display Contours


Create a contour plot, or add contour lines to an existing plot.


contour(x, …)

# S3 method for default contour(x = seq(0, 1, length.out = nrow(z)), y = seq(0, 1, length.out = ncol(z)), z, nlevels = 10, levels = pretty(zlim, nlevels), labels = NULL, xlim = range(x, finite = TRUE), ylim = range(y, finite = TRUE), zlim = range(z, finite = TRUE), labcex = 0.6, drawlabels = TRUE, method = "flattest", vfont, axes = TRUE, frame.plot = axes, col = par("fg"), lty = par("lty"), lwd = par("lwd"), add = FALSE, …)


x, y

locations of grid lines at which the values in z are measured. These must be in ascending order. By default, equally spaced values from 0 to 1 are used. If x is a list, its components x$x and x$y are used for x and y, respectively. If the list has component z this is used for z.


a matrix containing the values to be plotted (NAs are allowed). Note that x can be used instead of z for convenience.


number of contour levels desired iff levels is not supplied.


numeric vector of levels at which to draw contour lines.


a vector giving the labels for the contour lines. If NULL then the levels are used as labels, otherwise this is coerced by as.character.


cex for contour labelling. This is an absolute size, not a multiple of par("cex").


logical. Contours are labelled if TRUE.


character string specifying where the labels will be located. Possible values are "simple", "edge" and "flattest" (the default). See the ‘Details’ section.


if NULL, the current font family and face are used for the contour labels. If a character vector of length 2 then Hershey vector fonts are used for the contour labels. The first element of the vector selects a typeface and the second element selects a fontindex (see text for more information). The default is NULL on graphics devices with high-quality rotation of text and c("sans serif", "plain") otherwise.

xlim, ylim, zlim

x-, y- and z-limits for the plot.

axes, frame.plot

logical indicating whether axes or a box should be drawn, see plot.default.


color for the lines drawn.


line type for the lines drawn.


line width for the lines drawn.


logical. If TRUE, add to a current plot.

additional arguments to plot.window, title, Axis and box, typically graphical parameters such as cex.axis.


contour is a generic function with only a default method in base R.

The methods for positioning the labels on contours are "simple" (draw at the edge of the plot, overlaying the contour line), "edge" (draw at the edge of the plot, embedded in the contour line, with no labels overlapping) and "flattest" (draw on the flattest section of the contour, embedded in the contour line, with no labels overlapping). The second and third may not draw a label on every contour line.

For information about vector fonts, see the help for text and Hershey.

Notice that contour interprets the z matrix as a table of f(x[i], y[j]) values, so that the x axis corresponds to row number and the y axis to column number, with column 1 at the bottom, i.e.a 90 degree counter-clockwise rotation of the conventional textual layout.

Alternatively, use contourplot from the lattice package where the formula notation allows to use vectors x, y, and z of the same length.

There is limited control over the axes and frame as arguments col, lwd and lty refer to the contour lines (rather than being general graphical parameters). For more control, add contours to a plot, or add axes and frame to a contour plot.


Becker, R. A., Chambers, J. M. and Wilks, A. R. (1988) The New S Language. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.

See Also

options("max.contour.segments") for the maximal complexity of a single contour line.

contourLines, filled.contour for color-filled contours, contourplot (and levelplot) from package lattice. Further, image and the graphics demo which can be invoked as demo(graphics).


Run this code
require(grDevices) # for colours
x <- -6:16
op <- par(mfrow = c(2, 2))
contour(outer(x, x), method = "edge", vfont = c("sans serif", "plain"))
z <- outer(x, sqrt(abs(x)), FUN = "/")
image(x, x, z)
contour(x, x, z, col = "pink", add = TRUE, method = "edge",
        vfont = c("sans serif", "plain"))
contour(x, x, z, ylim = c(1, 6), method = "simple", labcex = 1,
        xlab = quote(x[1]), ylab = quote(x[2]))
contour(x, x, z, ylim = c(-6, 6), nlev = 20, lty = 2, method = "simple",
        main = "20 levels; \"simple\" labelling method")

## Persian Rug Art:
x <- y <- seq(-4*pi, 4*pi, len = 27)
r <- sqrt(outer(x^2, y^2, "+"))
opar <- par(mfrow = c(2, 2), mar = rep(0, 4))
for(f in pi^(0:3))
          drawlabels = FALSE, axes = FALSE, frame = TRUE)

rx <- range(x <- 10*1:nrow(volcano))
ry <- range(y <- 10*1:ncol(volcano))
ry <- ry + c(-1, 1) * (diff(rx) - diff(ry))/2
tcol <- terrain.colors(12)
par(opar); opar <- par(pty = "s", bg = "lightcyan")
plot(x = 0, y = 0, type = "n", xlim = rx, ylim = ry, xlab = "", ylab = "")
u <- par("usr")
rect(u[1], u[3], u[2], u[4], col = tcol[8], border = "red")
contour(x, y, volcano, col = tcol[2], lty = "solid", add = TRUE,
        vfont = c("sans serif", "plain"))
title("A Topographic Map of Maunga Whau", font = 4)
abline(h = 200*0:4, v = 200*0:4, col = "lightgray", lty = 2, lwd = 0.1)

## contourLines produces the same contour lines as contour
plot(x = 0, y = 0, type = "n", xlim = rx, ylim = ry, xlab = "", ylab = "")
u <- par("usr")
rect(u[1], u[3], u[2], u[4], col = tcol[8], border = "red")
contour(x, y, volcano, col = tcol[1], lty = "solid", add = TRUE,
        vfont = c("sans serif", "plain"))
line.list <- contourLines(x, y, volcano)
invisible(lapply(line.list, lines, lwd=3, col=adjustcolor(2, .3)))
# }

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