Designing ASCII graphics with JavE

Make Your Mark

© Alexey Klementiev, 123RF

© Alexey Klementiev, 123RF

Article from Issue 106/2009

The free JavE ASCII editor lets you create diagrams, brighten email messages, write circuit diagrams, create cartoons, or just design ASCII art for pleasure.

As the name Java ASCII Versatile Editor, or JavE for short, suggests, this editor uses ASCII characters [1] instead of the lines, dots, and shapes you are familiar with in drawing tools like GIMP. With characters and letters of the alphabet, JavE creates graphic shapes and lines. This style of drawing is not only practical – for example, you can add a compact route sketch to an email message – over the years it has developed into a genuine art form known as "ASCII Art" [2].

JavE is the right tool if you are looking for an intuitive approach to designing professional and artistic ASCII-style graphics. To help you do so, the editor gives you a bunch of tools and features, including freehand drawing with the mouse, shapes, and brushes. In addition, you can export your efforts into various file and document formats, including GIF and HTML. The program also handles figlet fonts [3] and converts graphic formats to ASCII images. Besides this, it supports ROT13 encoding [4] and has a steganography feature for text [5]. To top it all off, the editor includes a collection of clipart templates and even lets you produce small cartoons.


The Java program is available on the project homepage as a ZIP archive [6]. JavE requires Java Runtime Environment version 1.6 or newer. At the command line, you can type java -version to find out which version you have.

When this issue went to press, the current RC2 release candidate was my favorite for production use. This pre-release version of JavE 6.0 is very stable and adds various new features compared with the older version 5.0.

The program is installed easily, without the need for administrative privileges. After downloading the ZIP archive, unpack in a directory of your choice – say, ~/jave – then change to that directory and launch the ASCII editor by typing java -jar jave.jar.

When launched, JavE comes up with a short splash screen before opening the Quick Start window with the editor's most popular features. Then you can choose between various approaches by clicking on one: The options range from text documents in ASCII art to ASCII animations.

First Steps

To get to know the application better and to gain an initial impression, start by clicking the Create ASCII Art Text button. If you decide you want to do something else later on or want to use the quick start approach to get to know some of the tool's other amazing capabilities, you can open the Quick Start window by selecting File | Quick Start in the menu at the top of the program window, or you can click the Show Quick Start Dialog button.

The tool's work area is clear-cut and well organized. Menubar choices include File, Animation, Special, and View, among others (Figure 1). Clicking them reveals submenus, much in the style of other graphics packages. As an added gimmick, the Special menu includes a Tetris game. If you get lost, click Help to launch the JavE online documentation in your web browser.

Figure 1: Graphical games or mathematical equations – JavE supports both with equal ease.

Below the menubar, you will find a row of buttons that cover the major functions for saving, opening, copying, and inserting texts or documents. In addition, you will find buttons for the most frequently used tools, followed by zoom buttons. The tools are also available via the Tools menu.

Editor Window

The workspace is where you will draw and is at the center of the editor window. If you would like, the grid pattern in the background can be disabled in the options to the left of the workspace. The options also let you toggle between various shapes, draw freehand, or apply the eraser. Depending on whether you select the button or not, JavE will warn you if you try to use non-ASCII-compliant characters, such as accents or umlauts, which is tantamount to blasphemy among bona fide ASCII artists.

Finally, at the bottom of the editor window is a button that lets you display or hide the pop-up boxes for the individual tools. The status area next to this gives you the line and row numbers for the document you are editing and lets you know whether you are in insert or overwrite mode.

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