# How to draw tangent line of an arbitrary point on a path in TikZ

Suppose I specify some node as occurring at some point on a path. Say for example the node (P) defined on the following path.

\path[draw] (0,9) to[out=-90,in=180] (9,0) node[pos=0.7,circle] (P) {};


I would now like to draw the tangent line at (P) to indicate the slope of the curve at that point.

• Is it wise to use the standard definition of the derivative for you? I mean put another invisible node very close to it, say pos=0.695, and draw a line over them and extend the line. Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 11:59
• No problem, that happens to me a lot. :) Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 12:53

Here's an approach that uses the decorations.markings library to place support coordinates at a specified distance along a path, which can be used to set a local coordinate system at a later time to draw tangents or orthogonal lines.

You specify a tangent point by using tangent=<pos> in your first path. In a later path, you can then set use tangent to set a local coordinate system for that path: (0,0) is the tangent point itself, (1,0) is 1 unit along the tangent line, (0,1) is one unit along the orthogonal line.

You can specify tangent=<pos> multiple times in your original path. You can then specify which tangent point to use for a new path by calling use tangent=<count>, where the tangent points are numbered in the order they were specified in the original path.

Using these styles, the following code

\draw [
tangent=0.4,
tangent=0.56
] (0,0)
to [out=20,in=120] (5,2)
to [out=-60, in=110] (9,1);
\draw [blue, thick, use tangent] (-3,0) -- (3,0);
\draw [orange, thick, use tangent=2] (-2,0) -- (2,0) (0,0) -- (0,1);


would yield this

Here's the complete code:

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage{tikz}
\usetikzlibrary{decorations.markings}

\begin{document}

\begin{tikzpicture}[
tangent/.style={
decoration={
markings,% switch on markings
mark=
at position #1
with
{
\coordinate (tangent point-\pgfkeysvalueof{/pgf/decoration/mark info/sequence number}) at (0pt,0pt);
\coordinate (tangent unit vector-\pgfkeysvalueof{/pgf/decoration/mark info/sequence number}) at (1,0pt);
\coordinate (tangent orthogonal unit vector-\pgfkeysvalueof{/pgf/decoration/mark info/sequence number}) at (0pt,1);
}
},
postaction=decorate
},
use tangent/.style={
shift=(tangent point-#1),
x=(tangent unit vector-#1),
y=(tangent orthogonal unit vector-#1)
},
use tangent/.default=1
]
\draw [
tangent=0.4,
tangent=0.56
] (0,0)
to [out=20,in=120] (5,2)
to [out=-60, in=110] (9,1);
\draw [blue, thick, use tangent] (-3,0) -- (3,0);
\draw [orange, thick, use tangent=2] (-2,0) -- (2,0) (0,0) -- (0,1);
\end{tikzpicture}
\end{document}

• Sweet! I was doing this manually before. Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 13:27
• The advantage of using the markings library (instead of just putting two points close to each other using pos) is that you actually have a tangential coordinate system at the time the marking is drawn, so it should be somewhat more accurate.
– Jake
Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 13:30
• Good question, and it turns out that it's actually not a different approach from the one you mentioned. The decorations.markings library just uses a very short distance (1 sp, which is 1/65536 of a pt) for orienting the coordinate system.
– Jake
Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 13:48
• Very nice. But the code can be realy simpler like this : \tikzset{draw at position/.style 2 args={decoration={markings, mark=at position #1 with {#2} }, postaction=decorate}} and then you can use [draw at position={.5}{\draw[blue] (-1,0)--(1,0);}]
– Kpym
Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 13:36
• I came across one issue using this (very nice!) style: in pgfplots, it doesn't work combined with the smooth style. Explanation of the dimension too large error that occurs is in tex.stackexchange.com/questions/170595/…; I simply removed the smooth style since I had enough data points anyway. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 13:20

For comparison, this is how one can draw a tangent in Metapost.

Metapost has a notion of time along a path. The first point on a path has time=0, the 2nd point has time=1, and so on. The operator point .. of <path> picks a point at a particular time along a path. The operator direction ... of <path> gives the direction of the curve at that time---which is precisely the tangent of the curve. These two operators can be combined to draw the tangent at any point on a curve.

The code below is in ConTeXt, but it will also work with standalone Metapost or LaTeX + emp or LaTeX + gmp.

\starttext

\startMPpage[offset=3mm]

% Specify a path
path p;
p := (0,0) {dir 20} .. {dir -60} (5,2)  .. {dir 20} (9,1);
p := p scaled 1cm;

% Draw the path
draw p withpen pencircle scaled 1bp withcolor red;

% Specify a time along the path
numeric ta; ta := 0.6;

% Pick the point at that time
pair a;     a := point ta of p;

% Draw the point
fill fullcircle scaled 3bp shifted a;

% Draw a tangent at a particular point
path tangent; tangent := (-2cm,0) -- (2cm,0);
tangent := tangent rotated (angle direction ta of p) shifted a;

draw tangent withcolor blue;

\stopMPpage

\stoptext

• Maybe you should add a few words about the whatever operator? I am not a scientist, but metapost ability to deal with equations could be emphasized that way. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 17:08
• @sztruks: But this solution does not use the whatever operator. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 18:49
• Yes, I know, I was thinking about introducing a trick using it, but this is far beyond my skills. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 19:34

(For further readers). This is my try:

    \begin{tikzpicture}
\draw (-2,7.5) .. controls (5,15.5) and (4,0.5) .. (12.5,7.5)
node[sloped, inner xsep=20mm, inner ysep=0, fill, pos=0.5, red] (P) {};
\filldraw (P) circle(2pt);
\end{tikzpicture}


Remark: This trick does not works for predefined curves like ellipse, circle, ... because pos of node doesn't works properly as I know.

• +1 That's really great, bravo! Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 19:25
• @AndréC, Is it really deserve +100 (or any) award? This is just a simple answer.
– user108724
Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 6:07
• The question of building tangents is a recurrent one. For example, the same question can be found here: tex.stackexchange.com/q/461573/138900 Your answer is remarkable because it is very simple and easy to understand. This is the most important criterion in an answer: simplicity and efficiency. Do a lot with little. You did what no one else before you thought of doing. Congratulations! Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 6:13
• Would you have an idea on why this code: \draw [purple, xshift=4cm, yshift=4cm, very thick] plot [smooth, tension=1] coordinates {(0,0) (1.25,-0.10) (2.9, 3.45) (4.2,4.2)} node[sloped,inner xsep=1.5cm,inner ysep=1.5pt, fill,pos=2.12,red] (P) {}; produces a tangent that's horizontal (and centered at 0 instead of 2.12) despite that the curve doesn't have a horizontal tangent at that point? Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 21:11
• @thermomagneticcondensedboson: First pos argument should be between 0 and 1. Secondly, I think node is not able to recognize a curve constructed by coordinate and points.
– user108724
Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:48

Jake's solution is really nice. But if you want to draw a tangent in a plot, let's say, over x=1 you have to guess what position (pos=?) to use. Here is a solution that use /tikz/turn key.

\begin{tikzpicture}
\draw[domain=0:1] plot (\x,{sqrt(\x)}) {[turn] (-1,0) coordinate(t1) (2,0) coordinate(t2)};
\draw[domain=1:3] plot (\x,{sqrt(\x)});
\draw[red] (t1)--(t2);
\end{tikzpicture}


This method has some issues :

• You can easily use it only with plots (because you have to stop drawing the curve at the given point).
• There is a bug in [turn] when used with plot combined with some transform (rotate, shift, scale, ...).

So this is not really complete method, but I put it here for the sake of completeness.

The following tikz code is a result of a double translation.

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}
\usepackage{tikz}

\begin{document}
\definecolor{cff0000}{RGB}{255,0,0}
\definecolor{c0000ff}{RGB}{0,0,255}

\begin{tikzpicture}[y=0.80pt,x=0.80pt,yscale=-1, inner sep=0pt, outer sep=0pt]
\begin{scope}[cm={{0.996,0.0,0.0,0.996,(0.0,0.0)}}]
\begin{scope}[cm={{1.0,0.0,0.0,1.0,(57.1229,171.308)}}]
\path[draw=cff0000,line join=round,line cap=round,miter limit=10.04,line
width=0.803pt] (0.0000,0.0000) .. controls (63.5042,-23.1136) and
(123.7280,-141.1820) .. (166.7340,-66.6936) .. controls (192.1080,-22.7441)
and (250.0570,-15.1248) .. (300.1210,-33.3468);
\end{scope}
\begin{scope}[cm={{1.0,0.0,0.0,1.0,(57.1229,171.308)}}]
\path[fill=black] (111.2830,-82.0534) .. controls (111.2830,-84.0025) and
(109.7030,-85.5826) .. (107.7540,-85.5826) .. controls (105.8050,-85.5826) and
(104.2250,-84.0025) .. (104.2250,-82.0534) .. controls (104.2250,-80.1043) and
(105.8050,-78.5242) .. (107.7540,-78.5242) .. controls (109.7030,-78.5242) and
(111.2830,-80.1043) .. (111.2830,-82.0534) -- cycle;
\end{scope}
\begin{scope}[cm={{1.0,0.0,0.0,1.0,(57.1229,171.308)}}]
\path[draw=c0000ff,line join=round,line cap=round,miter limit=10.04,line
width=0.401pt] (50.9475,-47.1101) -- (164.5610,-116.9970);
\end{scope}
\end{scope}

\end{tikzpicture}
\end{document}


It was obtained by means of svg2tikz from the t.svg file, which was built by asy -f svg t.asy command. The source text is a direct line-by-line translation from the MetaPost version (MP code is commented with //), basically a minor syntactic differences, t.asy:

    size(300);
//
//  % Specify a path
//  path p;
path p;
//  p := (0,0) {dir 20} .. {dir -60} (5,2)  .. {dir 20} (9,1);
p  = (0,0) {dir( 20)} .. {dir( -60)} (5,2)  .. {dir( 20)} (9,1);
//  p := p scaled 1cm;
p  = scale(1cm)*p;
//  % Draw the path
//  draw p withpen pencircle scaled 1bp withcolor red;
draw(p, red+1bp);

//  % Specify a time along the path
//  numeric ta; ta := 0.6;
real ta=0.6;
//  % Pick the point at that time
//  pair a;     a := point ta of p;
pair a = point(p, ta);

//  % Draw the point
//  fill fullcircle scaled 3bp shifted a;
fill(shift(a)*scale(3bp)*unitcircle);
//
//  % Draw a tangent at a particular point
//  path tangent; tangent := (-2cm,0) -- (2cm,0);
path tangent=(-2cm,0) -- (2cm,0);
//  tangent := tangent rotated (angle direction ta of p) shifted a;
tangent = shift(a)*rotate(degrees(dir(p,ta)))*tangent;
//
//  draw tangent withcolor blue;
draw(tangent,blue);

• Nice. Such a translation is a really nice way to learn asymptote. Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 11:33

With PSTricks.

\documentclass[pstricks,border=3pt]{standalone}
\usepackage{pst-node,pst-plot}

\edef\N{10}
\edef\X(#1){#1/\N*cos(#1)}
\edef\Y(#1){#1/\N*sin(#1)}

\psset{algebraic,plotpoints=100,arrows=->}
\begin{document}
\begin{pspicture}(-3,-3)(3,3)
\psparametricplot{0}{5 Pi mul}{\X(t)|\Y(t)}
\curvepnode{13 Pi mul 3 div}{\X(t)|\Y(t)}{P}
\normalvec(Ptang){Pnorm}
\psxline[linecolor=red](P){-(Ptang)}{Ptang}
\psxline[linecolor=green](P){}{-(Pnorm)}
\psxline[linecolor=blue](P){}{(Pnorm)}
\end{pspicture}
\end{document}


## Tutorial

1. \documentclass[pstricks,border=3pt]{standalone} is used to get a tight PDF output with an additional border of 3pt (by default border=0.50001bp).
2. \usepackage{pst-node,pst-plot} is to load pst-node (containing macros pertaining to node operations) and pst-plot (containing macros for ploting).
3. Parametric representation of a spiral. Using parametric representation is a good practice as it can handle almost everything.

\edef\N{10}
\edef\X(#1){#1/\N*cos(#1)}
\edef\Y(#1){#1/\N*sin(#1)}

4. \psset{algebraic,plotpoints=100,arrows=->} to switch to algebraic parser (as opposed to default one in RPN), change the default plotpoints from 50 to 100 (making the plot smoother), and change the default arrows from - (none) to -> (arrow head at the final end), respectively.

5. \begin{pspicture}(-3,-3)(3,3)...\end{pspicture} is the canvas specification. It should be intuitive if you have learnt Cartesian coordinate system in the playgroup.
6. \psparametricplot{0}{5 Pi mul}{\X(t)|\Y(t)} to plot the given spiral from 0 to 5 Pi mul (5π). Irrelevant information: If you want to know how I show the π, use ALT+227 in Windows.
7. \curvepnode{13 Pi mul 3 div}{\X(t)|\Y(t)}{P} to specify a single point P on the spiral. It is accidentally chosen at t=13/3 π. One important thing to know is \curvepnode gives us an UNIT TANGENT VECTOR called Ptang (derived from <your point name>tang) free of charge. No unit normal vector is given. Is it strange? Please ask the PSTricks maintainers for the reason!
8. \normalvec(Ptang){Pnorm} is used to rotate the Ptang about the origin 90 degrees counter clockwise. The vector length is kept the same -- in this case the length is 1 unit. But you can use \normalvect for any vector whether it is unit vector or not.
9. \psxline[linecolor=red](A){<vector expression>}{<another vector expression>} is used to draw a point from A + <vector expression> to A + <another vector expression>. Is it confusing? Let's take one example:

\psxline[linecolor=red](P){-(Ptang)}{Ptang}


that represents a line drawn from P+(-Ptang) to P+Ptang. still get confused? Let's consider the next one:

\psxline[linecolor=green](P){}{-(Pnorm)}


that represents a line drawn from P+(0,0) to P+(-Ptang).

10. Compile the code with latex-dvips-ps2pdf (much faster) or xelatex (much slower).

## For a curve consisting of a list of arbitrary points

The following is the solution for a curve consisting of a list of arbitrary points. Unfortunately, the point through which the tangent and normal lines pass is not on the curve. This problem has been asked here so you can find there whether or not it has be fixed.

\documentclass[pstricks,border=12pt]{standalone}

\begin{document}
\begin{pspicture}[showgrid](6,3)
\pscurve[curvature=1 1 1](0,0)(1,2)(2,1)(4,2)(6,1)
\psTangentLine[Tnormal,linecolor=blue](2,1)(4,2)(6,1){3}{0.25}
\psTangentLine[linecolor=red](2,1)(4,2)(6,1){3}{1}
\pscircle*[linecolor=green](OCurve){3pt}
\end{pspicture}
\end{document}


• Good one. my upvotes are empty i will once recharged. Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 6:15

Update an Asymptote answer (19 March 2022) simple and direct way, both 2D and 3D curves. TikZ considers tangents/normals as decorations; meanwhile Asymptote treat them as true paths.

For 2D curve:

// http://asymptote.ualberta.ca/
unitsize(1cm);
path mypath=(0,0) ..controls (0,0)+5dir(70) and (8,3)+5dir(-120) .. (8,3);
draw(mypath);
real t=.2;
pair P=point(mypath,t);
pair Pt=dir(mypath,t);        // tangent vector at P
pair Pn=rotate(90)*Pt;        // normal vector at P
draw(mypath);
draw(P-2Pt--P+4Pt,red);
draw(P-2Pn--P+2Pn,blue);

dot(P);
shipout(bbox(5mm,invisible));


For 3D curve: Note that triple perp(triple v) return a unit vector perpendicular to a given unit vector v.

In the following figure, the tangent line is in red, the normal plane is in green.

// http://asymptote.ualberta.ca/
import three;
unitsize(2cm);
path3 g=(1,0,0)..(0,1,1)..(-1,0,0)..(0,-1,1)..cycle;

real t=.3;
triple P=point(g,t);
triple Pt=dir(g,t);       // the tangent vector at P

triple Pn1=perp(Pt);
triple Pn2=cross(Pt,Pn1);
//dot(P+Pn1^^P+Pn2,red);    // 2 points on the normal plane at P
path3 Pnormal=plane(1.5Pn1,1.7Pn2,P-.8Pn1-.7Pn2); // the normal plane at P

draw(g);
draw(P-2Pt--P+3Pt,red);
draw(Pnormal,blue);
draw(surface(Pnormal),lightgreen+opacity(.5));


Old answer C.F.G.'s trick is nice! First I modify a bit his trick: [inner ysep=.5pt] to control thickness of tangent, and adding [rotate=90] to get normal segment. Not that with this trick, there is a restriction: both tangent and normal segments must have the same midpoint at underlying point on the curve.

Then I remove this restriction using pic, also with handy option [sloped]. Now drawing tangents and normals seem to be done, except predefined curves like ellipse, circle, .... However, we can use their parameterization expressions, and plot directly ^^

\documentclass[tikz,border=5mm]{standalone}
\begin{document}
% 1st way with node (based on C.F.G's trick)
\begin{tikzpicture}
\draw (0,0) ..controls +(70:5) and +(-120:5) .. (8,3)
% for tangent
node[sloped,inner xsep=1.5cm,inner ysep=.5pt, fill,pos=.12,red] (P) {}
% for normal (just add [rotate=90])
node[rotate=90,sloped,inner xsep=1.5cm,inner ysep=.5pt,fill,pos=.12,blue] {}
;
\fill (P) circle(2pt) node[above]{P};
\end{tikzpicture}

% 2nd way with pic (more handy)
\begin{tikzpicture}[tangent/.pic={
\draw (-1.5,0)--(2.5,0);
}]
\draw (0,0) ..controls +(70:5) and +(-120:5) .. (8,3)
coordinate[pos=.87] (Q)
% for tangent
pic[pos=.87,sloped,cyan,thick]{tangent}
% for normal (just add [rotate=90])
pic[pos=.87,sloped,rotate=90,brown,thick]{tangent}
;
\fill (Q) circle(2pt) node[above]{Q};
\end{tikzpicture}

\end{document}


Update As AndreC suggested, I make pic named segment with 3 parameters: angle #1 left #2 right #3, where angle 0 is for tangent, angle 90 is for normal, #2 and #3 are for length of segment to 2 endpoints of segment from underlying point on the curve. Option on thickness can be put later when using pic with line width option.

\documentclass[tikz,border=5mm]{standalone}
\begin{document}
\tikzset{pics/segment/.style args=
{angle #1 left #2 right #3}{
code={\draw[rotate=#1] (180:#2)--(0:#3);}}}

\begin{tikzpicture}
\def\mecurve{(0,0) ..controls +(60:6) and +(-120:6) .. (8,2)}
\draw \mecurve;
\foreach \t in {.1,.5,...,1}
\path \mecurve
% for tangent {angle 0}
pic[pos=\t,sloped,cyan,thick]
{segment=angle 0 left 2 right 1.5}
% for normal {angle 90}
pic[pos=\t,sloped,orange,thick]
{segment=angle 90 left 1 right 2}
node[pos=\t]{$\bullet$};
\end{tikzpicture}
\end{document}


As an applicaton, we can mark along curve (may use when the curve has quite small slope).

\foreach \t in {0,.025,...,1}
\path \mecurve
pic[pos=\t,sloped,orange,line width=1pt]
{segment=angle 90 left 2mm right 2mm};
\end{tikzpicture}


• +1 In this case, why not make the thickness and length of the tangent/normal two optional parameters? Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 14:48
• @AndreC: Sure, we can do that! Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:14
• With rotation as the third optional parameter, it will be complete:-) Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:16
• Nice, but instead of naming the parameters by left and right, I suggest length and thickness (or even width). Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 20:40
• In the manual, left and right are always relative to the page as well as above (or up) and below (or down). And this even in decorations-marking. Giving a meaningful vocabulary makes it easier to use an order. But, it's up to you, since you're the one who does it. Everyone can rename these parameters at will. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 21:27

My try of using the tzplot package:

\documentclass[tikz]{standalone}

\usepackage{tzplot}

\begin{document}

\begin{tikzpicture}
\tzhelplines*(10,4)
\tztos"curve"(0,0)[out=20,in=120](5,2)[out=-60,in=110](9,1);
\tztangentat[blue,thick]{curve}{3.6}[2:6]
\tztangentat[orange,thick]{curve}{5}[4:6]
\tzslopeat[orange,thick,tzextend={0}{1cm}]{curve}{5}{.1pt}[90]
\end{tikzpicture}

\end{document}


The spath3 TikZ library (ctan or github) introduced a transform to coordinate system which sets the coordinates so that the origin is at a specified point on a curve and the x-axis points along the tangent at that point.

\documentclass{article}
%\url{https://tex.stackexchange.com/q/25928/86}
\usepackage{tikz}
\usetikzlibrary{spath3}

\begin{document}
\begin{tikzpicture}
\path[draw,spath/save=curve] (0,9) to[out=-90,in=180] node[pos=0.7,circle,draw] (P) {}  (9,0);
\draw[spath/transform to={curve}{0.7}] (-3,0) -- (3,0);
\end{tikzpicture}
\end{document}


• My curiosity: There is not the keyword "tangent" in your code??? Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 13:29
• @BlackMild I have code that calculates tangents to curves but it's not exposed at a user level (yet), rather it's used in things like this. I guess my thinking was that it's not much use simply calculating a tangent - pretty much everything one wants to do with that calculation starts with a transformation. If you think it would be useful to make the tangent calculation available at the user level then that would be easy enough to do - open an issue on github for it. Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 13:34
• Very nice! I believe you can remove the (P). :-) Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 13:38
• @frougon Yes, though I was trying to keep the code as similar to that in the question as I could (though I had to adjust the order of the node and the final coordinate to get the node in the right place). Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 13:43