I was reading the pgfplots manual today, and I came across the external pgfplots library. It should help decrease the compilation time and avoid regenerating every pgfplots graphics.

We (me and two other colleagues) are currently writing an article, in the Overleaf online editor, with a plot consisting of about 3000 data entries read from an external .csv file. So the compilation time makes the workflow slow.

I would like to adopt this technique of "convert[ing] every tikzpicture environment automatically to an external graphics."

How can I tell Overleaf's servers to compile the tex file in the above described way?

I tried the following:

The main text is written in main.tex:

% file main.tex
%% Font encoding and input encoding %%
\usepackage{multicol} % To write in 2 columns
%% To include figures %%

%% And here is the call to the external method
%% to reduce compilation time
\tikzexternalize % Activated!
Article text....
    \caption{Caption for the figure.}
Text text text.

The file plot1.tex compiles with no error, and therefore I am not listing its contents. I did add the two commands (\usepgfplotslibrary{external} and \tikzexternalize) to its preamble. It is a standalone document class.

Lastly, I created a latexmkrc file that has the following instruction:

$latex = 'pdftex -shell-escape main.tex %O %S';

(I learned about it from here). It lines up (I think) with what is written in the pgfplots manual, subsection 3.2.6 (page 23), to provide a command line switch to pdflatex.

And, the hierarchical file structure is the following:

root folder
| │ plot1.tex
│ │ plot2.tex
│ │ plot3.tex

In case you don't know, Overleaf lets the user to select a compiler in the project's settings. I tried both its pdfLatex and LaTeX compilers to do this task, and both failed.

The error I get is

Package tikz Error: Sorry, the system call 'pdflatex -shell-escape -halt-on-error -interaction=batchmode -jobname "output-figure0" "\def\tikzexternalrealjob{output}\input{output}"' did NOT result in a usable output file 'output-figure0' (expected one of .pdf:.jpg:.jpeg:.png:). Please verify that you have enabled system calls. For pdflatex, this is 'pdflatex -shell-escape'. Sometimes it is also named 'write 18' or something like that. Or maybe the command simply failed? Error messages can be found in 'output-figure0.log'. If you continue now, I'll try to typeset the picture.

  • 1
    Exactly as the error message says, see what's in the file output-figure0.log to determine what the error is. Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 17:06
  • @JohnCollins This log file is 901 lines in length, but I think that this message could be helpful: "! Package tikz Error: Sorry, image externalization failed: the resulting image was EMPTY. I tried to externalize 'output-figure0', but it seems there is no su ch image in the document!? You are currently using 'mode=convert with system call'. This problem can ha ppen if the image (or one of the images preceding it) was declared inside of a \label{} (i.e. in the .aux file): 'convert with system call' has no access to t he main aux file. ...
    – tush
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:20
  • .... Possible solutions in this case: (a) Try using 'mode=list and make', (b) Issue the externalization command 'pdflatex -shell-escape -halt-on-error -interaction=batchmode -jobname "output-figure0" "\def\tikzexternalrealjob{out put}\input{output}"' manually (also check the preceding externalized images, perhaps the file name sequence is not correct). Repeat: the resulting image was EMPTY, your attention is required . See the tikz package documentation for explanation. Type H <return> for immediate help." I am too novice in TeX to have an idea of what needs to fix.
    – tush
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:20
  • 3
    I've just realized that the problem is that the standalone package and tikz externalization are interfering with each other. (There are actually some symptoms of this in the main-figure0.log and main.log files.) The solution is to invoke the standalone package with the mode=buildnew option, i.e., \usepackage[mode=buildnew]{standalone}. This should accomplish what you want, by requiring standalone to do the compilation of plot1.tex, but only if the file has changed. Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 19:13
  • Well, that certainly works. You should write this solution as an answer. Thanks a lot!
    – tush
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 19:30

1 Answer 1


The invocation of the standalone package needs to have the option mode=buildnew:


Without that option, standalone doesn't actually accomplish the task given in the question: (a) To compile a particular .tex file once to a graphics file and then to use the graphics file in the main document, and (b) only to rebuild the graphics file when the .tex file has changed. By default, standalone doesn't compile the .tex file, but simply inputs the file and uses the result, rather than doing the separate compilation.

Worse: With the default settings, for the standalone package, the \includestandalone command interferes with the use of the \tikzexternalize command, so that when standalone tries to input the .tex file it fails, and gives the strange errors found in the question.

With hindsight one can see the symptoms in the log files. In particular, in main-figure0.log there's a message that the "command '\includegraphics [width=\textwidth ]{plottry.tex}' has been optimized away." (Plus a probably non-optimal suggestion as to what to do about it.)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .