I want to write a macro, which takes a mathematical function as argument and returns a plot using pgfplots of the function and of its derivative.

I guess that this isn't possible using just LaTeX; however, for example, pgfplots can use the external program gnuplot to plot functions or there is LuaTeX...

So is there any way to get the derivative of a mathematical function do do this?

  • You need to do it automatically?
    – user17895
    Sep 24, 2012 at 20:00

4 Answers 4


Within reason (i.e. for not too nonlinear functions), you can numerically differentiate your functions right within PGFPlots, using the approach f'(x)=(f(x+dx)-f(x))/dx:


\begin{axis}[no markers, legend pos=south east, legend entries={Original function, Analytical derivative, Numerical derivative}]
\addplot [gray] {x^3};
\addplot [line width=3pt, red!50] {3*x^2};
\addplot [black] {((x+0.01)^3-(x)^3)/0.01};

\begin{axis}[no markers, samples=500]
\addplot [gray] {sin(deg(x))};
\addplot [line width=3pt, red!50] {cos(deg(x))};
\addplot [black] {(sin(deg(x+0.01))-sin(deg(x)))/0.01};

  • Nice! Is it possible to make a command \diff which takes the function as an argument and returns the differential quotient (with suitable small dx), then one would write for example: \addplot [black] {\diff{sin(x)}} which expands to \addplot [black] {(sin(deg(x+0.01))-sin(deg(x)))/0.01};
    – student
    Sep 25, 2012 at 7:54
  • 1
    I have added a feature request to add this to pgfmath: sourceforge.net/p/pgf/feature-requests/99
    – student
    Jun 21, 2016 at 11:28

To derive a function analytically LaTeX is not really equipped with a linear algebra package. Instead you can use sympy, a python library for symbolic mathematics. An example session in python looks like this:

>>> from sympy import *
>>> x = Symbol('x')
>>> diff(sin(x), x)

Thanks to the great pythontex package this can easily be integrated into a LaTeX document. Have a look at the examples, which contain several derivatives of functions and plots using matplotlib. It is no problem though to adapt the output to pgfplots.

  • Wow, that's pretty nice!
    – Jake
    Sep 24, 2012 at 18:47

the first 15 derivations of


which is

enter image description here


\def\getColor#1{\ifcase#1 Tan\or RedOrange\or magenta\or yellow\or green%
  \or Orange\or blue\or DarkOrchid\or BrickRed\or Rhodamine\or OliveGreen%
  \or Goldenrod\or Mahogany\or OrangeRed\or CarnationPink\or RoyalPurple\or Lavender\fi}


enter image description here

and the first 2 of sin(x)*cos(x)

enter image description here

  • Can we use pst-tools.pro's /factorial to define the function to be simpler? Sep 24, 2012 at 20:20
  • sure, but not with the algebraic mode, because /factorial is a PS function
    – user2478
    Sep 24, 2012 at 20:23
  • \psPolynomial[coeff=0 0 1,Derivation=1]{-2}{4} from package pst-func
    – user2478
    Feb 20, 2013 at 15:24
  • not possible by automatic. If you want to plot it, then let it be calculated by \psTangentLine or use x dup add
    – user2478
    Feb 20, 2013 at 15:29
  • Is there a way to get the nodes (c,f(c)) in which f'(c)=0? Feb 20, 2013 at 15:35

Here's a PythonTeX version of @Jake's answer that uses pgfplots. This required a reasonable bit of code to try to translate back and forth between Python and pgfplots syntax. It might be simpler to use a Python plotting solution like matplotlib, though that might also require a little translation from SymPy.



import re
x = Symbol('x')
def deriv(tikz_args, expr):
    expr = eval(expr.replace('^', '**'))
    expr_deriv = str(diff(expr, x)).replace('**', '^')
    expr = str(expr).replace('**', '^')
    for f in ['sin', 'cos', 'tan']:
        if f in expr:
            fpattern = f + r'\((.+)\)'
            expr = re.sub(fpattern, f + r'(deg(\1))', expr)
        if f in expr_deriv:
            fpattern = f + r'\((.+)\)'
            expr_deriv = re.sub(fpattern, f + r'(deg(\1))', expr_deriv)
    func = r'\addplot [blue] {' + expr + r'};'
    func_deriv = r'\addplot [red] {' + expr_deriv + r'};'
    tikz = r'''
    tikz = tikz.replace('tikz_args', tikz_args)
    tikz = tikz.replace('addplots', '\n'.join([func, func_deriv]))

\newcommand{\plotderiv}[2][]{\sympyc{deriv("#1", "#2")}}

\plotderiv[no markers, legend pos=south east, legend entries={Function, Derivative}]{x^3}

\plotderiv[no markers, legend pos=south east, legend entries={Function, Derivative}, samples=500]{sin(x)}


enter image description here

  • I get: ERROR: Undefined control sequence. --- TeX said --- l.115 \ProcessPgfPackageOptions {/PYTX/pkgopt}
    – student
    Sep 25, 2012 at 8:10
  • @student That sounds like you may need to install the pgfopts package.
    – G. Poore
    Sep 25, 2012 at 11:31
  • Now it compiles without output but without error. Do I need special compile options for this?
    – student
    Sep 25, 2012 at 11:46
  • @student With pythontex, you have to compile, then run a Python script, then compile again to bring in the Python results. You need to install pythontex on your system according to the manual (see the section on installation and compiling). You may want to create a shortcut in your TeX editor for running the Python script.
    – G. Poore
    Sep 25, 2012 at 12:12

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