Cedric Fung

Mixin me 25566

Head to OpenGL: Understand Triangle

Sep 17, 2012

It’s time to understand how OpenGL renders the triangle on the screen. First, I will give you a hint about how OpenGL’s pipeline works.

Client & Server

OpenGL is designed with a C/S architecture. Our OpenGL code is written as an OpenGL client, so each OpenGL API call will be passed to the OpenGL server to do some operations.

The OpenGL server is typically running in the GPU. It has its own memory in GPU, thus most API calls will need communication between CPU and GPU. I am going to avoid discussing the more detailed aspects of this, because I love to learn how to use the API at first.

State Machine

Note: I won’t give you a perfect OpenGL definition. You can find the most accurate details from the OpenGL specifications. I will only try my best to tell a story about how OpenGL works, from a OpenGL beginner’s perspective.

In every book about OpenGL, you will read something like this, “OpenGL is a state machine.”

So what’s a state machine? I don’t think I can explain it clearly to you if you haven’t heard about it. I can’t even understand it when others try to give me an explanation on what a state machine is. Instead, I’d love to describe OpenGL with some simple programming skills:

struct OpenGL {
  Context renderContext; // We create it with freeglut
  vec4 clearColor; // Set with glClearColor(1.0f, 1.0f, 1.0f, 1.0f)
  GLuint program; // glUseProgram()
  GLuint buffer; // glBindBuffer(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, ..)

I assume you’re familiar with the C language. The above code is my impression of OpenGL. I see it as a big struct with many members. Each OpenGL method call may change the struct to some state, and keep the state until other calls change it. So we:

// Create the OpenGL context with a few freeglut calls
glutInit(&argc, argv);

// Then we use glClearColor() to change the context's color state,
// one state among hundreds of states in the OpenGL big struct
glClearColor(1.0f, 1.0f, 1.0f, 1.0f);

// We want to clear the render window before do other rendering works,
// so we invoke the glClear() method, which will make the screen full
// of the color we set with glClearColor(). This behaviour will lasts
// until we call glClearColor() with another color value.

As the comments say in above code, if you do something to the OpenGL big struct, the effect will last until the next time you do something to the same part of the big struct. E.g. once you call glEnable*, glBind* or some other OpenGL methods, you will set some fields in the big OpenGL struct to some values, and the values will be kept until you change them again. This is the basic and most important OpenGL workflow from my understanding of the OpenGL state machine.

OpenGL Pipeline

Let’s go deep into more details about the OpenGL workflow and OpenGL pipeline. I’d love to follow OpenGL with these steps:

Initialize OpenGL program and shaders

Once we created our OpenGL context with freeglut, we should think about initializing some basic OpenGL attributes.

GLuint vertexShader = CreateShader(GL_VERTEX_SHADER, VERTEX_SHADER);
GLuint fragmentShader = CreateShader(GL_FRAGMENT_SHADER, FRAGMENT_SHADER);
sProgram = CreateProgram(vertexShader, fragmentShader);

The code may be more readable than human language. I just created (compiled) two shaders. Then, created an OpenGL program based on them. At last, the shaders are deleted.

More explanations about the procedure would be massive. For the sake of brevity, OpenGL is like a C/S architecture, and the program is created at the server side. It also needs to be compiled like our normal C code.

The two methods, CreateShader and CreateProgram are just two simple wrappers around the most common procedures to create an OpenGL program, which we will use many more times in the future.

Ttransfer vertices to OpenGL

OpenGL is running on the GPU with its own memory space, so we need to transfer all data to be used by the OpenGL server. In our triangle demo, we use the following API to do it:

glGenBuffers(1, &sValuesBuffer);
glBindBuffer(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, sValuesBuffer);
glBufferData(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, sizeof(sValues), sValues, GL_STATIC_DRAW);
glBindBuffer(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, 0);

The glGenBuffers call will generate a buffer in OpenGL server’s memory, but can’t be used until we tell OpenGL how we want to use it.

We use glBindBuffer(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, sValuesBuffer) to indicate that we want to use the genereated buffer as an array.

The third method glBufferData is where the magic happens. This method will copy sValues to OpenGL memory space as a GL_ARRAY_BUFFER. The destination of the GL_ARRAY_BUFFER is the sValuesBuffer. The state machine rocks, once you bind sValuesBuffer to GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, any later usage of GL_ARRAY_BUFFER will be implicitly set to sValuesBuffer.

The fourth line bind GL_ARRAY_BUFFER to 0. 0 is the default value of most states. It’s not necessary to bind to 0 at this time, it’s just a habit (maybe a good one).

To understand it as a C programmer, the code below has similiar effects:

void *sValuesBuffer = malloc(sizeof(sValues));
float *arrayBuffer = (float *)sValuesBuffer;
memcpy(arrayBuffer, sValues, sizeof(sValues));
arrayBuffer = NULL;

They look like some buggy C code, but it helps us to understand how the OpenGL API works.

Draw with the program and vertices

Finally, it’s time to make the actual rendering.


glBindBuffer(GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, sValuesBuffer);
glVertexAttribPointer(sLocPosition, 4, GL_FLOAT, GL_FALSE, 0, 0);
glVertexAttribPointer(sLocColor, 4, GL_FLOAT, GL_FALSE, 0, (void *)48);

glDrawArrays(GL_TRIANGLES, 0, 3);

To be honest with you, it’s a little hard to learn OpenGL if you’re a newbie to graphics programming. But if you can understand the code above, you will feel the sunshine. Also it’s harder to explain it clearly to others. However, we’re lucky to have gltut’s explanation, here I will borrow some ideas from there.

At first we tell OpenGL server to use the sProgram to do the rendering work, 1glUseProgram(sProgram)1. Then we instruct OpenGL to draw stroke by stroke with the steps we define:

  1. Bind sValuesBuffer to GL_ARRAY_BUFFER. Then any later usage of GL_ARRAY_BUFFER will implicitly use sValuesBuffer.
  2. glEnableVertexAttribArray and glVertexAttribPointer combination assign some array value to vertex attribute, we will discuss the vertex attribute in next part.
  3. glDrawArrays(GL_TRIANGLES, 0, 3) tell OpenGL to draw many triangles with 3 vertices starting from the 0 index, in this program, it will draw only one triangle, because 3 vertices can only form one tirangle in normal situation.

A Taste of a Bit Shader

In the previous part we give out several instructions to the OpenGL server, let it to use sProgram to accomplish those commands. Recall that we have linked two shaders, VERTEX_SHADER and FRAGMENT_SHADER, with sProgram. Indeed, these two shaders are the most important part of the sProgram, they will be executed in the OpenGL server, just like our C code compiled and executed in CPU.

The OpenGL shader has its own programming language, called OpenGL shading language, abbreviated as GLSL. GLSL’s syntax is very like C’s. The two most used shaders are vertex shader and fragment shader. Although with different names, they share the same syntax.

Vertex coordinate

Before getting into the shader, let’s look at the coordinate system to define the vertex position. Don’t take it too complex, every vertex’s position is a 4 dimentional vector, (x, y, z, w). W is set to 1 by default, and we won’t care it this time. x, y and z should all fall into [-1, 1]. Yes, you guess right, it’s a percentage value.

const GLfloat sValues[] = {
  0.0f, 0.5f, 0.0f, 1.0f,
  -0.5f, -0.5f, 0.0f, 1.0f,
  0.5f, -0.5f, 0.0f, 1.0f,

Compare the values above with the picture from previous tutorial, you may get the point.

Vertex shader

A vertex shader will be executed for every vertex. It’s the first stage in the shading sequences. Its most important role is computing the position for each vertex while accepting various other vertex attributes and passing them to fragment shader.

#define VERTEX_SHADER " \
  #version 130\n \
  in vec4 position; \
  in vec4 color; \
  smooth out vec4 vColor; \
  void main() { \
    gl_Position = position; \
    vColor = color; \

In the vertex shader code above, it receives two vertex attributes, in vec4 position and in vec4 color. It also sets the vertex position to gl_Position, which is a must do in every vertex shader.

How do we pass vertex attribute position to vertex shader? It’s the result of glVertexAttribPointer(sLocPosition, 4, GL_FLOAT, GL_FALSE, 0, 0), which means get position from the GL_ARRAY_BUFFER starting at index 0, and each position will use 4 values from the GL_ARRAY_BUFFER. So as the vertex attribute color.

We have three vertices to draw a triangle, so the above procedure will be executed for three times. To demonstrate more clearly, we can emulate this vertex shader’s work with C code below:

for (index = 0; index < 3; index++) {
  position = sValuesBuffer + 0 + index * 4 * 4; // float is 4 bytes length
  color = sValuesBuffer + 48 + index * 4 * 4; // float is 4 bytes length

Fragment shader

A Fragment shader will be executed for every fragment. A Fragment is a different concept from vertex. While a triangle has tree vertices, it may have millions fragments. As an introduction, you can imagine a fragment as one pixel on the screen.

  #version 130\n \
  smooth in vec4 vColor; \
  void main() { \
  	gl_FragColor = vColor; \

In the previous vertex shader, we define smooth out vec4 vColor, and in this fragment shader smooth in vec4 vColor. The two declarations are a lot alike, and it’s not a coincidence. The GLSL specifications limit you to define the same in attribute in fragment shader as the out attribute in vertex shader. It’s also the only method (as I know) to get attribute value in the fragment shader.

The fragment shader in this demo is very simple, just assign the vColor to gl_FragColor just like we assgin position to gl_Position in the vertex shader.


I found it was very difficult to write this article, but it helped me to understand OpenGL better after I’ve finished it. This tutorial is not intended to be a very accurate guide to OpenGL, but a simple comprehension from a newbie.

BTW, it’s welcomed to help me with the English grammar.

About the Author

Core developer of Mixin Network. Passionate about security and privacy. Strive to formulate elegant code, simple design and friendly machine.

25566 @ Mixin Messenger