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OpenGL Programming Guide: State Management and Drawing Geometric Objects

Learn how to clear the screen and draw geometric objects, including points, straight lines, and flat polygons.
This chapter is from the book

Chapter Objectives

After reading this chapter, you’ll be able to do the following:

  • Clear the window to an arbitrary color
  • Force any pending drawing to complete
  • Draw with any geometric primitive—point, line, or polygon—in two or three dimensions
  • Turn states on and off and query state variables
  • Control the display of geometric primitives—for example, draw dashed lines or outlined polygons
  • Specify normal vectors at appropriate points on the surfaces of solid objects
  • Use vertex arrays and buffer objects to store and access geometric data with fewer function calls
  • Save and restore several state variables at once

Although you can draw complex and interesting pictures using OpenGL, they’re all constructed from a small number of primitive graphical items. This shouldn’t be too surprising—look at what Leonardo da Vinci accomplished with just pencils and paintbrushes.

At the highest level of abstraction, there are three basic drawing operations: clearing the window, drawing a geometric object, and drawing a raster object. Raster objects, which include such things as two-dimensional images, bitmaps, and character fonts, are covered in Chapter 8. In this chapter, you learn how to clear the screen and draw geometric objects, including points, straight lines, and flat polygons.

You might think to yourself, “Wait a minute. I’ve seen lots of computer graphics in movies and on television, and there are plenty of beautifully shaded curved lines and surfaces. How are those drawn if OpenGL can draw only straight lines and flat polygons?” Even the image on the cover of this book includes a round table and objects on the table that have curved surfaces. It turns out that all the curved lines and surfaces you’ve seen are approximated by large numbers of little flat polygons or straight lines, in much the same way that the globe on the cover is constructed from a large set of rectangular blocks. The globe doesn’t appear to have a smooth surface because the blocks are relatively large compared with the globe. Later in this chapter, we show you how to construct curved lines and surfaces from lots of small geometric primitives.

This chapter has the following major sections:

  • “A Drawing Survival Kit” explains how to clear the window and force drawing to be completed. It also gives you basic information about controlling the colors of geometric objects and describing a coordinate system.
  • “Describing Points, Lines, and Polygons” shows you the set of primitive geometric objects and how to draw them.
  • “Basic State Management” describes how to turn on and off some states (modes) and query state variables.
  • “Displaying Points, Lines, and Polygons” explains what control you have over the details of how primitives are drawn—for example, what diameters points have, whether lines are solid or dashed, and whether polygons are outlined or filled.
  • “Normal Vectors” discusses how to specify normal vectors for geometric objects and (briefly) what these vectors are for.
  • “Vertex Arrays” shows you how to put large amounts of geometric data into just a few arrays and how, with only a few function calls, to render the geometry it describes. Reducing function calls may increase the efficiency and performance of rendering.
  • “Buffer Objects” details how to use server-side memory buffers to store vertex array data for more efficient geometric rendering.
  • “Vertex-Array Objects” expands the discussions of vertex arrays and buffer objects by describing how to efficiently change among sets of vertex arrays.
  • “Attribute Groups” reveals how to query the current value of state variables and how to save and restore several related state values all at once.
  • “Some Hints for Building Polygonal Models of Surfaces” explores the issues and techniques involved in constructing polygonal approximations to surfaces.

One thing to keep in mind as you read the rest of this chapter is that with OpenGL, unless you specify otherwise, every time you issue a drawing command, the specified object is drawn. This might seem obvious, but in some systems, you first make a list of things to draw. When your list is complete, you tell the graphics hardware to draw the items in the list. The first style is called immediate-mode graphics and is the default OpenGL style. In addition to using immediate mode, you can choose to save some commands in a list (called a display list) for later drawing. Immediate-mode graphics are typically easier to program, but display lists are often more efficient. Chapter 7 tells you how to use display lists and why you might want to use them.

Version 1.1 of OpenGL introduced vertex arrays.

In Version 1.2, scaling of surface normals (GL_RESCALE_NORMAL) was added to OpenGL. Also, glDrawRangeElements() supplemented vertex arrays.

Version 1.3 marked the initial support for texture coordinates for multiple texture units in the OpenGL core feature set. Previously, multitexturing had been an optional OpenGL extension.

In Version 1.4, fog coordinates and secondary colors may be stored in vertex arrays, and the commands glMultiDrawArrays() and glMultiDrawElements() may be used to render primitives from vertex arrays.

In Version 1.5, vertex arrays may be stored in buffer objects that may be able to use server memory for storing arrays and potentially accelerating their rendering.

Version 3.0 added support for vertex array objects, allowing all of the state related to vertex arrays to be bundled and activated with a single call. This, in turn, makes switching between sets of vertex arrays simpler and faster.

Version 3.1 removed most of the immediate-mode routines and added the primitive restart index, which allows you to render multiple primitives (of the same type) with a single drawing call.

A Drawing Survival Kit

This section explains how to clear the window in preparation for drawing, set the colors of objects that are to be drawn, and force drawing to be completed. None of these subjects has anything to do with geometric objects in a direct way, but any program that draws geometric objects has to deal with these issues.

Clearing the Window

Drawing on a computer screen is different from drawing on paper in that the paper starts out white, and all you have to do is draw the picture. On a computer, the memory holding the picture is usually filled with the last picture you drew, so you typically need to clear it to some background color before you start to draw the new scene. The color you use for the background depends on the application. For a word processor, you might clear to white (the color of the paper) before you begin to draw the text. If you’re drawing a view from a spaceship, you clear to the black of space before beginning to draw the stars, planets, and alien spaceships. Sometimes you might not need to clear the screen at all; for example, if the image is the inside of a room, the entire graphics window is covered as you draw all the walls.

At this point, you might be wondering why we keep talking about clearing the window—why not just draw a rectangle of the appropriate color that’s large enough to cover the entire window? First, a special command to clear a window can be much more efficient than a general-purpose drawing command. In addition, as you’ll see in Chapter 3, OpenGL allows you to set the coordinate system, viewing position, and viewing direction arbitrarily, so it might be difficult to figure out an appropriate size and location for a window-clearing rectangle. Finally, on many machines, the graphics hardware consists of multiple buffers in addition to the buffer containing colors of the pixels that are displayed. These other buffers must be cleared from time to time, and it’s convenient to have a single command that can clear any combination of them. (See Chapter 10 for a discussion of all the possible buffers.)

You must also know how the colors of pixels are stored in the graphics hardware known as bitplanes. There are two methods of storage. Either the red, green, blue, and alpha (RGBA) values of a pixel can be directly stored in the bitplanes, or a single index value that references a color lookup table is stored. RGBA color-display mode is more commonly used, so most of the examples in this book use it. (See Chapter 4 for more information about both display modes.) You can safely ignore all references to alpha values until Chapter 6.

As an example, these lines of code clear an RGBA mode window to black:

glClearColor(0.0, 0.0, 0.0, 0.0);

The first line sets the clearing color to black, and the next command clears the entire window to the current clearing color. The single parameter to glClear() indicates which buffers are to be cleared. In this case, the program clears only the color buffer, where the image displayed on the screen is kept. Typically, you set the clearing color once, early in your application, and then you clear the buffers as often as necessary. OpenGL keeps track of the current clearing color as a state variable, rather than requiring you to specify it each time a buffer is cleared.

Chapter 4 and Chapter 10 discuss how other buffers are used. For now, all you need to know is that clearing them is simple. For example, to clear both the color buffer and the depth buffer, you would use the following sequence of commands:

glClearColor(0.0, 0.0, 0.0, 0.0);

In this case, the call to glClearColor() is the same as before, the glClearDepth() command specifies the value to which every pixel of the depth buffer is to be set, and the parameter to the glClear() command now consists of the bitwise logical OR of all the buffers to be cleared. The following summary of glClear() includes a table that lists the buffers that can be cleared, their names, and the chapter in which each type of buffer is discussed.

Table 2-1. Clearing Buffers




Color buffer


Chapter 4

Depth buffer


Chapter 10

Accumulation buffer


Chapter 10

Stencil buffer


Chapter 10

Before issuing a command to clear multiple buffers, you have to set the values to which each buffer is to be cleared if you want something other than the default RGBA color, depth value, accumulation color, and stencil index. In addition to the glClearColor() and glClearDepth() commands that set the current values for clearing the color and depth buffers, glClearIndex(), glClearAccum(), and glClearStencil() specify the color index, accumulation color, and stencil index used to clear the corresponding buffers. (See Chapter 4 and Chapter 10 for descriptions of these buffers and their uses.)

OpenGL allows you to specify multiple buffers because clearing is generally a slow operation, as every pixel in the window (possibly millions) is touched, and some graphics hardware allows sets of buffers to be cleared simultaneously. Hardware that doesn’t support simultaneous clears performs them sequentially. The difference between




is that although both have the same final effect, the first example might run faster on many machines. It certainly won’t run more slowly.

Specifying a Color

With OpenGL, the description of the shape of an object being drawn is independent of the description of its color. Whenever a particular geometric object is drawn, it’s drawn using the currently specified coloring scheme. The coloring scheme might be as simple as “draw everything in fire-engine red” or as complicated as “assume the object is made out of blue plastic, that there’s a yellow spotlight pointed in such and such a direction, and that there’s a general low-level reddish-brown light everywhere else.” In general, an OpenGL programmer first sets the color or coloring scheme and then draws the objects. Until the color or coloring scheme is changed, all objects are drawn in that color or using that coloring scheme. This method helps OpenGL achieve higher drawing performance than would result if it didn’t keep track of the current color.

For example, the pseudocode


draws objects A and B in red, and object C in blue. The command on the fourth line that sets the current color to green is wasted.

Coloring, lighting, and shading are all large topics with entire chapters or large sections devoted to them. To draw geometric primitives that can be seen, however, you need some basic knowledge of how to set the current color; this information is provided in the next few paragraphs. (See Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 for details on these topics.)

To set a color, use the command glColor3f(). It takes three parameters, all of which are floating-point numbers between 0.0 and 1.0. The parameters are, in order, the red, green, and blue components of the color. You can think of these three values as specifying a “mix” of colors: 0.0 means don’t use any of that component, and 1.0 means use all you can of that component. Thus, the code

glColor3f(1.0, 0.0, 0.0);

makes the brightest red the system can draw, with no green or blue components. All zeros makes black; in contrast, all ones makes white. Setting all three components to 0.5 yields gray (halfway between black and white). Here are eight commands and the colors they would set:

glColor3f(0.0, 0.0, 0.0);     /* black */
glColor3f(1.0, 0.0, 0.0);     /* red */
glColor3f(0.0, 1.0, 0.0);     /* green */
glColor3f(1.0, 1.0, 0.0);     /* yellow */
glColor3f(0.0, 0.0, 1.0);     /* blue */
glColor3f(1.0, 0.0, 1.0);     /* magenta */
glColor3f(0.0, 1.0, 1.0);     /* cyan */
glColor3f(1.0, 1.0, 1.0);     /* white */

You might have noticed earlier that the routine for setting the clearing color, glClearColor(), takes four parameters, the first three of which match the parameters for glColor3f(). The fourth parameter is the alpha value; it’s covered in detail in “Blending” in Chapter 6. For now, set the fourth parameter of glClearColor() to 0.0, which is its default value.

Forcing Completion of Drawing

As you saw in “OpenGL Rendering Pipeline” in Chapter 1, most modern graphics systems can be thought of as an assembly line. The main central processing unit (CPU) issues a drawing command. Perhaps other hardware does geometric transformations. Clipping is performed, followed by shading and/or texturing. Finally, the values are written into the bitplanes for display. In high-end architectures, each of these operations is performed by a different piece of hardware that’s been designed to perform its particular task quickly. In such an architecture, there’s no need for the CPU to wait for each drawing command to complete before issuing the next one. While the CPU is sending a vertex down the pipeline, the transformation hardware is working on transforming the last one sent, the one before that is being clipped, and so on. In such a system, if the CPU waited for each command to complete before issuing the next, there could be a huge performance penalty.

In addition, the application might be running on more than one machine. For example, suppose that the main program is running elsewhere (on a machine called the client) and that you’re viewing the results of the drawing on your workstation or terminal (the server), which is connected by a network to the client. In that case, it might be horribly inefficient to send each command over the network one at a time, as considerable overhead is often associated with each network transmission. Usually, the client gathers a collection of commands into a single network packet before sending it. Unfortunately, the network code on the client typically has no way of knowing that the graphics program is finished drawing a frame or scene. In the worst case, it waits forever for enough additional drawing commands to fill a packet, and you never see the completed drawing.

For this reason, OpenGL provides the command glFlush(), which forces the client to send the network packet even though it might not be full. Where there is no network and all commands are truly executed immediately on the server, glFlush() might have no effect. However, if you’re writing a program that you want to work properly both with and without a network, include a call to glFlush() at the end of each frame or scene. Note that glFlush() doesn’t wait for the drawing to complete—it just forces the drawing to begin execution, thereby guaranteeing that all previous commands execute in finite time even if no further rendering commands are executed.

There are other situations in which glFlush() is useful:

  • Software renderers that build images in system memory and don’t want to constantly update the screen.
  • Implementations that gather sets of rendering commands to amortize start-up costs. The aforementioned network transmission example is one instance of this.

Coordinate System Survival Kit

Whenever you initially open a window or later move or resize that window, the window system will send an event to notify you. If you are using GLUT, the notification is automated; whatever routine has been registered to glutReshapeFunc() will be called. You must register a callback function that will

  • Reestablish the rectangular region that will be the new rendering canvas
  • Define the coordinate system to which objects will be drawn

In Chapter 3, you’ll see how to define three-dimensional coordinate systems, but right now just create a simple, basic two-dimensional coordinate system into which you can draw a few objects. Call glutReshapeFunc(reshape), where reshape() is the following function shown in Example 2-1.

Example 2-1. Reshape Callback Function

void reshape(int w, int h)
   glViewport(0, 0, (GLsizei) w, (GLsizei) h);
   gluOrtho2D(0.0, (GLdouble) w, 0.0, (GLdouble) h);

The kernel of GLUT will pass this function two arguments: the width and height, in pixels, of the new, moved, or resized window. glViewport() adjusts the pixel rectangle for drawing to be the entire new window. The next three routines adjust the coordinate system for drawing so that the lower left corner is (0, 0) and the upper right corner is (w, h) (see Figure 2-1).

Figure 2-1

Figure 2-1 Coordinate System Defined by w = 50, h = 50

To explain it another way, think about a piece of graphing paper. The w and h values in reshape() represent how many columns and rows of squares are on your graph paper. Then you have to put axes on the graph paper. The gluOrtho2D() routine puts the origin, (0, 0), in the lowest, leftmost square, and makes each square represent one unit. Now, when you render the points, lines, and polygons in the rest of this chapter, they will appear on this paper in easily predictable squares. (For now, keep all your objects two-dimensional.)

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