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WebGL Cubemaps

This article is part of a series of articles about WebGL. The first article starts with the fundamentals. This article continues from the article on textures. This article also uses concepts covered in the article on lighting. If you have not read those articles already you might want to read them first.

In a previous article we covered how to use textures, how they are referenced by texture coordinates that go from 0 to 1 across and up the texture, and how they are filtered optionally using mips.

Another kind of texture is a cubemap. It consists of 6 faces representing the 6 faces of a cube. Instead of the traditional texture coordinates that have 2 dimensions, a cubemap uses a normal, in other words a 3D direction. Depending on the direction the normal points one of the 6 faces of the cube is selected and then within that face the pixels are sampled to produce a color.

The 6 faces are referenced by their direction from the center of the cube. They are


Let's make a simple example, we'll use a 2D canvas to make the images used in each of the 6 faces.

Here's some code to fill a canvas with a color and a centered message

function generateFace(ctx, faceColor, textColor, text) {
  const {width, height} = ctx.canvas;
  ctx.fillStyle = faceColor;
  ctx.fillRect(0, 0, width, height);
  ctx.font = `${width * 0.7}px sans-serif`;
  ctx.textAlign = 'center';
  ctx.textBaseline = 'middle';
  ctx.fillStyle = textColor;
  ctx.fillText(text, width / 2, height / 2);

And here's some code to call it to generate 6 images

// Get A 2D context
/** @type {Canvas2DRenderingContext} */
const ctx = document.createElement("canvas").getContext("2d");

ctx.canvas.width = 128;
ctx.canvas.height = 128;

const faceInfos = [
  { faceColor: '#F00', textColor: '#0FF', text: '+X' },
  { faceColor: '#FF0', textColor: '#00F', text: '-X' },
  { faceColor: '#0F0', textColor: '#F0F', text: '+Y' },
  { faceColor: '#0FF', textColor: '#F00', text: '-Y' },
  { faceColor: '#00F', textColor: '#FF0', text: '+Z' },
  { faceColor: '#F0F', textColor: '#0F0', text: '-Z' },
faceInfos.forEach((faceInfo) => {
  const {faceColor, textColor, text} = faceInfo;
  generateFace(ctx, faceColor, textColor, text);

  // show the result
  ctx.canvas.toBlob((blob) => {
    const img = new Image();
    img.src = URL.createObjectURL(blob);

Now let's apply that to a cube. We'll start with the code from the texture atlas example in the previous article.

First off let's change the shaders to use a cube map

attribute vec4 a_position;

uniform mat4 u_matrix;

varying vec3 v_normal;

void main() {
  // Multiply the position by the matrix.
  gl_Position = u_matrix * a_position;

  // Pass a normal. Since the positions are
  // centered around the origin we can just 
  // pass the position
  v_normal = normalize(;

We've removed the texture coordinates from the shader and added a varying to pass a normal to the fragment shader. Since the positions of our cube are perfectly centered around the origin we can just use them as our normals.

Recall from the article on lighting that normals are a direction and are usually used to specify the direction of the surface of some vertex. Because we are using the normalized positions for our normals if we were to light this we'd get smooth lighting across the cube. For a normal cube we'd have to have different normals for each vertex for each face.

standard cube normal vs this cube's normals

Since we're not using texture coordinates we can remove all code related to setting up the texture coordinates.

In the fragment shader we need to use a samplerCube instead of a sampler2D
and use textureCube instead of texture2D. textureCube takes a vec3 direction so we pass the normalized normal. Since the normal is a varying and will be interpolated we need to normalize it again.

precision mediump float;

// Passed in from the vertex shader.
varying vec3 v_normal;

// The texture.
uniform samplerCube u_texture;

void main() {
   gl_FragColor = textureCube(u_texture, normalize(v_normal));

Then, in the JavaScript we need to setup the texture

// Create a texture.
var texture = gl.createTexture();
gl.bindTexture(gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP, texture);

// Get A 2D context
/** @type {Canvas2DRenderingContext} */
const ctx = document.createElement("canvas").getContext("2d");

ctx.canvas.width = 128;
ctx.canvas.height = 128;

const faceInfos = [
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_POSITIVE_X, faceColor: '#F00', textColor: '#0FF', text: '+X' },
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_NEGATIVE_X, faceColor: '#FF0', textColor: '#00F', text: '-X' },
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_POSITIVE_Y, faceColor: '#0F0', textColor: '#F0F', text: '+Y' },
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_NEGATIVE_Y, faceColor: '#0FF', textColor: '#F00', text: '-Y' },
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_POSITIVE_Z, faceColor: '#00F', textColor: '#FF0', text: '+Z' },
  { target: gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP_NEGATIVE_Z, faceColor: '#F0F', textColor: '#0F0', text: '-Z' },
faceInfos.forEach((faceInfo) => {
  const {target, faceColor, textColor, text} = faceInfo;
  generateFace(ctx, faceColor, textColor, text);

  // Upload the canvas to the cubemap face.
  const level = 0;
  const internalFormat = gl.RGBA;
  const format = gl.RGBA;
  const type = gl.UNSIGNED_BYTE;
  gl.texImage2D(target, level, internalFormat, format, type, ctx.canvas);

Things to notice above:

  • We are using gl.TEXTURE_CUBE_MAP instead of gl.TEXTURE_2D.

    This tells WebGL to make a cube map instead of a 2D texture.

  • To upload each face of the texture we use special targets.


  • Each face is a square. Above they are 128x128.

    Cubemaps are required to have square textures. And, like 2D textures if they are not a power of 2 in both dimensions then we can't filter them or use mips. In this case they are a power of 2 (128) so we're generating mips and turning on filtering to use the mips.

And poof

Using a cubemap to texture a cube is not what cubemaps are normally used for. The correct or rather standard way to texture a cube is to use a texture atlas like we mentioned before.

Now that we've learned what a cubemap is and how to set one up what is a cubemap used for? Probably the single most common thing a cubemap is used for is as an environment map.

Questions? Ask on stackoverflow.
Issue/Bug? Create an issue on github.
Use <pre><code>code goes here</code></pre> for code blocks
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