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WebGL Smallest Programs

This article assumes you've read many of the other articles starting with the fundamentals. If you have not read them please start there first.

I don't really know what to file this article under because it has two purposes.

  1. Show you the smallest WebGL programs.

    These techniques are super useful for testing something or when making an MCVE for Stack Overflow or when trying to narrow down a bug.

  2. Learning to think outside the box

    I hope to write several more articles on this to help you see the bigger picture rather than just the common patterns. Here's one.

Just clearing

Here's the smallest WebGL program that actually does something

const gl = document.querySelector('canvas').getContext('webgl');
gl.clearColor(1, 0, 0, 1);  // red

All this program does is clear the canvas to red but it did actually do something.

Think about it through. With just this you can actually test some things. Let's say you are rendering to a texture but things aren't working. Let's say it's just like the example in that article. You're rendering 1 or more 3D things into a texture then rendering that result onto a cube.

You're not seeing anything. Well, as a simple test, stop rendering to the texture with shaders are just clear the texture to a known color.

gl.bindFramebuffer(gl.FRAMEBUFFER, framebufferWithTexture)
gl.clearColor(1, 0, 1, 1);  // magenta

Now render with the texture from the framebuffer. Does your cube turn magenta? If not then your issue is not the rendering to the texture part it's something else.

Using the SCISSOR_TEST and gl.clear

The SCISSOR_TEST clips both drawing and clearing to some sub rectangle of the canvas (or current framebuffer).

You enable the scissor test with


and then you set the scissor rectangle in pixels relative to the bottom left corner. It uses the same parameters as gl.viewport.

gl.scissor(x, y, width, height);

Using that can draw rectangles using the SCISSOR_TEST and gl.clear.


const gl = document.querySelector('#c').getContext('webgl');


function drawRect(x, y, width, height, color) {
  gl.scissor(x, y, width, height);

for (let i = 0; i < 100; ++i) {
  const x = rand(0, 300);
  const y = rand(0, 150);
  const width = rand(0, 300 - x);
  const height = rand(0, 150 - y);
  drawRect(x, y, width, height, [rand(1), rand(1), rand(1), 1]);

function rand(min, max) {
  if (max === undefined) {
    max = min;
    min = 0;
  return Math.random() * (max - min) + min;

Not saying that particular one is all that useful but still it's good to know.

Using one large gl.POINTS

As most of the examples show, the most common thing to do in WebGL is create buffers. Put vertex data in those buffers. Create shaders with attributes. Set up the attributes to pull data from those buffers. Then draw, possibly with uniforms and texture also used by your shaders.

But sometimes you just want to test. Let's say you want just see something draw.

How about this set of shaders

// vertex shader
void main() {
  gl_Position = vec4(0, 0, 0, 1);  // center
  gl_PointSize = 120.0;
// fragment shader
precision mediump float;

void main() {
  gl_FragColor = vec4(1, 0, 0, 1);  // red

And here's the code to use it

// setup GLSL program
const program = webglUtils.createProgramFromSources(gl, [vs, fs]);


const offset = 0;
const count = 1;
gl.drawArrays(gl.POINTS, offset, count);

No buffers to create, no uniforms to setup, and we get a single point in the middle of the canvas.

NOTE: Safari pre 15 didn't pass the WebGL Conformance Tests for this feature.

About gl.POINTS: When you pass gl.POINTS to gl.drawArrays you're also required to set gl_PointSize in your vertex shader to a size in pixels. It's important to note that different GPU/Drivers have a different maximum point size you can use. You can query that maximum size with

const [minSize, maxSize] = gl.getParameter(gl.ALIASED_POINT_SIZE_RANGE);

The WebGL spec only requires a max size of 1.0. Fortunately most if not all GPUs and drivers support a larger size.

After you set gl_PointSize then when the vertex shader exits, whatever value you set on gl_Position is converted to screen/canvas space in pixels, then a square is generated around that position that is +/- gl_PointSize / 2 in all 4 directions.

Okay, I can hear you thinking so what, who wants to draw a single point.

Well, points automatically get free texture coordinates. They are available in the fragment shader with the special variable gl_PointCoord. So, let's draw a texture on that point.

First let's change the fragment shader.

// fragment shader
precision mediump float;

+uniform sampler2D tex;

void main() {
-  gl_FragColor = vec4(1, 0, 0, 1);  // red
+  gl_FragColor = texture2D(tex, gl_PointCoord.xy);

Now to keep it simple let's make a texture with raw data like we covered in the article on data textures.

// 2x2 pixel data
const pixels = new Uint8Array([
  0xFF, 0x00, 0x00, 0xFF,  // red
  0x00, 0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF,  // green
  0x00, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF,  // blue
  0xFF, 0x00, 0xFF, 0xFF,  // magenta
const tex = gl.createTexture();
gl.bindTexture(gl.TEXTURE_2D, tex);
    0,                 // level
    gl.RGBA,           // internal format
    2,                 // width
    2,                 // height
    0,                 // border
    gl.RGBA,           // format
    gl.UNSIGNED_BYTE,  // type
    pixels,            // data
gl.texParameteri(gl.TEXTURE_2D, gl.TEXTURE_MIN_FILTER, gl.NEAREST);
gl.texParameteri(gl.TEXTURE_2D, gl.TEXTURE_MAG_FILTER, gl.NEAREST);

Because WebGL defaults to using texture unit 0 and because uniforms default to 0 there is nothing else to setup

This can be a great way to test texture related problems. We're still using no buffers, no attributes, and we didn't have to look up and set any uniforms. For example if we loaded an image, it's not showing up. What if we try the shader above, does it show the image on the point? We rendered to a texture and then we want to view the texture. Normally we'd setup some geometry via buffers and attributes but we can render the texture just by showing it on this single point.

Using Multiple Single POINTS

Another simple change to the example above. We can change the vertex shader to this

// vertex shader

+attribute vec4 position;

void main() {
-  gl_Position = vec4(0, 0, 0, 1);
+  gl_Position = position;
  gl_PointSize = 120.0;

attributes have a default value of 0, 0, 0, 1 so with just that change the examples above would still continue to work. But, now we gain the ability to set the position if we want.

+const program = webglUtils.createProgramFromSources(gl, [vs, fs]);
const positionLoc = gl.getAttribLocation(program, 'position');


+const numPoints = 5;
+for (let i = 0; i < numPoints; ++i) {
+  const u = i / (numPoints - 1);    // 0 to 1
+  const clipspace = u * 1.6 - 0.8;  // -0.8 to +0.8
+  gl.vertexAttrib2f(positionLoc, clipspace, clipspace);

*  const offset = 0;
*  const count = 1;
*  gl.drawArrays(gl.POINTS, offset, count);

Before we run it lets make the point smaller

// vertex shader

attribute vec4 position;
+uniform float size;

void main() {
  gl_Position = position;
-  gl_PointSize = 120.0;
+  gl_PointSize = 20.0;

And lets make it so we can set the color of the point. (note: I switched back to the code without a texture).

precision mediump float;

+uniform vec4 color;

void main() {
-  gl_FragColor = vec4(1, 0, 0, 1);   // red
+  gl_FragColor = color;

and we need to lookup the color location

// setup GLSL program
const program = webglUtils.createProgramFromSources(gl, [vs, fs]);
const positionLoc = gl.getAttribLocation(program, 'position');
+const colorLoc = gl.getUniformLocation(program, 'color');

And use them


const numPoints = 5;
for (let i = 0; i < numPoints; ++i) {
  const u = i / (numPoints - 1);    // 0 to 1
  const clipspace = u * 1.6 - 0.8;  // -0.8 to +0.8
  gl.vertexAttrib2f(positionLoc, clipspace, clipspace);

+  gl.uniform4f(colorLoc, u, 0, 1 - u, 1);

  const offset = 0;
  const count = 1;
  gl.drawArrays(gl.POINTS, offset, count);

And now we get 5 points with 5 colors and we still didn't have to setup any buffers or attributes.

Of course this is NOT the way you should draw lots of points in WebGL. If you want to draw lots of points you should do something like setup an attribute with a position for each point, and a color for each point and draw all the points in a single draw call.

BUT!, for testing, for debugging, for making an MCVE it's a great way to minimize the code. As another example let's say we're drawing to textures for a post processing affect and we want to visualize them. We could just draw one large point for each one using the combination of this example and the previous one with a texture. No complicated step of buffers and attributes needed, great for debugging.

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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