"Hello Triangle"
OpenGL 4 Up and Running

Anton Gerdelan. Last Updated 8 April 2016

The idea of this article is to give a brief overview of all of the keys parts of an OpenGL 4 programme, without looking at each part in any detail. If you have used another graphics API (or an older version of OpenGL) before, and you want an at-a-glance look at the differences, then this article is for you. If you have never done graphics programming before then this is also a nice way of getting started with something that "works", and can be modified. The following articles will step back and explain each part in more detail.

Install Libraries

Get Main OpenGL Libraries

The main library that you need is libGL. There is also a set of utility functions in a library called libGLU, but you more than likely won't need it. OpenGL is a bit weird in that you don't download a library from the website. The Khronos group that control the specification only provides the interface. The actual implementations are done by video hardware manufacturers or other developers. You need to have a very modern graphics processor to support OpenGL version 4.x, and even so you might be limited to an earlier implementation if the drivers don't exist yet.

To get the latest libgl:

Starting the GL Context With GLFW and GLEW

GLFW is a helper library that will start the OpenGL "context" for us so that it talks to (almost) any operating system in the same way. The context is a running copy of OpenGL, tied to a window on the operating system. Note: I've updated this tutorial to use GLFW version 3.0. The interface differs slightly from the previous versions.

The compiled libraries that I downloaded from the website didn't work for me, so I built them myself from the source code. You might need to do this.

The documentation tells us that we need to add a #define before including the header if we are going to use the dynamic version of the library:

#define GLFW_DLL

There's a library called GLEW that makes sure that we include the latest version of GL, and not a default [ancient] version on the system path. It also handles GL extensions. On Windows if you try to compile without GLEW you will see a list of unrecognised GL functions and constants - that means you're using the '90s Microsoft GL. If you are using MinGW then you'll need to compile the library yourself. Much the same as with GLFW, the binaries on the webpage aren't entirely reliable - rebuild locally for best results.

Include GLEW before GLFW to use the latest GL libraries:

#define GLFW_DLL

I've uploaded my Windows builds of both for MinGW's GCC compilers here:

Initialisation Code

Okay, we can code up a minimal shell that will start the GL context, print the version, and quit. You might like to compile and run this in a terminal to make sure that everything is working so far, and that your video drivers can support OpenGL 4.

#include  // include GLEW and new version of GL on Windows
#include  // GLFW helper library

int main () {
  // start GL context and O/S window using the GLFW helper library
  if (!glfwInit ()) {
    fprintf (stderr, "ERROR: could not start GLFW3\n");
    return 1;

  // uncomment these lines if on Apple OS X
  /*glfwWindowHint (GLFW_CONTEXT_VERSION_MAJOR, 3);

  GLFWwindow* window = glfwCreateWindow (640, 480, "Hello Triangle", NULL, NULL);
  if (!window) {
    fprintf (stderr, "ERROR: could not open window with GLFW3\n");
    return 1;
  glfwMakeContextCurrent (window);
  // start GLEW extension handler
  glewExperimental = GL_TRUE;
  glewInit ();

  // get version info
  const GLubyte* renderer = glGetString (GL_RENDERER); // get renderer string
  const GLubyte* version = glGetString (GL_VERSION); // version as a string
  printf ("Renderer: %s\n", renderer);
  printf ("OpenGL version supported %s\n", version);

  // tell GL to only draw onto a pixel if the shape is closer to the viewer
  glEnable (GL_DEPTH_TEST); // enable depth-testing
  glDepthFunc (GL_LESS); // depth-testing interprets a smaller value as "closer"

  // close GL context and any other GLFW resources
  return 0;

There are 4 lines in the above code that you should uncomment if you're on Apple OS X. We will talk about this in the next tutorial. The short explanation is that it will get the newest available version of OpenGL on Apple, which will be 4.1 or 3.3 on Mavericks, and 3.2 on pre-Mavericks systems. On other systems it will tend to pick 3.2 instead of the newest version, which is unhelpful. To improve support for newer OpenGL releases, we can put the flag glewExperimental = GL_TRUE; before starting GLEW.

Make sure that your library paths to GLFW and GLEW are correct. I copied the include folders from GLEW and GLFW into the same folder as my project, so my include folder contains a folder called GLFW, and a folder called GL. I am using MinGW and compile with this line:

g++ -o hellot.exe main.cpp glfw3dll.a libglew32.dll.a -I include -L./ -lglew32 -lglfw3 -lopengl32

I put the GLFW and GLEW library files in my local folder, and told it to look there for the dynamic libraries with -L ./. It should find the opengl32 library on the system path. On Linux you'll most likely install via repositories, and you won't need the -I or -L path bits. You also won't need the glfw3dll.a and libglew32.dll.a files. The OpenGL library will be called libGL. On Linux I have this command:

g++ -o hellot main.cpp -lglfw -lGL -lGLEW

Of course, you can compile this as pure C with gcc or another C compiler as well. I tend to sneak in a few C++ short-cuts as a personal preference; I tend to use what they call "C++--".

If you're having trouble linking the libraries, then I suggest building the samples that come with the libraries first, and having a read through their install instructions for your operating system. Do you have the correct version of the library for your compiler? Are you building a debug or release version - if so are the libraries in the corresponding place in the IDE menu? Are you building a 32-bit or 64-bit programme - if so does the library match? If it still isn't working, try building your own copy of the libraries from source code - I had to do this for both GLFW3 and GLEW.

If I run hellot.exe in the command line I get this:

This tells me that my Windows driver can run up to OpenGL version 4.3. On Mac it might say version 3.2 or 3.3. That's okay, we can make a few small changes and it will run almost all of the stuff from version 4. I'll point these out.

Define a Triangle in a Vertex Buffer

Okay, let's define a triangle from 3 points. Later, we can look at doing transformations and perspective, but for now let's draw it flat onto the final screen area; x between -1 and 1, y between -1 and 1, and z = 0.

It always helps to draw your problem on paper first. Here I want to define a triangle, with the points given in clock-wise order, that fits into the screen area of -1:1 on x and y axes.

We will pack all of these points into a big array of floating-point numbers; 9 in total. We will start with the top point, and proceed clock-wise in order: xyzxyzxyz. The order should always be in the same winding direction, so that we can later determine which side is the front, and which side is the back. We can start writing this under the "/* OTHER STUFF GOES HERE NEXT */" comment, from above.

float points[] = {
   0.0f,  0.5f,  0.0f,
   0.5f, -0.5f,  0.0f,
  -0.5f, -0.5f,  0.0f

We will copy this chunk of memory onto the graphics card in a unit called a vertex buffer object (VBO). To do this we "generate" an empty buffer, set it as the current buffer in OpenGL's state machine by "binding", then copy the points into the currently bound buffer:

GLuint vbo = 0;
glGenBuffers (1, &vbo);
glBindBuffer (GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, vbo);
glBufferData (GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, 9 * sizeof (float), points, GL_STATIC_DRAW);

The last line tells GL that the buffer is the size of 9 floating point numbers, and gives it the address of the first value.

Now an unusual step. Most meshes will use a collection of one or more vertex buffer objects to hold vertex points, texture-coordinates, vertex normals, etc. In older GL implementations we would have to bind each one, and define their memory layout, every time that we draw the mesh. To simplify that, we have new thing called the vertex attribute object (VAO), which remembers all of the vertex buffers that you want to use, and the memory layout of each one. We set up the vertex array object once per mesh. When we want to draw, all we do then is bind the VAO and draw.

GLuint vao = 0;
glGenVertexArrays (1, &vao);
glBindVertexArray (vao);
glEnableVertexAttribArray (0);
glBindBuffer (GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, vbo);
glVertexAttribPointer (0, 3, GL_FLOAT, GL_FALSE, 0, NULL);

Here we tell GL to generate a new VAO for us. It sets an unsigned integer to identify it with later. We bind it, to bring it in to focus in the state machine. This lets us enable the first attribute; 0. We are only using a single vertex buffer, so we know that it will be attribute location 0. The glVertexAttribPointer function defines the layout of our first vertex buffer; "0" means define the layout for attribute number 0. "3" means that the variables are vec3 made from every 3 floats (GL_FLOAT) in the buffer.

You might try compiling at this point to make sure that there were no mistakes.


We need to use a shader programme, written in OpenGL Shader Language (GLSL), to define how to draw our shape from the vertex attribute object. You will see that the attribute pointer from the VAO will match up to our input variables in the shader.

This shader programme is made from the minimum 2 parts; a vertex shader, which describes where the 3d points should end up on the display, and a fragment shader which colours the surfaces. Both are be written in plain text, and look a lot like C programmes. Loading these from plain-text files would be nicer; I just wanted to save a bit of web real-estate by hard-coding them here.

const char* vertex_shader =
"#version 400\n"
"in vec3 vp;"
"void main () {"
"  gl_Position = vec4 (vp, 1.0);"

The first line says which version of the shading language to use; in this case 4.0.0. If you're limited to OpenGL 3, change the first line from "400" to "150"; the version of the shading language compatible with OpenGL 3.2, or "330", for OpenGL 3.3. My vertex shader has 1 input variable; a vec3 (vector made from 3 floats), which matches up to our VAO's attribute pointer. This means that each vertex shader gets 3 of the 9 floats from our buffer - therefore 3 vertex shaders will run concurrently; each one positioning 1 of the vertices. The output has a reserved name gl_Position and expects a 4d float. You can see that I haven't modified this at all, just added a 1 to the 4th component. The 1 at the end just means "don't calculate any perspective".

const char* fragment_shader =
"#version 400\n"
"out vec4 frag_colour;"
"void main () {"
"  frag_colour = vec4 (0.5, 0.0, 0.5, 1.0);"

Again, you may need to change the first line of the fragment shader if you are on OpenGL 3.2 or 3.3. My fragment shader will run once per pixel-sized fragment that the surface of the shape covers. We still haven't told GL that it will be a triangle (it could be 2 lines). You can guess that for a triangle, we will have lots more fragment shaders running than vertex shaders for this shape. The fragment shader has one job - setting the colour of each fragment. It therefore has 1 output - a 4d vector representing a colour made from red, blue, green, and alpha components - each component has a value between 0 and 1. We aren't using the alpha component. Can you guess what colour this is?

Before using the shaders we have to load the strings into a GL shader, and compile them.

GLuint vs = glCreateShader (GL_VERTEX_SHADER);
glShaderSource (vs, 1, &vertex_shader, NULL);
glCompileShader (vs);
GLuint fs = glCreateShader (GL_FRAGMENT_SHADER);
glShaderSource (fs, 1, &fragment_shader, NULL);
glCompileShader (fs);

Now, these compiled shaders must be combined into a single, executable GPU shader programme. We create an empty "program", attach the shaders, then link them together.

GLuint shader_programme = glCreateProgram ();
glAttachShader (shader_programme, fs);
glAttachShader (shader_programme, vs);
glLinkProgram (shader_programme);


We draw in a loop. Each iteration draws the screen once; a "frame" of rendering. The loop finishes if the window is closed. Later we can also ask GLFW is the escape key has been pressed.

while (!glfwWindowShouldClose (window)) {
  // wipe the drawing surface clear
  glUseProgram (shader_programme);
  glBindVertexArray (vao);
  // draw points 0-3 from the currently bound VAO with current in-use shader
  glDrawArrays (GL_TRIANGLES, 0, 3);
  // update other events like input handling 
  glfwPollEvents ();
  // put the stuff we've been drawing onto the display
  glfwSwapBuffers (window);

First we clear the drawing surface, then set the shader programme that should be "in use" for all further drawing. We set our VAO (not the VBO) as the input variables that should be used for all further drawing (in our case just some vertex points). Then we can draw, and we want to draw in triangles mode (1 triangle for every 3 points), and draw from point number 0, for 3 points. GLFW3 requires that we manually call glfwPollEvents() to update non-graphical events like key-presses. Finally, we flip the swap surface onto the screen, and the screen onto the next drawing surface (we have 2 drawing buffers). Done!


Common Mistakes

Firstly, if you get a crash executing glGenVertexArrays(), try adding the glewExperimental = GL_TRUE; line before initialising GLEW. If you're on an Apple machine, try uncommenting the code where we "hint" the version to use.

GLSL Mistakes

In OpenGL, your mistakes are mostly from mis-using the interface (it's not the most intuitive API ever... to put it kindly). These mistakes often happen in the shaders. In the next article we will look at printing out any mistakes that are found when the shaders compile, and print any problems with matching the vertex shader to the fragment shader found during the linking process. This is going to catch almost all of your errors, so this should be your first port-of-call when diagnosing a problem.

GL Function Parameter Mistakes

You can also easily make small mistakes in the C interface. GL uses a lot of [unsigned] integers (aka "GLuint") to identify handles to variables i.e. the vertex buffer, the vertex array, the shaders, the shader programme, and so on. GL also uses a lot of enumerated types like GL_TRIANGLES which also resolve to integers. This means that if you mix these up (by putting function parameters in the wrong order, for example), GL will think that you have given it valid inputs, and won't complain. In other words, the GL interface is very poor at using strong typing for picking up errors. These mistakes often result in a black screen, or "no effect", and can be very frustrating. The only way to find them is often to pick through, and check every GL function against its prototype to make sure that you have given it the correct parameters. My most common error of this type is mixing up location numbers with other indices (happens often when setting up textures, for example) - which can be very hard to spot.

GL State Machine Mistakes

Another, very tricky to spot, source of error is knowing which states to set in the state machine before calling certain functions. I will try to point all of these out as they appear. An example from our code, above, is the glDrawArrays function. It will use the most recently bound vertex array, and the most recently used shader programme to draw. If we want to draw a different set of buffers, then we need to bind that before drawing again. If no valid buffer or shader has been set in the state machine then it will crash.

Next Steps

We will look at initialisation in more detail - particularly logging helpful debugging information. We will discuss the functionality of shaders and the hardware architecture. We will create more complex objects with more than 1 vertex buffer, and look at loading geometry from a file.