SkSL & Runtime Effects


SkSL is Skia’s shading language. SkRuntimeEffect is a Skia C++ object that can be used to create SkShader, SkColorFilter, and SkBlender objects with behavior controlled by SkSL code.

You can experiment with SkSL at The syntax is very similar to GLSL. When using SkSL effects in your Skia application, there are important differences (from GLSL) to remember. Most of these differences are because of one basic fact: With GPU shading languages, you are programming a stage of the GPU pipeline. With SkSL, you are programming a stage of the Skia pipeline.

In particular, a GLSL fragment shader controls the entire behavior of the GPU between the rasterizer and the blending hardware. That shader does all of the work to compute a color, and the color it generates is exactly what is fed to the fixed-function blending stage of the pipeline.

SkSL effects exist as part of the larger Skia pipeline. When you issue a canvas drawing operation, Skia (generally) assembles a single GPU fragment shader to do all of the required work. This shader typically includes several pieces. For example, it might include:

  • Evaluating whether a pixel falls inside or outside of the shape being drawn (or on the border, where it might apply antialiasing).
  • Evaluating whether a pixel falls inside or outside of the clipping region (again, with possible antialiasing logic for border pixels).
  • Logic for the SkShader on the SkPaint. The SkShader can actually be a tree of objects (due to SkShaders::Blend and other features described below).
  • Similar logic for the SkColorFilter (which can also be a tree, due to SkColorFilters::Compose, SkColorFilters::Blend, and features described below).
  • Blending code (for certain SkBlendModes, or for custom blending specified with SkPaint::setBlender).
  • Color space conversion code, as part of Skia’s color management.

Even if the SkPaint has a complex tree of objects in the SkShader, SkColorFilter, or SkBlender fields, there is still only a single GPU fragment shader. Each node in that tree creates a single function. The clipping code and geometry code each create a function. The blending code might create a function. The overall fragment shader then calls all of these functions (which may call other functions, e.g. in the case of an SkShader tree).

Your SkSL effect contributes a function to the GPU’s fragment shader.

Evaluating (sampling) other SkShaders

In GLSL, a fragment shader can sample a texture. With runtime effects, the object that you bind (in C++) is an SkShader, represented by a shader in SkSL. To make it clear that you are operating on an object that will emit its own shader code, you don’t use sample. Instead, the shader object has a .eval() method. Regardless, Skia has simple methods for creating an SkShader from an SkImage, so it’s easy to use images in your runtime effects:

Because the object you bind and evaluate is an SkShader, you can directly use any Skia shader, without necessarily turning it into an image (texture) first. For example, you can evaluate a linear gradient. In this example, there is no texture created to hold the gradient. Skia generates a single fragment shader that computes the gradient color, samples from the image’s texture, and then multiplies the two together:

Of course, you can even invoke another runtime effect, allowing you to combine shader snippets dynamically:

Coordinate Spaces

To understand how coordinates work in SkSL, you first need to understand how they work in Skia. If you’re comfortable with Skia’s coordinate spaces, then just remember that the coordinates supplied to your main() are local coordinates. They will be relative to the coordinate space of the SkShader. This will match the local space of the canvas and any localMatrix transformations. Additionally, if the shader is invoked by another, that parent shader may modify them arbitrarily.

In addition, the SkShader produced from an SkImage does not use normalized coordinates (like a texture in GLSL). It uses (0, 0) in the upper-left corner, and (w, h) in the bottom-right corner. Normally, this is exactly what you want. If you’re evaluating an SkImageShader with coordinates based on the ones passed to you, the scale is correct. However, if you want to adjust those coordinates (to do some kind of re-mapping of the image), remember that the coordinates are scaled up to the dimensions of the image:

Color Spaces

Applications using Skia are usually color managed. The color space of a surface (destination) determines the working color space for a draw. Source content (like shaders, including SkImageShader) also have color spaces. By default, inputs to your SkSL shader will be transformed to the working color space. Some inputs require special care to get (or inhibit) this behavior, though.

First, let’s see Skia’s color management in action. Here, we’re drawing a portion of the mandrill image twice. The first time, we’ve drawn it normally, respecting the color space stored in the file (this happens to be the sRGB color space. The second time, we’ve assigned the Rec. 2020 color space to the image. This simply tells Skia to treat the image as if the colors stored are actually in that color space. Skia then transforms those values from Rec. 2020 to the destination surface’s color space (sRGB). As a result, all of the colors look more vivid. More importantly, if the image really were in some other color space, or if the destination surface were in some other color space, this automatic conversion is desirable, because it ensures content looks consistently correct on any user’s screen.


Skia and SkSL doesn’t know if your uniform variables contain colors, so it won’t automatically apply color conversion to them. In the below example, there are two uniforms declared: color and not_a_color. The SkSL simply fades in one of the two uniform “colors” horizontally, choosing a different uniform for the top and bottom half of the shader. The code passes the same values to both uniforms, four floating point values {1,0,0,1} that represent “red”.

To really see the effect of automatic uniform conversion, the fiddle draws to an offscreen surface in the Rec. 2020 color space. Rec. 2020 has a very wide gamut, which means that it can represent more vivid colors than the common default sRGB color space. In particular, the purest red in sRGB is fairly dull compared to pure red in Rec. 2020.

To understand what happens in this fiddle, we’ll explain the steps for the two different cases. For the top half, we use not_a_color. Skia and SkSL don’t know that you intend to use this as a color, so the raw floating point values you supply are fed directly to the SkSL shader. In other words - when the SkSL executes, not_a_color will contain {1,0,0,1}, regardless of the surface’s color space. This produces the most vivid red possible in the destination’s color space (which ends up looking like a very bright red in this case).

For the bottom half, we have declared the uniform color with the special syntax layout(color). That tells SkSL that this variable will be used as a color. layout(color) can only be used on uniform values that are vec3 (i.e., RGB) or vec4 (i.e., RGBA). In either case, the colors you supply when providing uniform data should be unpremultiplied sRGB colors. Those colors can include values outside of the range [0,1], if you want to supply wide gamut colors. This is the same way that Skia accepts and stores colors on SkPaint. When the SkSL executes, Skia transforms the uniform value to the working color space. In this case, that means that color (which starts out as sRGB red) is turned into whatever values represent that same color in the Rec. 2020 color space.

The overall effect here is to make the correctly labeled uniform much duller, but that is actually what you want when working with uniform colors. By labeling uniform colors this way, your source colors (that you place in uniforms) will represent the same, consistent color regardless of the color space of the destination surface.

Raw Image Shaders (no cs, no premul)

Although most images contain colors that should be color managed, some images contain data that isn’t actually colors. This includes images storing normals, material properties (e.g., roughness), heightmaps, or any other purely mathematical data that happens to be stored in an image. When using these kinds of images in SkSL, you probably want to use a raw image shader, created with SkImage::makeRawShader. These work like regular image shaders (including filtering and tiling), with a few major differences:

  • No color space transformation is ever applied (the color space of the image is ignored).
  • Images with an alpha type of kUnpremul are not automatically premultiplied.
  • Bicubic filtering is not supported. Requesting bicubic filtering when calling makeRawShader will return nullptr.

Here, we create an image holding a spherical normal map. Then we use that with a lighting shader to show what happens when rendering to a different color space. If we use a regular image shader, the normals will be treated as colors, and transformed to the working color space. This alters the normals, incorrectly. For the final draw, we use a raw image shader, which returns the original normals, ignoring the working color space.

Working In a Known Color Space

Within an SkSL shader, you don’t know what the working color space is. For many effects, this is fine - evaluating image shaders, and doing simple color math is usually going to give reasonable results (particularly if you know that the working color space for an application is always sRGB, for example). For certain effects, though, it may be important to do some math in a fixed, known color space. The most common example is lighting – to get physically accurate lighting, math should be done in a linear color space. To help with this, SkSL provides two intrinsic functions:

vec3 toLinearSrgb(vec3 color);
vec3 fromLinearSrgb(vec3 color);

These convert colors between the working color space and the linear sRGB color space. That space uses the sRGB color primaries (gamut), and a linear transfer function. It represents values outside of the sRGB gamut using extended range values (below 0.0 and above 1.0). This corresponds to Android’s LINEAR_EXTENDED_SRGB or Apple’s extendedLinearSRGB, for example.

Here’s an example showing a sphere, with lighting math being done in the default working space (sRGB), and again with the math done in a linear space:

Premultiplied Alpha

When dealing with transparent colors, there are two (common) possible representations. Skia calls these unpremultiplied (what Wikipedia calls straight), and premultiplied. In the Skia pipeline, every SkShader returns premultiplied colors.

If you’re familiar with OpenGL blending, you can think of it in terms of the blend equation. For common alpha blending (called source-over), you would normally configure your blend function as (GL_SRC_ALPHA, GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA). Skia defines source-over blending as if the blend function were (GL_ONE, GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA).

Skia’s use of premultiplied alpha implies:

  • If you start with an unpremultiplied SkImage (like a PNG), turn that into an SkImageShader, and evaluate that shader… the resulting colors will be [R*A, G*A, B*A, A], not [R, G, B, A].
  • If your SkSL will return transparent colors, it must be sure to multiply the RGB by A.
  • For more complex shaders, you must understand which of your colors are premultiplied vs. unpremultiplied. Many operations don’t make sense if you mix both kinds of color together.

The image below demonstrates this: properly premultiplied colors produce a smooth gradient as alpha decreases. Unpremultipled colors cause the gradient to display incorrectly, becoming too bright and shifting hue as the alpha changes.