Generating Beautiful 3D Outlines

Recently I needed to draw an outline for the selected object in an architectural renderer I was working on. It turns out that outlining a 3D object is not as easy as it seems like it ought to be. In fact, the most common suggestion on places like StackOverflow really does not look very good. In this article I summarize the main techniques, eventually settling on post-processing for the best results.

Offset and Scale

Example requires WebGL

The most commonly suggested method for outlines is to scale the object slightly and offset it away from the camera. This works fine for a quick and dirty method, but it is not suitable for production work:

However, the procedure is very simple:

Draw scene
Set modelview matrix to scale selected object and offset away from camera (along camera.forward)
Draw selected object with lighting and depth writing disabled
Reset modelview matrix to normal
Draw selected object (with selection color, if desired)

Stencil and Wireframe

The oldest outlining technique is to draw the selected object to the stencil buffer, then draw the object using thick wireframe lines and set the stencil test to only pass when the stencil value is 0. Since pixels belonging to the object will be 1, the only pixels that will be drawn will be outside the object. These will correspond to the edges of the wireframe, since those lines will be half on the interior and half on the exterior. This method was a reasonable approach in the OpenGL 1.1 days, has several drawbacks that make it unsuitable for many modern applications:

A simple explanation (with code) is at and a more thorough explanation is here.


Example requires WebGL

Post-processing is much more robust. The general method is:

Draw scene
Draw selected object into a mask texture (preferably the same size as the frame buffer) with lighting disabled and color white
Disable depth buffer writes
Draw a quad covering the entire draw area that applies some image processing function to the mask image (edge detection or gaussian blur are common).
Enable depth buffer writes
Draw the selected object (if needed/desired)

This allows for interesting effects; a game might have a fire effect when a unit is selected, for example. It also allows for much greater precision in the outline, such as consistent outline widths.

Disabling depth writes when drawing the outline has the side effect that the outline will be visible even if the object is hidden behind another object. Generally this is desirable, as you usually want to know where your selection is even if it is not visible. Should this be undesirable, you can add a depth buffer to the mask texture being rendered to, then in the post-processing step, leave depth buffering enabled and have the fragment shader write the depth value from the texture as the fragment’s depth. (This requires that your OpenGL implemention supports writing the depth value.)

The post-processing step can be any image processing you desire. However, I have found that there are two qualities that help make a good outline:

I ended up using shaders similar to the following:

Vertex shader:

uniform vec2 pixelSize;
attribute vec2 pos;
varying vec2 texCoord;
void main()
    texCoord = pos;
    // pos ranges from [(0, 0), (1, 1)], so we need to convert to OpenGL’s
    // native coordinates of [(-1, -1], (1, 1)].
    gl_Position = vec4(2.0 * pos.x - 1.0, 2.0 * pos.y - 1.0, 0.0, 1.0);
Fragment shader:

precision highp float;
uniform sampler2D texture;
uniform vec2 pixelSize;
uniform vec4 color;
varying vec2 texCoord;
void main()
    const int WIDTH = 5;
    bool isInside = false;
    int count = 0;
    float coverage = 0.0;
    float dist = 1e6;
    for (int y = -WIDTH;  y <= WIDTH;  ++y) {
        for (int x = -WIDTH;  x <= WIDTH;  ++x) {
            vec2 dUV = vec2(float(x) * pixelSize.x, float(y) * pixelSize.y);
            float mask = texture2D(texture, texCoord + dUV).r;
            coverage += mask;
            if (mask >= 0.5) {
                dist = min(dist, sqrt(float(x * x + y * y)));
            if (x == 0 && y == 0) {
                isInside = (mask > 0.5);
            count += 1;
    coverage /= float(count);
    float a;
    if (isInside) {
        a = min(1.0, (1.0 - coverage) / 0.75);
    } else {
        const float solid = 0.3 * float(WIDTH);
        const float fuzzy = float(WIDTH) - solid;
        a = 1.0 - min(1.0, max(0.0, dist - solid) / fuzzy);
    gl_FragColor = color;
    gl_FragColor.a = a;

The code for the illustrations may be useful. Please see the functions run_offsetOutline for the offset-and-scale technique and run_blurOutline for the post-processing technique.