Shapes are at the heart of 2D graphics. All user interfaces are built on a foundation of rectangles, a simple but important shape. Text rendering is composed of glyphs, each of which is a shape on its own. And of course filled and stroked shapes are important in vector illustration applications as well as charts and other data visualization.

At its most general and abstract, a shape is a function from a point on the plane to a Boolean indicating whether the point is in the interior of the shape, so mathematically can be represented as \(\boldsymbol{R}^2 \rightarrow \{0, 1\}\).

As a particularly simple example, the circle centered at \((x_0, y_0)\) with radius \(r\) can be represented with the following predicate:

\[(x - x_0)^2 + (y - y_0)^2 \leq r^2\]

It’s even simpler when using vector notation rather than writing out individual coordinates:

\[|\boldsymbol{x} - \boldsymbol{x}_0|^2 \leq r^2\]

Most commonly, though, in 2D graphics, shapes are represented as paths. A point is on the interior of a filled path when its winding number is either nonzero or odd, depending on the fill rule. A path can also be stroked, basically the result of drawing a pen with a given radius along the path, though there are subtleties.


A path is represented as a sequence of path segments. Each path segment is most commonly represented as a parametric curve \((x(t), y(t))\) or \(\boldsymbol{x}(t)\), with the parameter \(t\) conventionally ranging from \([0..1]\).

The simplest curve segment is a line, which is represented a pair of points \((\boldsymbol{x}_0,\boldsymbol{x_1})\). Then the formula is:

\[\boldsymbol{x}(t) = (1 - t)\boldsymbol{x}_0 + t\boldsymbol{x}_1\]

Paths consisting entirely of line segments are common, and are called polylines. For curves, there are choices of curve representations. The most common are definitely Bézier curves, though many systems also admit other primitives such as circular or elliptical arcs.

A quadratic Bézier is represented as three points, and its parametric formula is:

\[\boldsymbol{x}(t) = (1 - t)^2\boldsymbol{x}_0 + 2(1-t)t\boldsymbol{x}_1 + t^2\boldsymbol{x}_2\]

Similarly, a cubic Bézier is defined as:

\[\boldsymbol{x}(t) = (1 - t)^3\boldsymbol{x}_0 + 3(1-t)^2t\boldsymbol{x}_1 + 3(1-t)t^2\boldsymbol{x}_2 + t^3\boldsymbol{x}_3\]

The general equation for an order $n$ Bézier is:

\[\boldsymbol{x}(t) = \sum_{i=0}^n \binom{n}{i} (1 - t)^{n - i} t^i \boldsymbol{x}_i\]

However, orders greater than 3 are rarely used. Note that \(\boldsymbol{x}(0) = \boldsymbol{x}_0\) and \(\boldsymbol{x}(1) = \boldsymbol{x}_n\). The points \(\boldsymbol{x}_i\) where \(1 \leq i < n\) are called control points or sometimes off-curve points. The endpoints are, of course, on-curve points.

Bézier curves have many advantages for 2D graphics. One special strength is that they are closed under affine transformation - the affine transform of a Bézier curve is the affine transformation of each of its points.

Winding number

How do we determine whether a point is on the inside or outside of a closed path? The systematic way is in terms of the winding number of the curve with respect to the point.

For winding number to be meaningful, the path must be a sequence of closed subpaths. For a subpath to be closed, the end point of each segment must coincide with the start point of the next (in cyclic order, so the “next” segment after the last in a subpath is the fist in the subpath).

Thus, the subpath taken as a whole is $G0$ continuous. It can be rewritten in polar coordinates, \(r(t), \theta(t)\), where \(0 \leq t \leq n\). Here is is convenient to take \(n\), the number of segments in the subpath, as the upper bound for \(t\), so the \(t\) parameter for any segment is simply the fractional part.

Then, the winding number is:

\[\frac{\theta(n) - \theta(0)}{2\pi}\]

In a y-up coordinate system, anticlockwise rotation is considered a positive winding number, with clockwise negative. Since y-down is more common in graphics, we’ll use the opposite convention, so clockwise is positive, and this will let use use the same math.

Winding numbers are closely related to contour integrals, and a more direct definition is as follows:

\[\frac{1}{2\pi} \oint_C \,\frac{(\boldsymbol{x}(t) - \boldsymbol{x}_0) \times \boldsymbol{x}'(t)}{|\boldsymbol{x}(t) - \boldsymbol{x}_0|^2}\,dt\]

Ray casting

While the contour integral formulation is a fine mathematical definition, it is not particularly easy or efficient to calculate directly. For that, ray casting is a better technique.

The essence of the technique is to cast a ray from \((-\infty, y)\) to \((x, y)\) and count all crossings with the path. In a y-down coordinate system, any crossing with the path going upward, in other words \(dy/dt < 0\) counts as +1, and downward counts as -1.

This technique is more efficient, but requires some care with edge conditions. Here is the more detailed algorithm for line segments.

The total winding number is simply the sum of the contribution from each segment.

The first step is to reject the segment based on \(y\). More precisely, the segment is rejected if \(y < \min(y_0, y_1)\) or \(y \geq \max(y_0, y_1)\), in which case its winding number contribution is 0. Note that the edge cases are carefully constructed so that a ray through a closed path always has an even number of crossings. In addition, horizontal line segments are rejected.

Then the line segment is solved for \(x\) given \(y\). There is a winding number contribution if \(x\) is to the right of the line:

\[x > x_0 + (y - y_0)\frac{x_1 - x_0}{y_1 - y_0}\]

In that case, the winding number contribution is \(\text{signum}(y_0 - y_1)\).

The technique generalizes to curves. The curve segment is split into y-monotonic subsegments, then for each subsegment the same technique is used, solving the curve for \(x\) given \(y\).


While filling requires closed paths, stroking works for open paths as well.

The mathematically simplest form of stroking can be expressed as the Minkowski sum of a disc with the set of points on the path. Expanding that out, the predicate can be written:

\[\exists\, i, t: |\text{path}[i](t) - \boldsymbol{x}| < r\]

This style of stroking is certainly simplest from the mathematical perspective, but is not generally the default or the most common.

Stroking can be computed analytically as a path to path transformation


Another optional variation on style is dashing.

Note that determining the parameter \(t\) for the start and end of each dash is an inverse arc length problem.