// Patrick Louis

Xft but for XCB

In this post I’m going to go over “fonts for xcb” a mini-project I’ve been working on recently and I’ll documents the parts that are not usually found online.

XCB, the X C Binding, is a client library that offers a set of C functions to interact with the X graphical server in a lightweight minimal way. You can refer to this older post to understand more about what this library is about. XCB is getting popular in the niche world of small graphical utilities and window manager however it doesn’t offer everything. One thing in particular it doesn’t offer is a facility for pretty font handling.

There are many reasons for this, first not many are interested in XCB in itself, Xlib (The older easier synchronous X client side library) is much easier to handle. Second of all, XCB is hardly documented and thus has a big barrier of entry. Third of all, it’s missing wrapper functions that were present in Xlib. And fourth of all, Wayland is on its way (though long way) to make X deprecated.

That is why I’ve made the font-for-xcb project, to document my process and offer a base for others that are interested in learning about fonts, rendering, and XCB.

Enough talk, let’s got through the process needed to implement good font rendering with xcb.

You probably need to review what was discussed in this posts Fonts on Unix as its a direct application of the knowledge from there.

The people that truly understand the full font stack can be counted on one’s hand, I’d like to salute those true heroes.

The steps can be divided into the following:

  • Fontconfig for font selection and configuration
  • Freetype for font rasterization
  • Xrender for rendering
  • Extra - Font fallback
  • Wrappers for merging things together in an easy library

Fontconfig for font selection and configuration

To begin you have to select a font and how that font is going to be displayed. The best way to do that is to rely on the fontconfig library, which is probably already present on your machine. You know this is the case when you issue the command fc-match "some font name".

The reference for developers is found here however it isn’t explaining but rather simply laying down the function names and data structures within the library.

The crux of the functionality lies within building a “search pattern” and matching using this pattern. A “search pattern” is composed of whatever font properties you are looking for, those are not limited to font names but can be anything from font weight to font family name, to what characters should be present in the font character set. You can find the list of possible font properties here.

The possibilities with fontconfig are not limited to search but everything related to fonts and fonts sets listing, getting the properties in the font matched, manipulating the structures related to fonts like characters in different encoding such as utf8, utf16, and Ucs4, and much more.

The easiest way to do the search is to match the font from a string that will be interpreted automatically by fontconfig as all the parameters that need to be found in the result of the search. If you’ve ever used Xft this is the same search string in a form similar to:

<families>-<point sizes>:<name1>=<values1>:<name2>=<values2>...

This is documented in the user page for fontconfig here. To do that you have to convert the font query from a string to an actual usable pattern.

    // initialize the fontconfig library
    FcChar8 *fontquery = "times:pixelsize=20";
    FcPattern *fc_finding_pattern = FcNameParse(fontquery);

As you can see FcNameParse isn’t documented in the reference. fc_finding_pattern will contain the pattern that we can use to do the matching later on. So the next step is to use that pattern to match a font, however it’s a good idea, sometimes, to let fontconfig fill some default configuration is has for things we haven’t set yet in the search. We do that using FcDefaultSubstitute and passing it the pattern. There’s also a substitution to fill system configuration values set for the kind of pattern, a FcMatchPattern.

    FcBool status;
    status = FcConfigSubstitute(NULL, fc_finding_pattern, FcMatchPattern);
    if (status == FcFalse) {
        fprintf(stderr, "could not perform config font substitution");

So how do we know what it’s actually filling in the pattern? There’s a function offered by fontconfig to do exactly that.


The last step after creating the pattern is the actual matching.

    FcResult result;
    FcPattern *pat_output = FcFontMatch(NULL, fc_finding_pattern, &result);

    if (result == FcResultMatch) {
        FcValue fc_file;
        FcPatternGet(pat_output, FC_FILE, 0, &fc_file);
        printf("found the font in the file: %s\n", (const char *)fc_file.u.s);
    } else if (result == FcResultNoMatch) {
        fprintf(stderr, "there wasn't a match");
    } else {
        fprintf(stderr, "the match wasn't as good as it should be");

The result will also be stored in a pattern structure and whatever is not needed anymore should be cleaned using fontconfig built-in functions such as FcPatternDestroy. You may ask what is the difference if the result is stored in a pattern but the search is also a pattern. What differs is that the real values of the font properties will be filled and usable now. Properties such as file which is “The filename holding the font” for example.

Let’s be aware that some values returned or filled from a fontconfig function may not need to be cleaned as they are pointers to other values found inside living structures and not newly allocated values. For instance, when issuing FcPatternGet for the fc_file in the example above we don’t need to free the variable.

And so we’ve found our font, now how to load and use the glyphs in it?

Freetype for font rasterization

We have a match and its properties, we should now load the font content itself so that we can use the glyphs in it. That is what we call rasterizing, converting from a mathematical definition (here the font file) to actual bitmap/pixel representation. This is done with the Freetype library. To start with Freetype it’s good to read their Glyph Conventions page. It explains things such as the difference between a face and a font family, what are the metrics used in fonts, kerning, and much more.

    // (1)
    FT_Library library;

    // (2)
    FcValue fc_file, fc_index;
    result = FcPatternGet(pat_output, FC_FILE, 0, &fc_file);
    if (result != FcResultMatch) {
        fprintf(stderr, "font has not file location");
    result = FcPatternGet(pat_output, FC_INDEX, 0, &fc_index);
    if (result != FcResultMatch) {
        fprintf(stderr, "font has no index, using 0 by default");
        fc_index.type = FcTypeInteger;
        fc_index.u.i = 0;

    // (3)
    FT_Face face;
            (const char *) fc_file.u.s,

Loading a face happens in 3 steps. (1) The freetype library needs to be loaded if not already. (2) The value for the font file location and the face index within that font file needs to be extracted from the fontconfig pattern match of earlier. (3) Finally the loading of the face happens with FT_New_Face.

Much more options can be set on the face later on after it has been loaded. Glyph modifications such as slants for italic, pixel or point size change, etc..

Let’s say we have some text we want to write, we have loaded a face, and we want to get the glyph for every characters in that text. Every glyph in a face has an index and we use that index to fetch the glyph.

    char *text = "hello world";

    int glyph_index = FT_Get_Char_Index(
    if (glyph_index == 0) {
        fprintf(stderr, "The character 'h' doesn't have a glyph in this face");

    FT_Select_Charmap(face, ft_encoding_unicode);
    FT_Load_Glyph(face, glyph_index, FT_LOAD_RENDER | FT_LOAD_FORCE_AUTOHINT);

    FT_Bitmap *bitmap = &face->glyph->bitmap;

The FT_Load_Glyph function renders/rasterizes the glyph and make the bitmap object of type FT_Bitmap point to it. In fact face->glyph->bitmap will always point to the latest rasterized glyph.

We have the bits/pixels form of the character we want to display on the screen but what if there are many of them, how would we know the space to add between every characters. There are fonts that are horizontal, others that are vertical, some with ligature, and other much fancier features. Unfortunately this isn’t something that is provided by Freetype, those last features are part of what we refer to as a font shaping engine such as HarfBuzz. However, for simple cases like ours, the distance between glyphs can be queried from the “advance”, which is a glyph metric that you get when loading the font via Freetype representing how much you need to move forward in x or y position.

    FT_Vector glyph_advance;
    glyph_advance.x = face->glyph->advance.x/64;
    glyph_advance.y = face->glyph->advance.y/64;

The division by 64 is out of scope of this article, it is related to typographic metrics. You can check this page for more information.

Xrender for rendering

Alright, thus far we haven’t mentioned xcb at all but in this section we will. We have loaded our glyph from its glyph index within the font file into an FT_Bitmap structure, that means we have its representation rasterized, its pixel form, now how do we get this unto the screen.

To do that we have to yet again tackle another topic called “digital image composition” which is the base for rendering within the X window system. The documenttion on this one is also scarce, all theoretical. Those two pages are the base of the concept: “The X Rendering Extension” and “Design and Implementation of the X Rendering Extension”. Rendering was also discussed in one of the previous posts called Drawables, Regions, Shapes, Types of WM, Reparenting, Compositing, Redirecting, Unredirecting, Rendering. It’s a good idea to review that last post to get a better general knowledge of rendering.

Digital image composition, or what we call here “rendering” is about taking the pixels we’ve got from somewhere (glyph) and mix them up with other pixels from somewhere else (on a pixmap). There are many rendering engines as was said in the previous post so we’ll limit ourselves to discussing the XRender engine.

All rendering engine, Xrender included, offer basic pixel operations that come from a paper by Porter and Duff in 1984 called the “Porter-Duff compositing model”, also known as alpha compositing. The cool and maybe intimidating name asides those operations are quite simple, they are bitwise operation done on the two pixels given as input. Things such as binary Xor and Add are certainly there, plus operations such as Src or Dst which will only take one side of the inputs (the source or the destination). There are plenty of others like reversing the pixels, or merging them, or taking the minimum or the maximum values.

To use that rendering concept within XCB you can rely on the XRender library or use an external one like OpenGL. Let’s limit ourselves to XRender.

	#include <xcb/render.h>
	#include <xcb/xcb_renderutil.h>

The world of xcb introduces the concept of “picture” to join together the rendering operation with the canvas/pixmap it’s drawing to.

	xcb_render_picture_t picture;
	// c being the xcb_connection_t
	picture = xcb_generate_id(c);

Like other things within the X windowing system, pictures are objects with unique identifiers.

	// (1)
	uint32_t values[2];

	// (2)
	xcb_render_pictforminfo_t *fmt;
	const xcb_render_query_pict_formats_reply_t *fmt_rep =

	fmt = xcb_render_util_find_standard_format(

	// (3)
	cookie = xcb_render_create_picture_checked(c,
		picture, // pid
		pmap, // drawable
		fmt->id, // format
		values); // make it smooth

To create a picture, attaching both rendering/composition to a drawable such as a pixmap, you need at least two things: A mode of rendering (how precise does the merging happens) and a picture format (the depth and pixel format of the picture).

The picture could be used to do any composition operations and the result will appear on the drawable. Specifically in our case to draw glyphs xcb provides a helper data structure to hold a set of glyphs and draw text that has characters within that glyph set, this is called the xcb_render_glyphset_t.

	const xcb_render_query_pict_formats_reply_t *fmt_rep =

	xcb_render_pictforminfo_t *fmt_a8 = xcb_render_util_find_standard_format(

	xcb_render_glyphset_t gs = xcb_generate_id(c);
	xcb_render_create_glyph_set(c, gs, fmt_a8->id);

As with the picture the glyphset being a composition object needs to have a format. To add a glyph of the FT_Bitmap type to the glyphset we have to fill an xcb_render_glyphinfo_t, which is a translation between the glyph type inside FreeType and the ones within XCB.

	// the glyphinfo we want to convert from FreeType to XCB
	xcb_render_glyphinfo_t ginfo;

	// the basic information
	ginfo.x = -face->glyph->bitmap_left;
	ginfo.y = face->glyph->bitmap_top;
	ginfo.width = bitmap->width;
	ginfo.height = bitmap->rows;
	ginfo.x_off = glyph_advance.x;
	ginfo.y_off = glyph_advance.y;

	// the charcode that will be associated with that glyph in the set
	gid = charcode;

	// copying the pixels from the FreeType glyph
	int stride = (ginfo.width+3)&~3;
	uint8_t *tmpbitmap = calloc(sizeof(uint8_t),stride*ginfo.height);
	int y;
	for (y = 0; y < ginfo.height; y++)
		memcpy(tmpbitmap+y*stride, bitmap->buffer+y*ginfo.width, ginfo.width);

	// finally adding it to the xcb_render_glyphset_t gs
		gs, 1, &gid, &ginfo, stride*ginfo.height, tmpbitmap);

Until now we’ve discovered these things in this section:

  • What composition operations are
  • What a “picture” structure is and how it links drawables to the operations
  • How a glyphset structure can be used to store glyphs converted from Freetype format to something xcb understands in its composition library

The next step is to take those glyphs and use them to draw some text. To do that we are also going to require the aid of some helper functions.

	// we now have a text stream - a bunch of glyphs basically
	xcb_render_util_composite_text_stream_t *ts =
				gs, // the glyphset
				text.length, 0);

	// prepare the text at a certain positions in the stream
	xcb_render_util_glyphs_32(ts, x, y, text.length, text.str);

	// finally render using the repeated pen color on the picture
	// (which is related to the pixmap)
		c, // connection
		fg_pen, // src
		picture, // dst
		0, // fmt
		0, // src x
		0, // src y
		ts); // txt stream

That helper function is the xcb_render_util_composite_text which executes a composition operation OVER (draws over without any merging) from a picture containing some simple color (fg_pen is a 1x1 pixel colored pictured) to the final picture destination we want (the one that has the drawable on it). This function requires a text stream object, which can be created from the glyphset we’ve built beforehand and from some text we want to write.

(NB: As stated here this only supports drawing ~252 glyphs at a time)

This is what happens in the xcb_render_util_glyphs_32 call, the glyphset that was already loaded in the text stream is asked to load the characters from a string (text.str in this case). The _32 prepending the function indicates that this text is in Ucs4 format, there are also _16 postfix for UTF-16 and _8 for UTF-8 format. The text conversion functions can found in the fontconfig library, as mentioned before, so we don’t have to worry about those. (String utilities)

And that’s it, at this point we’ll have our characters drawn on the drawable using whatever font we wanted!

…Also don’t forget to clean up afterwards.

	xcb_render_free_picture(c, picture);
	xcb_render_free_picture(c, fg_pen);

Extra - Font fallback

There’s the edge case of font fallback we haven’t mentioned. What if you load a font with FreeType and when the time comes to get the glyph index of that character you can’t find it (glyph_index == 0). That character won’t be drawn on the screen or it’ll be drawn with the default box that shows non-support.

The way to handle that is to let the user of the function pass a list of search patterns and switch to the next font in the list when fontconfig says that the font doesn’t have the character needed to be drawn.

Wrappers for merging things together in an easy library

All that’s left is to wrap everything nicely in an easy to use wrapper tying everything together.


The process can be summarized by this list:

  • Fontconfig
    • Build a search query for fontconfig
    • Let fontconfig substitute within that pattern to fill the default query parameters
    • Match the font using fontconfig
  • Freetype
    • Load the face
    • Fetch the glyph_index for the character needed
    • Get the bitmap related
    • Get the advance in x and y position
  • Rendering
    • Create a picture linking composition to drawable
    • Create a glyphset to contain the glyph information
    • Convert the glyph information from the bitmap Freetype format to XCB format
    • Create a text stream using the glyphset to facilitate drawing
    • Tell the text stream to draw some specific text
    • Composite the stream on the picture

Again the implementation can be found at the font-for-xcb project, it’s not perfect but it can be used as an example for later work and reference.

Let’s hope this is going to help understand how the fonts are drawn on the X window system and Unix. Cheers!

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