A common need in microcontroller projects is to redraw all or part of a screen, such as when showing live readings from a sensor. The least-code approach to this usually is to erase all or part of the screen (using fillScreen() or fillRect()) and re-draw everything in the affected area. This does the job, but the off-and-on appearance can be distracting, especially if these redraws occur frequently and it becomes a steady flicker.

This isn’t true of all GFX-compatible devices. Some displays (most LED matrices and some monochrome OLED screens) don’t refresh until there’s specifically a show(), display() or update() call in one’s code (depending on the library), so this flicker is minimized or doesn’t occur. Mostly it’s an issue with color LCD or OLED screens, where graphics are rendered with every function call.

There are a couple of approaches one can use to minimize this effect. The first (and usually easiest) is suited to the standard fixed-size GFX font and is best for Arduino Uno and other memory-constrained microcontrollers. The other applies to custom fonts and any other graphics primitives, and is best for modern 32-bit microcontrollers with ample RAM (thought may still work on Uno for very small updates).

Overwriting Text with the Built-In Font

This first method relies on the fact that the standard built-in font has uniformly-sized characters; it’s sometimes referred to as the “5 by 7” pixel font (though really 6x8 pixels to allow at least 1 pixel between adjacent characters, and for descenders on some lowercase characters like “g” or “p”). Then…

The setTextColor() function, which normally accepts a single argument (a color to use for subsequent text printing), can optionally accept a second argument—a “background color” that applies to every pixel in the 6x8 box that’s not part of the character shape. Normally each character box is transparent and only “foreground” pixels are set.

display.setTextColor(foreground, background);

Here’s how that might be used in an Arduino sketch. Understand that this is not a complete program because every type of display has a distinct setup procedure. Complete examples for PyPortal are given at the bottom of this page, providing a starting point that can be adapted to other screen types. Look at the “graphicstest” example that accompanies most GFX-compatible libraries for insights.

// This is an incomplete Arduino example to minimally show
// the text overwrite approach. A real program would #include
// a display library header and declare a global 'display'.

void setup() {
  // Likewise, display initialization would take place here.

  // On color LCDs, this is white text on black background:
  display.setTextColor(0xFFFF, 0x0000);
  // On monochrome OLEDs, these might be 1 and 0 instead.
}

void loop() {
  display.setCursor(0, 0); // Position at top-left corner
  display.print("Hello");  // Print a message
  delay(1000);             // Pause 1 second
  display.setCursor(0, 0); // Back to top-left corner
  display.print("World");  // Print another message, same length
  delay(1000);             // Pause 1 second
}

The sketch alternately prints “Hello” and “World” at the top-left corner of the screen; each pass erases the text that came before, there’s no need to explicitly erase that area. (Try removing the second argument to setTextColor() and watch what happens.)

This works because both messages are the same 5-character length (30x7 pixels at the default text size, 60x14 at size 2 and so forth). If the messages are different lengths, it’s necessary to pad a string with extra spaces to overwrite the old text underneath.

One way to do this is by declaring a fixed-size character buffer and then using C’s formatted output via the sprintf() function. Let’s suppose a project will need up to 10 characters for each message. We begin by declaring a char array with 11 elements, because C strings require a trailing NUL (0) byte at the end:

char buf[11]; // 10 characters + NUL

Then we format a string into that buffer using sprintf() (string-print-formatted), some examples of which could include:

sprintf(buf, "%-10s", "Hello"); // Left-justified message
sprintf(buf, "%10s", "World");  // Right-justified message
sprintf(buf, "%10d", 42);       // Right-justified integer

And the buffer can then be passed to the normal print() or println() functions:

display.setCursor(x, y);
display.print(buf);

sprintf() has near infinite variety so we can’t give every possible example here. Since it’s a standard part of the C language, just searching around for “C formatted output” or just “sprintf” will turn up plenty of references. It’s quite potent! Note however that the Arduino implementation is somewhat scaled back to fit on a microcontroller; formatting floating-point values this way is not supported, for example.

The counterpoint to using sprintf() is one of those great power, great responsibility lessons. String and memory handling in C (and thus C++, and thus the whole Arduino ecosystem) is simplistic, and there’s nothing in place…other than your own self-discipline, you hope…to prevent exceeding the length of that char array, writing data willy-nilly into other RAM and leading to unexpected behavior or program crashes.

One approach to overwriting floating-point values is to use the normal Arduino print() function to the display, which accepts an optional argument specifying the number of digits after the decimal point, so the output is always the same size:

float value = 3.14159;
display.print(value, 5); // Will ALWAYS be extended to X.XXXXX, even if 0's

Another approach, if numbers or messages to print may vary in length, is just to follow up with enough spaces to cover up any change in the number of characters. But this relies on there not being any other stuff toward the right edge of the screen and isn’t suited to every situation:

int value = 42;
display.setTextWrap(false); // Allow spaces to go off right edge
display.setCursor(0, 0);
display.print(value);
display.print("      ");    // Cover anything previously in this space

Restoring Normal Text Drawing

To turn this off and draw normal “transparent” text, call setTextColor() with just the foreground color argument:

display.setTextColor(foreground);

Overwriting Text or Graphics Using an Offscreen Canvas

The above method has some advantages in that it requires minimal modification to existing programs—something that prints once is easily adapted to print repeatedly—and that it fits well within modest microcontrollers like the Arduino Uno.

Where it doesn’t work is with custom fonts, or with non-text elements like graphics or indicators. In fact, the optional second argument to setTextColor() (the background color) is simply ignored when using custom fonts. This is on purpose and by design! With proportionally-spaced fonts, strings will occupy different-sized regions, even if they contain the same number of characters…the overwrite technique simply can’t be relied on.

The method explained here uses some extra RAM. Most 32-bit microcontrollers have ample capacity for this, but the classic Uno may struggle in all but the simplest cases.

The GFX library can provide an offscreen canvas. It works just like drawing to a screen…except there’s no screen, just a grid of pixels in memory. The canvas can then be passed to another function (explained later), which does draw it to the screen.

Flicker-free redraw then works like this:

  • Create a canvas object; usually done just once, at program startup
  • Then, each time a screen update is needed:
    • Clear the canvas
    • Print text or draw shapes to the canvas
    • Copy the canvas to the screen

A canvas doesn’t need to match the size of the screen; if you’re just updating a rectangle, it only needs to be that size. That’s important because every pixel takes a little RAM. Also a program can have more than one canvas if needed.

There are different canvas depths for 1, 8 and 16-bit color. We’ll focus on just 1 and 16 here; the 8-bit case is seldom seen.

The 1-bit canvas type—GFXcanvas1—provides two colors; foreground and background, or foreground and transparent, much like working with the built-in font and setTextColor(). For most single-color things like text, this is what you’d use.

A canvas might be declared in the global part of one’s sketch, before the setup() function, like so:

GFXcanvas1 canvas(width, height);

width and height should be the canvas dimensions, in pixels. Each pixel requires 1 bit of RAM…so for instance, 120x30 pixels = 3,600 bits = 450 bytes…plus a couple dozen bytes overhead for the GFXcanvas1 structure itself. A single small canvas like that can usually work in the modest 1.5K of an Arduino Uno, but complex programs, larger or multiple canvases, or color (explained later) require more capable devices.

Canvases use all the same drawing functions as normally provided by the GFX library. So, where one might use display.fillScreen(0) before, one can use canvas.fillScreen(0) instead (though the canvas is not a screen, it’s helpful to keep the names uniform across everything). This applies to all the pixel, shape and text-drawing functions. With a GFXcanvas1 object, drawing colors must be 1 (foreground or “set” pixel) or 0 (background or “clear” pixel).

So the idea here is to just wipe and redraw the entire contents of the canvas each time a redraw is needed. Although GFX provides the getTextBounds() function, it just isn’t necessary to go to such fuss to be “optimal”—canvases are already super quick to work with.

As before, this example is incomplete and just highlights the important ideas here. A full working example for PyPortal (and adaptable to other screens) is given at the bottom of the page.

// This is an incomplete Arduino example to minimally show
// the canvas drawing approach. A real program would #include
// a display library header and declare a global 'display',
// also including and enabling a custom font.

// Then, in ADDITION to all that, there's...
GFXcanvas1 canvas(120, 30); // 1-bit, 120x30 pixels

void setup() {
  // Display init and font select would take place here.
  // See later examples for that.

  // Text might exceed width of canvas, so disable wrapping:
  canvas.setTextWrap(false);
}

void loop() {
  canvas.fillScreen(0);    // Clear canvas (not display)
  canvas.setCursor(0, 24); // Pos. is BASE LINE when using fonts!
  canvas.print(millis());  // Print elapsed time in milliseconds
  // Copy canvas to screen at upper-left corner. As written here,
  // assumes a color LCD, hence the color values of 0xFFFF (white)
  // for foreground, 0x0000 (black) for background. Mono OLED can
  // use 1 and 0. BOTH colors must be specified to overwrite the
  // prior screen contents there.
  display.drawBitmap(0, 0, canvas.getBuffer(),
    canvas.width(), canvas.height(), 0xFFFF, 0x0000);
}

Notice how the fill, cursor and print operations are all performed on the canvas object, but the bitmap-drawing operation is done on the display object. It’s easy to confuse these; if something like a custom font doesn’t seem to be working, confirm you’ve set that for the canvas, not the display!

Because GFX “clips” graphics drawn to the canvas, this can be used for interesting effects like scrolling text within a rectangle in one section of a screen.

If you have multiple numbers or areas of the screen to update, and these are all the same dimensions, a single canvas can be re-used among them; it’s not always necessary to allocate multiple distinct canvases, unless the size varies.

drawBitmap() works with all display types; the same function can be used with a GFXcanvas1 regardless whether the screen is a 16-bit color TFT display or a black-and-white OLED.

A Color Canvas

The 16-bit canvas type—GFXcanvas16—works much like a 16-bit LCD screen. Instead of foreground and background (or transparent) colors, one has the whole 64K gamut of colors to work with. If you’re only planning to draw text, you probably don’t need this, a GFXcanvas1 will suffice, and you can specify any single color when copying to the display.

Like the 1-bit variety, this can be declared in the global part of one’s sketch, before the setup() function:

GFXcanvas16 canvas(width, height);

Unlike the 1-bit variety, GFXcanvas16 uses inordinate RAM; 2 bytes per pixel. That 120x30 pixel example from earlier now requires 7,200 bytesway beyond the reach of the Arduino Uno’s 1.5K RAM, but practical for more modern microcontrollers to handle.

There are some differences when copying a color canvas to the screen. First, one now uses the drawRGBBitmap() function, which accepts mostly the same arguments but omits the foreground and background colors (since the canvas itself is now full color):

display.drawRGBBitmap(0, 0, canvas.getBuffer(), canvas.width(), canvas.height());

Second, drawRGBBitmap() only works on color screens, unlike drawBitmap() which works across all display types. Color reduction is a subjective process and would incur a lot of extra code, so this capability was omitted. Best to pair monochrome screens with GFXcanvas1 instead.

Examples

Here’s the simple “text overwrite” example as written for PyPortal. This could be adapted to other screens by changing the display declaration and initialization; see the “graphicstest” example that accompanies most display libraries.

// Simple (text overwrite) flicker-free example for PyPortal

#include <Adafruit_GFX.h>
#include <Adafruit_ILI9341.h>

#define TFT_D0        34 // Data bit 0 pin (MUST be on PORT byte boundary)
#define TFT_WR        26 // Write-strobe pin (CCL-inverted timer output)
#define TFT_DC        10 // Data/command pin
#define TFT_CS        11 // Chip-select pin
#define TFT_RST       24 // Reset pin
#define TFT_RD         9 // Read-strobe pin
#define TFT_BACKLIGHT 25

// ILI9341 screen with 8-bit parallel interface:
Adafruit_ILI9341 display(tft8bitbus, TFT_D0, TFT_WR, TFT_DC, TFT_CS, TFT_RST, TFT_RD);

void setup() {
  pinMode(TFT_BACKLIGHT, OUTPUT);       // PyPortal requires
  digitalWrite(TFT_BACKLIGHT, HIGH);    // turning on backlight

  display.begin();                      // Initialize and
  display.fillScreen(0x0000);           // clear display

  display.setTextColor(0xFFFF, 0x0000); // White text, black background
  display.setTextSize(2);               // 2X size text
}

void loop(void) {
  display.setCursor(0, 0); // Position at top-left corner
  display.print("Hello");  // Print a message
  delay(1000);             // Pause 1 second
  display.setCursor(0, 0); // Back to top-left corner
  display.print("World");  // Print another message, same length
  delay(1000);             // Pause 1 second
}

And here’s a “1-bit canvas” example as written for PyPortal, using a large and friendly font. Again, this could be adapted to other screens by changing the display declaration and initialization; see the “graphicstest” example that accompanies most display libraries.

// Fancy (offscreen canvas) flicker-free example for PyPortal

#include <Adafruit_GFX.h>
#include <Adafruit_ILI9341.h>
#include <Fonts/FreeSerifBold18pt7b.h>

#define TFT_D0        34 // Data bit 0 pin (MUST be on PORT byte boundary)
#define TFT_WR        26 // Write-strobe pin (CCL-inverted timer output)
#define TFT_DC        10 // Data/command pin
#define TFT_CS        11 // Chip-select pin
#define TFT_RST       24 // Reset pin
#define TFT_RD         9 // Read-strobe pin
#define TFT_BACKLIGHT 25

// ILI9341 screen with 8-bit parallel interface:
Adafruit_ILI9341 display(tft8bitbus, TFT_D0, TFT_WR, TFT_DC, TFT_CS, TFT_RST, TFT_RD);

GFXcanvas1 canvas(120, 30); // 1-bit, 120x30 pixels

void setup() {
  pinMode(TFT_BACKLIGHT, OUTPUT);       // PyPortal requires
  digitalWrite(TFT_BACKLIGHT, HIGH);    // turning on backlight

  display.begin();                      // Initialize and
  display.fillScreen(0x0000);           // clear display

  canvas.setFont(&FreeSerifBold18pt7b); // Use custom font and
  canvas.setTextWrap(false);            // clip text to canvas
}

void loop(void) {
  canvas.fillScreen(0);    // Clear canvas (not display)
  canvas.setCursor(0, 24); // Pos. is BASE LINE when using fonts!
  canvas.print(millis());  // Print elapsed time in milliseconds
  // Copy canvas to screen at upper-left corner. As written here,
  // assumes a color LCD, hence the color values of 0xFFFF (white)
  // for foreground, 0x0000 (black) for background. Mono OLED can
  // use 1 and 0. BOTH colors must be specified to overwrite the
  // prior screen contents there.
  display.drawBitmap(0, 0, canvas.getBuffer(),
    canvas.width(), canvas.height(), 0xFFFF, 0x0000);
}

Once more, using a 16-bit canvas instead. This example doesn’t make good use of color in the canvas—it’s still just white text on a black background—and is mostly just to show how the drawing syntax is a little different.

// Fancy (offscreen color canvas) flicker-free example for PyPortal

#include <Adafruit_GFX.h>
#include <Adafruit_ILI9341.h>
#include <Fonts/FreeSerifBold18pt7b.h>

#define TFT_D0        34 // Data bit 0 pin (MUST be on PORT byte boundary)
#define TFT_WR        26 // Write-strobe pin (CCL-inverted timer output)
#define TFT_DC        10 // Data/command pin
#define TFT_CS        11 // Chip-select pin
#define TFT_RST       24 // Reset pin
#define TFT_RD         9 // Read-strobe pin
#define TFT_BACKLIGHT 25

// ILI9341 screen with 8-bit parallel interface:
Adafruit_ILI9341 display(tft8bitbus, TFT_D0, TFT_WR, TFT_DC, TFT_CS, TFT_RST, TFT_RD);

GFXcanvas16 canvas(120, 30); // 16-bit, 120x30 pixels

void setup() {
  pinMode(TFT_BACKLIGHT, OUTPUT);       // PyPortal requires
  digitalWrite(TFT_BACKLIGHT, HIGH);    // turning on backlight

  display.begin();                      // Initialize and
  display.fillScreen(0x0000);           // clear display

  canvas.setFont(&FreeSerifBold18pt7b); // Use custom font
  canvas.setTextWrap(false);            // Clip text within canvas
}

void loop(void) {
  canvas.fillScreen(0x0000); // Clear canvas (not display)
  canvas.setCursor(0, 24);   // Pos. is BASE LINE when using fonts!
  canvas.print(millis());    // Print elapsed time in milliseconds
  // Copy canvas to screen at upper-left corner.
  display.drawRGBBitmap(0, 0, canvas.getBuffer(), canvas.width(), canvas.height());
}

This guide was first published on Jul 29, 2012. It was last updated on Mar 08, 2024.

This page (Minimizing Redraw Flicker) was last updated on Mar 08, 2024.

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