CSS3 – Colors, Backgrounds, and Gradients

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Remember the first time you changed the colors of a web page? Instead of
the default black text on a white background with blue links, all of a
sudden you could use any combination of colors you desired—perhaps light
blue text on a black background with lime green hyperlinks. From there,
it was just a short hop to colored text and, eventually, even to
multiple colors for the text in a page. Once you could add background
images, too, just about anything became possible, or so it seemed. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) takes color and backgrounds even further, letting you apply many different colors and backgrounds to a single page or element, and even apply multiple backgrounds to the same element.


When you’re designing a page, you need to plan it out before you start.
That’s generally true in any case, but with colors, it’s even more so.
If you’re going to make all hyperlinks yellow, will that clash with the
background color in any part of your document? If you use too many
colors, will the user be too overwhelmed? (Hint: yes.) If you change the
default hyperlink colors, will users still be able to figure out where
your links are? (For example, if you make both regular text and
hyperlink text the same color, it will be much harder to spot links—in
fact, almost impossible if the links aren’t underlined.)

In CSS, you can set both the foreground and background colors of any
element. In order to understand how this works, it’s important to
understand what’s in the foreground of an element and what isn’t.
Generally speaking, it’s the text of an element, although the foreground
also includes the borders around the element. Thus, there are two ways
to directly affect the foreground color of an element: by using the
color property, and by setting the border colors using one of a number
of border properties.

Foreground Colors

The easiest way to set the foreground color of an element is with the
property color.

This property accepts as a value any valid color type, such as #FFCC00
or rgba(100%,80%,0%,0.5).

For nonreplaced elements like paragraphs or em elements, color sets the color of the text in the
element, as illustrated in Figure 9-1, which is the result of the following code:

<p style="color: gray;">This paragraph has a gray foreground.</p>
<p>This paragraph has the default foreground.</p>

Figure 9-1. Declared color versus default color

In Figure 9-1, the default foreground color is black. That doesn’t have to
be the case, since the user might have set her browser (or other user
agent) to use a different foreground (text) color. If the browser’s
default text color was set to green, the second paragraph in the
preceding example would be green, not black—but the first paragraph
would still be gray.

You need not restrict yourself to such basic operations.
There are plenty of ways to use color. You might have some paragraphs
that contain text warning the user of a potential problem. In order to
make this text stand out more than usual, you might decide to color it
red. Just apply a class of warn to each paragraph that contains
warning text (<p >) and the following rule:

p.warn {color: red;}

In the same document, you might decide that any unvisited hyperlinks
within a warning paragraph should be green:

p.warn {color: red;}
p.warn a:link {color: green;}

Then you change your mind, deciding that warning text should be dark
red, and that unvisited links in such text should be medium purple. The
preceding rules need only be changed to reflect the new values, as
illustrated in Figure 9-2, which is the result of the following code:

p.warn {color: #600;}
p.warn a:link {color: #400040;}

Figure 9-2. Changing colors

Another use for color is to draw attention to certain types of text.
For example, boldfaced text is already fairly obvious, but you could
give it a different color to make it stand out even further—let’s say,

b, strong {color: maroon;}

Then you decide that you want all table cells with a class of
highlight to contain light yellow text:

td.highlight {color: #FF9;}

If you don’t set a background color for any of your text, you
run the risk that a user’s setup won’t combine well with your own. For
example, if a user has set his browser’s background to be a pale yellow,
like #FFC, then the previous rule would generate light yellow text on
a pale yellow background. Far more likely is that it’s still the default
background of white, against which light yellow is still going to be hard to read. It’s therefore generally a good idea to set foreground and
background colors together. (We’ll talk about background colors very

Affecting Borders

The value of color can also affect the borders around an element.
Let’s assume you’ve declared these styles, which have the result shown
in Figure 9-3. This is the result of the following code:

p.aside {color: gray; border-style: solid;}

Figure 9-3. Border colors are taken from the content’s color

The element <p > has gray text and a gray medium-width
solid border. This is because the foreground color is applied to the
borders by default. Should you desire, you can override this with the
property border-color:

p.aside {color: gray; border-style: solid; border-color: black;}

This rule will make the text gray, while the borders will be black in
color. Any value set for border-color will always override the value
of color.

This “borders get the foreground color” behavior is due to the use of a special color keyword, currentColor. The value of currentColor for any element is the computed value of color. So, somewhere inside the user agent’s default styles, there’s a rule that looks something like this:

* {border-color: currentColor;}

Thus, if you don’t assign a border a color, that built-in rule will pick up the value of color from the element and apply it to any visible borders. If you do assign a border a color, then your color will override the built-in currentColor style.

Thanks to this, you can also change the foreground color of
images. Since images are already composed of colors, you can’t really
affect their content using color, but you can change the color of any border
that appears around the image. This can be done using either color or
border-color. Therefore, the following rules will have the same visual
effect on images of class type1 and type2, as shown in Figure 9-4, which is the result of the
following code:

img.type1 {border-style: solid; color: gray;}
img.type2 {border-style: solid; border-color: gray;}

Figure 9-4. Setting the border color for images

Affecting Form Elements

Setting a value for color should (in theory, anyway) apply to form
elements. Declaring select elements to have dark gray text should be
as simple as this:

select {color: rgb(33%,33%,33%);}

This might also set the color of the borders around the edge of the
select element, or it might not. It all depends on the user agent and
its default styles.

You can also set the foreground color of input elements—although, as you
can see in Figure 9-5, doing so would apply that color to all inputs, from
text to radio button to checkbox inputs:

select {color: rgb(33%,33%,33%);}
input {color: red;}

Figure 9-5. Changing form element foregrounds

Note in Figure 9-5 that the text color next to the checkboxes is still
black. This is because the rules shown assign styles only to elements
like input and select, not normal paragraph (or other) text.

Also note that the checkmark in the checkbox is black. This is due to
the way form elements are handled in some web browsers, which typically
use the form widgets built into the base operating system. Thus, when
you see a checkbox and checkmark, they really aren’t content in the
HTML document—they’re user interface widgets that have been inserted into the document,
much as an image would be. In fact, form inputs are, like images,
replaced elements. In theory, CSS does not style the contents of
replaced elements.

In practice, the line is a lot blurrier than that, as Figure 9-5
demonstrates. Some form inputs have the color of their text and even
portions of their UI changed, while others do not. And since the rules
aren’t explicitly defined, behavior is inconsistent across browsers.
In short, form
elements are deeply tricky to style and should be approached with
extreme caution.

Inheriting Color

As the definition of color indicates, the property is inherited. This
makes sense, since if you declare p {color: gray;}, you probably
expect that any text within that paragraph will also be gray, even if
it’s emphasized or boldfaced or whatever. If you want such
elements to be different colors, that’s easy enough, as illustrated in
Figure 9-6, which is the result of the following code:

em {color: red;}
p {color: gray;}

Figure 9-6. Different colors for different elements

Since color is inherited, it’s theoretically possible to set all of the
ordinary text in a document to a color, such as red, by declaring
body {color: red;}. This should make all text that is not otherwise
styled (such as anchors, which have their own color styles) red.


By default, the background area of an element consists of all of the
space behind the foreground out to the outer edge of the borders; thus,
the content box and the padding are all part of an element’s background,
and the borders are drawn on top of the background. (You can change that
to a degree with CSS, as we’ll see shortly.)

CSS lets you apply a solid color to the background of an element, as well as apply one or more images to the background of a single element,
or even describe your own linear and radial gradients.

Background Colors

To declare a color for the background of an element, you use
the property background-color, which accepts any
valid color value.

If you want the color to extend out a little bit from the text in the
element, add some padding to the mix, as illustrated in Figure 9-7, which is the result of the following code:

p {background-color: #AEA;}
p.padded {padding: 1em;}
<p>A paragraph.</p>
<p >A padded paragraph.</p>

Figure 9-7. Backgrounds and padding

You can set a background color for just about any element, from body
all the way down to inline elements such as em and a.
The value of background-color is not inherited. Its default value is the keyword transparent, which makes some sense: if an element doesn’t have a defined color, then its background should be transparent so that the background of its ancestor elements will be visible.

One way to picture what that means is to imagine a clear (i.e.,
transparent) plastic sign mounted to a textured wall. The wall is
still visible through the sign, but this is not the background of the
sign; it’s the background of the wall (in CSS terms, anyway). Similarly,
if you set the page canvas to have a background, it can be seen through
all of the elements in the document that don’t have their own
backgrounds. They don’t inherit the background; it is visible through
them. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, but as you’ll see
when we discuss background images, it’s a critical difference.

Most of the time, you’ll have no reason to use the keyword transparent,
since that’s the default value. On occasion, though, it can be useful.
Imagine that a user has set his browser to make all links have a white
background. When you design your page, you set anchors to have a white
foreground, and you don’t want a background on those anchors. In order
to make sure your design choice prevails, you would declare:

a {color: white; background-color: transparent;}

If you left out the background color, your white foreground would
combine with the user’s white background to yield totally unreadable
links. This is an unlikely example, but it’s still possible.

The potential combination of author and reader styles is the reason why
a CSS validator will generate warnings such as, “You have no
background-color with your color.” It’s trying to remind you that
author-user color interaction can occur, and your rule has not taken
this possibility into account. Warnings do not mean your styles are
invalid: only errors prevent validation.

Special effects

By combining color and background-color, you can create some
interesting effects:

h1 {color: white; background-color: rgb(20%,20%,20%);
    font-family: Arial, sans-serif;}

This example is shown in Figure 9-8.

Figure 9-8. A reverse-text effect for H1 elements

There are as many color combinations as there are colors, and
I can’t show all of them here. Still, I’ll try to give you some idea of
what you can do.

This stylesheet is a little more complicated, as illustrated by Figure 9-9, which is the result of the following code:

body {color: black; background-color: white;}
h1, h2 {color: yellow; background-color: rgb(0,51,0);}
p {color: #555;}
a:link {color: black; background-color: silver;}
a:visited {color: gray; background-color: white;}

Figure 9-9. The results of a more complicated stylesheet

And then there’s the fascinating question of what happens when you apply
a background to a replaced element, such as an image. I’m not even
talking about images with transparent portions, like a GIF87a or a PNG.
Suppose you want to create a two-tone border around a JPEG. You can pull
that off by adding a background color and a little bit of padding to
your image, as illustrated in Figure 9-10, which is the result of the following code:

img.twotone {background-color: red; padding: 5px; border: 5px solid gold;}

Figure 9-10. Using background and border to two-tone an image

Technically, the background goes to the outer border edge, but since the
border is solid and continuous, we can’t see the background behind it.
The one pixel of padding allows a thin ring of background to be seen
between the image and its border, creating the visual effect of an
“inner border.” This technique could be extended to create more
complicated effects with background images like gradients, which we’ll discuss later in the chapter.


Note that there are also much more powerful border options
available in CSS, so background-and-padding tricks may or may not be
useful, depending on what you want to do. See Chapter 8 for details.

Remember that form inputs, nearly all of which are replaced elements,
are treated as special, and often applying padding to them will not have
the same results as applying padding to an image, let alone a
nonreplaced element like a paragraph. Just as with most styling of form
inputs, adding a background color should be rigorously tested and
avoided if possible.

Clipping the Background

In the previous section, we saw how backgrounds fill out the entire
background area of an element. Historically, that extended all the way
to the outer edge of the border so that any border with
transparent parts (like dashed or dotted borders) would have the
background color fill into those transparent parts. Now there’s a
CSS property called background-clip that lets you affect how far out
an element’s background will go.

The default value is the historical value: the background painting
(which is what background-clip defines) extends out to the outer
edge of the border. The background will always be drawn behind the
visible parts of the border, if any.

If you choose the value padding-box, then the background will only
extend to the outer edge of the padding area (which is also the inner
edge of the border). Thus, it won’t be drawn behind the border. The
value content-box, on the other hand, restricts the background to just
the content area of the element.

The effects of these three values is illustrated in Figure 9-11, which is
the result of the following code:

div[id] {color: navy; background: silver;
         padding: 1em; border: 5px dashed;}
#ex01 {background-clip: border-box;}  /* default value */
#ex02 {background-clip: padding-box;}
#ex03 {background-clip: content-box;}

Figure 9-11. The three box-oriented types of background clipping

That might seem pretty simple, but there are some caveats. The first is that
background-clip has no effect on the root element (in HTML, that’s
either the html or body element, depending on how your styles are
written). This has to do with how the background painting of the root
element has to be handled.

The second is that the exact clipping of the background area can be
reduced if the element has rounded corners, thanks to the property
border-radius. This is basically common sense, since if you give your
element significantly rounded corners, you want the background to be
clipped by those corners instead of stick out past them. The way to
think of this is that the background painting area is determined by
background-clip, and then any corners that have to be further clipped
by rounded corners are appropriately clipped.

The third caveat is that the value of background-clip can interact poorly with some of the more interesting values of background-repeat, which we’ll get to later on.

The fourth is that background-clip defines the clipping area of
the background. It doesn’t affect other background properties. When it
comes to flat background colors, that’s a distinction without
meaning; but when it comes to background images, which we’ll talk about in the next section, it can make a great deal of difference.

The last value, text, clips the background to the text of the element. In other words, the text is “filled in” with the background, and the rest of the element’s background area remains transparent. This is a simple way to add textures to text, by “filling in” the text of an element with its background.

The kicker is that in order to see this effect, you have to remove the foreground color of the element. Otherwise, the foreground color obscures the background. Consider the following, which has the result shown in Figure 9-12:

div {color: rgb(255,0,0); background: rgb(0,0,255);
     padding: 0 1em; margin: 1.5em 1em; border: 5px dashed;
     font-weight: bold;}
#ex01 {background-clip: text; color: transparent;}
#ex02 {background-clip: text; color: rgba(255,0,0,0.5);}
#ex03 {background-clip: text;}

Figure 9-12. Clipping the background to the text

For the first example, the foreground color is made completely transparent, and the blue background is only visible where it intersects with the text shapes in the element’s content. It is not visible through the image inside the paragraph, since an image’s foreground can’t be set to transparent.

In the second example shown in Figure 9-12, the foreground color has been set to rgba(255,0,0,0.5), which is a half-opaque red. The text there is rendered purple, because the half-opaque red combines with the blue underneath. The borders, on the other hand, blend their half-opaque red with the white background behind them, yielding a light red.

In the third example, the foreground color is a solid, opaque red. The text and borders are both fully red, with no hint of the blue background. It can’t be seen in this instance, because it’s been clipped to the text. The foreground just completely obscures the background.

This technique works for any background, including gradient and image backgrounds, topics which we’ll cover in a bit. Remember, however: if the background for some reason fails to be drawn behind the text, the transparent text meant to be “filled” with the background will instead be completely unreadable.


As of late 2017, only Firefox supported background-clip: text in that exact form. However, pretty much every browser, including Firefox, supported the variant -webkit-background-clip: text.

Background Images

Having covered the basics of foreground and background colors, we turn
now to the subject of background images. Back in the days of HTML 3.2,
it was possible to associate an image with the background of the
document by using the BODY attribute BACKGROUND:

<BODY BACKGROUND="bg23.gif">

This caused a user agent to load the file bg23.gif and then “tile” it
in the document background, repeating it in both the horizontal and
vertical directions to fill up the entire background of the document.
This effect can be easily recreated in CSS, but CSS can do a great deal
more than simple tiling of background images. We’ll start with the
basics and then work our way up.

Using an image

In order to get an image into the background in the first place, use the
property background-image.

The default value of none means about what you’d expect: no image is
placed in the background. If you want a background image, you must give
this property at least one other value, like this:

body {background-image: url(bg23.gif);}

Due to the default values of other background properties, this will
cause the image bg23.gif to be tiled in the document’s background,
as shown in Figure 9-13. As you’ll discover shortly, this isn’t
the only option.

It’s usually a good idea to specify a background color to go along with
your background image; we’ll come back to that concept a little later
on. (We’ll also talk about how to have more than one image at the same
time, but for now we’re going to stick to just one background image per

You can apply a background image to any element, block-level or inline:

p.starry {background-image: url(https://www.site.web/pix/stars.gif);
        color: white;}
a.grid {background-image: url(smallgrid.gif);}

<p class="starry">It's the end of autumn, which means the stars will be
brighter than ever!  <a href="join.html" >Join us</a> for
a fabulous evening of planets, stars, nebulae, and more...

Figure 9-13. Applying a background image in CSS

As you can see in Figure 9-14, we’ve applied a background to a single
paragraph and no other part of the document. We can customize even
further, such as placing background images on inline elements like
hyperlinks, also depicted in Figure 9-14. If you want to be able
to see the tiling pattern, the image will probably need to be pretty
small. After all, individual letters aren’t that large!

Figure 9-14. Applying background images to block and inline elements

There are a number of ways to employ specific background images. You can
place an image in the background of strong elements in order to make
them stand out more. You can fill in the background of headings with a
wavy pattern or with little dots.

If you combine simple icons with creative attribute selectors, you can
(with use of some properties we’ll get to in just a bit) mark when a
link points to a PDF, Word document, email address, or other unusual
resource, as shown in Figure 9-15, which is the result of the following code:

a[href] {padding-left: 1em; background-repeat: no-repeat;}
a[href$=".pdf"] {background-image: url(/i/pdf-icon.png);}
a[href$=".doc"] {background-image: url(/i/msword-icon.png);}
a[href^="mailto:"] {background-image: url(/i/email-icon.png);}

Figure 9-15. Adding link icons as background images

Just like background-color, background-image is not inherited—in
fact, not a single one of the background properties is inherited.
Remember also that when specifying the URL of a background image, it
falls under the usual restrictions and caveats for url() values: a
relative URL should be interpreted with respect to the stylesheet.

Why backgrounds aren’t inherited

Earlier, I specifically noted that backgrounds are not inherited.
Background images demonstrate why inherited backgrounds would be
a bad thing. Imagine a situation where backgrounds were inherited, and
you applied a background image to the body. That image would be used
for the background of every element in the document, with each element
doing its own tiling, as shown in Figure 9-16.

Figure 9-16. What inherited backgrounds would do to layout

Note how the pattern restarts at the top left of every element,
including the links. This isn’t what most authors would want, and
this is why background properties are not inherited. If you do want this
particular effect for some reason, you can make it happen with a rule
like this:

* {background-image: url(yinyang.png);}

Alternatively, you could use the value inherit like this:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);}
* {background-image: inherit;}

Good background practices

Images are laid on top of whatever background color you specify. If
you’re completely tiling a JPEG or other opaque image type, this fact
doesn’t really make a difference, since a fully tiled image will fill up
the document background, leaving nowhere for the color to “peek
through,” so to speak. However, image formats with an alpha channel,
such as PNG or SVG, can be partially or wholly transparent, which
will cause the image to be “combined” with the background color. In
addition, if the image fails to load for some reason, then the user
agent will use the background color specified in place of the image.
Consider how the “starry paragraph” example would look if the background
image failed to load, as in Figure 9-17.

Figure 9-17. The consequences of a missing background image

Figure 9-17 demonstrates why it’s always a good idea to specify a
background color when using a background image, so that you’ll at least
get a legible result:

p.starry {background-image: url(https://www.site.web/pix/stars.gif);
        background-color: black; color: white;}
a.grid {background-image: url(smallgrid.gif);}

<p class="starry">It's the end of autumn, which means the stars will be
brighter than ever!  <a href="join.html" >Join us</a> for
a fabulous evening of planets, stars, nebulae, and more...

This will fill in a flat-black background if the “starry” image can’t be
rendered for some reason. It will also fill in any transparent areas of
the background images, or any area of the background that the images
don’t cover for some reason. (And there are several reasons they might
not, as we’ll soon see.)

Background Positioning

OK, so we can put images in the background of an element. How about
being able to decide exactly how the image is placed? No problem!
background-position is here to help.

That value syntax looks pretty horrific, but it isn’t; it’s just what
happens when you try to formalize the fast-and-loose implementations of
a new technology into a regular syntax and then layer even more
features on top of that while trying to reuse parts of the old syntax.
(So, OK, kind of horrific.) In practice, background-position is
pretty simple.


Throughout this section, we’ll be using the rule
background-repeat: no-repeat to prevent tiling of the background
image. You’re not crazy: we haven’t talked about background-repeat
yet! We will soon enough, but for now, just accept that the rule
restricts the background to a single image, and don’t worry about it
until we move on to discussing background-repeat.

For example, we can center a background image in the body element,
with the result depicted in Figure 9-18, which is the result of the following code:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;}

Figure 9-18. Centering a single background image

We actually placed a single image in the background and then
prevented it from being repeated with background-repeat (which is
discussed in an upcoming section). Every background that includes an
image starts with a single image. This starting image is called the
origin image.

The placement of the origin image is accomplished with
background-position, and there are several ways to supply values for
this property. First off, there are the keywords top, bottom,
left, right, and center. Usually, these appear in pairs, but (as
the previous example shows) this is not always true. Then there are
length values, such as 50px or 2cm; and finally, percentage values,
such as 43%. Each type of value has a slightly different effect on the
placement of the background image.


The image placement keywords are easiest to understand. They have the
effects you’d expect from their names; for example, top right would
cause the origin image to be placed in the top-right corner of the
element’s background. Let’s go back to the small yin-yang symbol:

p {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: top right;}

This will place a nonrepeated origin image in the top-right corner of
each paragraph’s background. Incidentally, the result, shown in Figure 9-19, would be exactly the same if the position were declared as
right top.

Figure 9-19. Placing the background image in the top-right corner of paragraphs

Position keywords can appear in any order, as long as there are no more
than two of them—one for the horizontal and one for the vertical. If you
use two horizontal (right right) or two vertical (top top) keywords,
the whole value is ignored.

If only one keyword appears, then the other is assumed to be center.
So if you want an image to appear in the top center of every paragraph,
you need only declare:

p {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: top;}

Percentage values

Percentage values are closely related to the keywords, although they
behave in a more sophisticated way. Let’s say that you want to center an
origin image within its element by using percentage values. That’s easy

p {background-image: url(chrome.jpg);
   background-repeat: no-repeat;
   background-position: 50% 50%;}

This causes the origin image to be placed such that its center is
aligned with the center of its element’s background. In other words, the
percentage values apply to both the element and the origin image.

In order to understand what that means, let’s examine the process in closer
detail. When you center an origin image in an element’s background, the
point in the image that can be described as 50% 50% (the center) is
lined up with the point in the background that can be described the same
way. If the image is placed at 0% 0%, its top-left corner is placed in
the top-left corner of the element’s background. 100% 100% causes the
bottom-right corner of the origin image to go into the bottom-right corner of the background. Figure 9-20 contains examples of those values, as well as a few others.

Thus, if you want to place a single origin image a third of the way
across the background and two-thirds of the way down, your declaration
would be:

p {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
   background-repeat: no-repeat;
   background-position: 33% 66%;}

With these rules, the point in the origin image that is one-third across
and two-thirds down from the top-left corner of the image will be
aligned with the point that is farthest from the top-left corner of the
background. Note that the horizontal value always comes first with
percentage values. If you were to switch the percentages in the
preceding example, the image would be placed two-thirds of the way
across the background and one-third of the way down.

Figure 9-20. Various percentage positions

If you supply only one percentage value, the single value supplied is
taken to be the horizontal value, and the vertical is assumed to be
50%. For example:

p {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: 25%;}

The origin image is placed one-quarter of the way across the paragraph’s
background and halfway down it, as depicted in Figure 9-21.

Figure 9-21. Declaring only one percentage value means the vertical position evaluates to 50%

Table 9-1 gives a breakdown of keyword and percentage equivalencies.

Table 9-1. Positional equivalents
Keyword(s) Equivalent keywords Equivalent percentages
center center center 50% 50%
right center right
right center
100% 50%
left center left
left center
0% 50%
top top center
center top
50% 0%
bottom bottom center
center bottom
50% 100%
top left left top 0% 0%
top right right top 100% 0%
bottom right right bottom 100% 100%
bottom left left bottom 0% 100%

In case you were wondering, the default values for background-position
are 0% 0%, which is functionally the same as top left. This is why,
unless you set different values for the position, background images
always start tiling from the top-left corner of the element’s

Length values

Finally, we turn to length values for positioning. When you supply
lengths for the position of the origin image, they are interpreted as
offsets from the top-left corner of the element’s background. The offset
point is the top-left corner of the origin image; thus, if you set the
values 20px 30px, the top-left corner of the origin image will be 20
pixels to the right of, and 30 pixels below, the top-left corner of the
element’s background, as shown (along with a few other length examples)
in Figure 9-22, which is the result of the following code:

background-image: url(chrome.jpg);
background-repeat: no-repeat;
background-position: 20px 30px;

Figure 9-22. Offsetting the background image using length measures

This is quite different than percentage values because the offset is
from one top-left corner to another. In other words, the top-left
corner of the origin image lines up with the point specified in the
background-position declaration.

You can combine length and percentage values to get a
“best of both worlds” effect. Let’s say you need to have a background
image that is all the way to the right side of the background and 10
pixels down from the top, as illustrated in Figure 9-23. As always, the
horizontal value comes first:

p {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: 100% 10px;
    border: 1px dotted gray;}

Figure 9-23. Mixing percentages and length values

For that matter, you can get the same result as shown in Figure 9-23 by
using right 10px, since you’re allowed to mix keywords with lengths
and percentages. Bear in mind that the syntax enforces axis order when
using nonkeyword values; in other words, if you use a length of
percentage, then the horizontal value must always come first, and the
vertical must always come second. That means right 10px is fine,
whereas 10px right is invalid and will be ignored (because right is not a valid vertical keyword).

Negative values

If you’re using lengths or percentages, you can use negative values to
pull the origin image outside of the element’s background. Consider the
example with the very large yin-yang symbol for a background. At one
point, we centered it, but what if we only want part of it visible in
the top-left corner of the element’s background? No problem, at least in

First, assume that the origin image is 300 pixels tall by 300 pixels
wide. Then, assume that only the bottom-right third of the image should
be visible. You can get the desired effect (shown in Figure 9-24) like

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: -200px -200px;}

Figure 9-24. Using negative length values to position the origin image

Or, say you want just the right half of it to be visible and vertically
centered within the element’s background area:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: -150px 50%;}

Negative percentages are also possible, although they are somewhat
interesting to calculate. The origin image and the element are likely to
be very different sizes, for one thing, and that can lead to unexpected
effects. Consider, for example, the situation created by the following
rule and illustrated in Figure 9-25:

p {background-image: url(pix/yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: -10% -10%;
    width: 500px;}

Figure 9-25. Varying effects of negative percentage values

The rule calls for the point outside the origin image defined by
-10% -10% to be aligned with a similar point for each paragraph. The
image is 300 × 300 pixels, so we know its alignment point can be
described as 30 pixels above the top of the image, and 30 pixels to the
left of its left edge (effectively -30px and -30px). The paragraph
elements are all the same width (500px), so the horizontal alignment
point is 50 pixels to the left of the left edge of their backgrounds.
This means that each origin image’s left edge will be 20 pixels to the
left of the left padding edge of the paragraphs. This is because the
-30px alignment point of the images lines up with the -50px point
for the paragraphs. The difference between the two is 20 pixels.

The paragraphs are of differing heights, however, so the vertical
alignment point changes for each paragraph. If a paragraph’s background
area is 300 pixels high, to pick a semi-random example, then the top of
the origin image will line up exactly with the top of the element’s
background, because both will have vertical alignment points of -30px.
If a paragraph is 50 pixels tall, then its alignment point would be
-5px and the top of the origin image will actually be 25 pixels
below the top of the background. This is why you can see all the tops
of the background images in Figure 9-25—the paragraphs are all shorter than
the background image.

Changing the offset edges

OK, it’s time for a confession: throughout this whole discussion of
background positioning, I’ve been keeping two things from you. I acted
as though the value of background-position could have no more than two
keywords, and that all offsets were always made from the top-left corner
of the background area.

That was certainly the case throughout most of the history of CSS, but
it’s not true any more. In fact, you can have up to four keywords in a
very specific pattern to deliver a very specific feature: changing the
edges from which offsets are calculated.

Let’s start with a simple example: placing the origin image a third of
the way across and 30 pixels down from the top-left corner.
Using what we saw in previous sections, that would be:

background-position: 33% 30px;

Now let’s do the same thing with this four-part syntax:

background-position: left 33% top 30px;

What this four-part value says is “from the left edge, have a
horizontal offset of 33%; from the top edge, have an offset of

Great, so that’s a more verbose way of getting the default behavior. Now
let’s change things so the origin image is placed a third of the way
across and 30 pixels up from the bottom-right corner, as shown in Figure 9-26 (which assumes no repeating of the background image, for clarity’s sake):

background-position: right 33% bottom 30px;

Figure 9-26. Changing the offset edges for the origin image

Here, we have a value that means “from the right edge, have a
horizontal offset of 33%; from the bottom edge, have an offset of

Thus, the general pattern is edge keyword, offset distance, edge
keyword, offset distance. You can mix the order of horizontal and
vertical information; that is, bottom 30px right 25% works just as
well as right 25% bottom 30px. However, you cannot omit either of the
edge keywords; 30px right 25% is invalid and will be ignored.

You can omit an offset distance in cases where you want it to be zero.
So right bottom 30px would put the origin image against the right edge and 30 pixels up from the bottom of the background area, whereas right 25% bottom would place the origin image a quarter of the way across from the right edge and up against the bottom. These are both illustrated in Figure 9-27.

Figure 9-27. Inferred zero-length offsets

As it happens, you can only define the edges of an element as offset
bases, not the center. A value like center 25% center 25px will be

Changing the Positioning Box

OK, so now we can add an image to the background, and we can even
change where the origin image is placed. But what if we don’t want to
have its placement calculated with respect to the outer padding edge of
the element, which is the default? We can affect that using the property

This property probably looks very similar to background-clip, and with
good reason, but its effect is pretty distinct. With
background-origin, you can determine the edge that’s used to determine
placement of the origin image. This is also known as defining the
background positioning area. (background-clip, you may recall,
defined the background painting area.)

The default, padding-box, means that (absent any other changes) the
top-left corner of the origin image will be placed in the top-left
corner of the outer edge of the padding, which is just inside the

If you use the value border-box, then the top-left corner of the
origin image will go into the top-left corner of the padding area. That
does mean that the border, if any, will be drawn over the origin
image (assuming the background painting area wasn’t restricted to be
padding-box or content-box, that is).

With content-box, you shift the origin image to be placed in the top-left corner of the content area. The three different results are
illustrated in Figure 9-28:

div[id] {color: navy; background: silver;
         background-image: url(yinyang.png);
         background-repeat: no-repeat;
         padding: 1em; border: 5px dashed;}
#ex01 {background-origin: border-box;}
#ex02 {background-origin: padding-box;}  /* default value */
#ex03 {background-origin: content-box;}

Figure 9-28. The three types of background origins

Remember that this “placed in the top left” behavior is the default
behavior, one you can change with background-position. If the origin
image is placed somewhere other than the top-left corner, its position
will be calculated with respect to the box defined by
background-origin: the border edge, the padding edge, or the
content edge. Consider, for example, this variant on our previous
example, which is illustrated in Figure 9-29:

div[id] {color: navy; background: silver;
         background-image: url(yinyang);
         background-repeat: no-repeat;
         background-position: bottom right;
         padding: 1em; border: 5px dotted;}
#ex01 {background-origin: border-box;}
#ex02 {background-origin: padding-box;}  /* default value */
#ex03 {background-origin: content-box;}

Figure 9-29. The three types of background origins, redux

Where things can get really interesting is if you’ve explicitly
defined your background origin and clipping to be different boxes.
Imagine you have the origin placed with respect to the padding edge but
the background clipped to the content area, or vice versa. This would
have the results shown in Figure 9-30, as resulting from the following:

 #ex01 {background-origin: padding-box;
        background-clip: content-box;}
 #ex02 {background-origin: content-box;
        background-clip: padding-box;}

Figure 9-30. When origin and clipping diverge

In the first example shown in Figure 9-29, the edges of the origin image
are clipped because it’s been positioned with respect to the padding
box, but the background painting area has been clipped at the edge of
the content box. In the second example, the origin image is placed with
respect to the content box, but the painting area extends into the
padding box. Thus, the origin image is visible all the way down to the
bottom padding edge, even though its top is not placed against the top
padding edge.

Background Repeating (or Lack Thereof)

In the old days, if you wanted some kind of “sidebar” background effect,
you had to create a very short, but incredibly wide, image to place in
the background. At one time, a favorite size for these images was 10
pixels tall by 1,500 pixels wide. Most of that image would be blank
space; only the left 100 or so pixels contain the “sidebar”
image. The rest of the image was basically wasted.

Wouldn’t it be much more efficient to create a sidebar image that’s 10
pixels tall and 100 pixels wide, with no wasted blank space, and then
repeat it only in the vertical direction? This would certainly make your
design job a little easier, and your users’ download times a lot faster.
Enter background-repeat.

The value syntax for background-repeat looks a bit complicated at
first glance, but it’s really fairly straightforward. In fact, at its
base, it’s just four values: repeat, no-repeat, space, and
round. The other two, repeat-x and repeat-y, are considered to be
shorthand for combinations of the others. Table 9-2 shows how they break down.

If two values are given, the first applies in the horizontal
direction, and the second in the vertical. If there is just one value,
it applies in both the horizontal and vertical directions, with the
exception, as shown in Table 9-2, of repeat-x and repeat-y.

Table 9-2. Repeat keyword equivalents
Single keyword Equivalent keywords
repeat-x repeat no-repeat
repeat-y no-repeat repeat
repeat repeat repeat
no-repeat no-repeat no-repeat
space space space
round round round

As you might guess, repeat by itself causes the image to tile
infinitely in all directions, just as background images did when they
were first introduced. repeat-x and repeat-y cause the image to be
repeated in the horizontal or vertical directions, respectively, and
no-repeat prevents the image from tiling along a given axis.

By default, the background image will start from the top-left corner of
an element. Therefore, the following rules will have the effect shown in
Figure 9-31:

body {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
      background-repeat: repeat-y;}

Figure 9-31. Tiling the background image vertically

Let’s assume, though, that you want the image to repeat across the top
of the document. Rather than creating a special image with a whole lot
of blank space underneath, you can just make a small change to that
last rule:

body {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
      background-repeat: repeat-x;}

As Figure 9-32 shows, the image is repeated along the x axis (that
is, horizontally) from its starting position—in this case, the top-left
corner of the body element’s background area.

Figure 9-32. Tiling the background image horizontally

Finally, you may not want to repeat the background image at all. In this
case, you use the value no-repeat:

body {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
      background-repeat: no-repeat;}

This value may not seem terribly useful, given that the above
declaration would just drop a small image into the top-left corner of
the document, but let’s try it again with a much bigger symbol, as shown
in Figure 9-33, which is the result of the following code:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
      background-repeat: no-repeat;}

Figure 9-33. Placing a single large background image

The ability to control the repeat direction dramatically expands the
range of possible effects. For example, let’s say you want a triple
border on the left side of each h1 element in your document. You can
take that concept further and decide to set a wavy border along the top
of each h2 element. The image is colored in such a way that it blends
with the background color and produces the wavy effect shown in Figure 9-34, which is the result of the following code:

h1 {background-image: url(triplebor.gif); background-repeat: repeat-y;}
h2 {background-image: url(wavybord.gif); background-repeat: repeat-x;
    background-color: #CCC;}

Figure 9-34. Bordering elements with background images

There are better ways to create a wavy-border effect these days—notably, the border image properties explored in the section “Image Borders” found in Chapter 8, “Padding, Borders, Outlines, and Margins.”

Repeating and positioning

In the previous section, we explored the values repeat-x, repeat-y,
and repeat, and how they affect the tiling of background images. In
each case, the tiling pattern always started from the top-left corner of
the element’s background. That’s because, as we’ve seen, the default
values for background-position are 0% 0%. Given that you know how to
change the position of the origin image, you need to know out how user
agents will handle it.

It will be easier to show an example and then explain it. Consider the
following markup, which is illustrated in Figure 9-35:

p {background-image: url(yinyang-sm.png);
    background-position: center;
    border: 1px dotted gray;}
p.c1 {background-repeat: repeat-y;}
p.c2 {background-repeat: repeat-x;}

Figure 9-35. Centering the origin image and repeating it

So there you have it: stripes running through the center of the
elements. It may look wrong, but it isn’t.

The examples shown in Figure 9-35 are correct because the origin image has
been placed in the center of the first p element and then tiled along
the y axis in both directions—in other words, both up and down.
For the second paragraph, the images are repeated to the right and

Setting an image in the center of the p and then letting it
fully repeat will cause it to tile in all four directions: up, down,
left, and right. The only difference background-position makes is in
where the tiling starts. Figure 9-36 shows the difference between tiling
from the center of an element and from its top-left corner.

Figure 9-36. The difference between centering a repeat and starting it from the top left

Note the differences along the edges of the element. When the background
image repeats from the center, as in the first paragraph, the grid of
yin-yang symbols is centered within the element, resulting in consistent
clipping along the edges. In the second paragraph, the tiling begins
at the top-left corner of the padding area, so the clipping is not


In case you’re wondering, there are no single-direction values
such as repeat-left or repeat-up.

Spacing and rounding

Beyond the basic tiling patterns we’ve seen thus far,
background-repeat has the ability to exactly fill out the background
area. Consider, for example, what happens if we use the value space to
define the tiling pattern, as shown in Figure 9-37:

div#example {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
            background-repeat: space;}

Figure 9-37. Tiling the background image with filler space

If you look closely, you’ll notice that there are background images in
each of the four corners of the element. Furthermore, the images are
spaced out so that they occur at regular intervals in both the
horizontal and vertical directions.

This is what space does: it determines how many repetitions it can fully fit
along a given axis, and then spaces them out at regular intervals so
that the repetitions go from one edge of the background to another. This
doesn’t guarantee a regular square grid, where the intervals are all the
same both horizontally and vertically. It just means that you’ll have
what look like columns and rows of background images, with likely
different horizontal and vertical separations. You can see some examples
of this in Figure 9-38.

Figure 9-38. Spaced-out tiling with different intervals

Keep in mind that any background color, or the “backdrop” of the element (that is, the combined background of the element’s ancestors) will show through the gaps in space-separated background images.

What happens if you have a really big image that won’t fit more than
once along the given axis? Then it’s only drawn once, and placed as
determined by the value of background-position. The flip side of that
is that if more than one repetition of the image will fit along an axis,
then the value of background-position is ignored along that axis. An
example of this is shown in Figure 9-39, and created using the following

div#example {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
            background-position: center;
            background-repeat: space;}

Figure 9-39. Spacing along one axis but not the other

Notice that the images are spaced horizontally, and thus override the
center position along that axis, but are not spaced (because there
isn’t enough room to do so) and are still centered vertically. That’s
the effect of space overriding center along one axis, but not the

By contrast, the value round will most likely result in some scaling
of the background image as it is repeated, and (strangely enough) it
will not override background-position. If an image won’t quite repeat
so that it goes from edge to edge of the background, then it will be
scaled up or down in order to make it fit a whole number of times.

Furthermore, the images can be scaled differently along each axis, making it the only background property that will automatically alter an image’s intrinsic aspect ratio. (background-size can also change the aspect ratio, but only by explicit direction from the author.)
You can see an example of this in Figure 9-40, which is the result of the following code:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
      background-position: top left;
      background-repeat: round;}

Note that if you have a background 850 pixels wide and a horizontally
rounded image that’s 300 pixels wide, then a browser can decide to use
three images and scale them down to fit three-across into the 850 pixel
area. (Thus making each instance of the image 283.333 pixels wide.) With
space, it would have to use two images and put 250 pixels of space
between them, but round is not so constrained.

Figure 9-40. Tiling the background image with scaling

Here’s the interesting wrinkle: while round will resize the background
images so that you can fit a whole number of them into the background,
it will not move them to make sure that they actually touch the edges
of the background. In other words, the only way to make sure your
repeating pattern fits and no background images are clipped is to put
the origin image in a corner. If the origin image is anywhere else, clipping will occur, as illustrated in Figure 9-41, which is the result of the following code:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
      background-position: center;
      background-repeat: round;}

Figure 9-41. Rounded background images that are clipped

The images are still scaled so that they would fit into the background
positioning area a whole number of times. They just aren’t repositioned
to actually do so. Thus, if you’re going to use round and you don’t
want to have any clipped background tiles, make sure you’re starting
from one of the four corners (and make sure the background positioning
and painting areas are the same; see the section “Tiling and clipping” for more).

On the other hand, you can get some interesting effects from the actual
behavior of round. Suppose you have two elements that are the same size with
the same rounded backgrounds, and you place them right next to each
other. The background tiling should appear to be one continuous pattern.

Tiling and clipping

If you recall, background-clip can alter the area in which the
background is drawn, and background-origin determines the placement of
the origin image. So what happens when you’ve made the clipping area and
the origin area different, and you’re using either space or round
for the tiling pattern?

The basic answer is that if your values for background-origin and
background-clip aren’t the same, you’ll see some clipping. This is
because space and round are calculated with respect to the
background positioning area, not the painting area. Some examples of
what can happen are shown in Figure 9-42.

Figure 9-42. Clipping due to mismatched clip and origin values

This has always been the case, actually, thanks to the historical
behavior of CSS, which positioned elements with respect to the inner
border edge but clipped them at the outer border edge. Thus, even if you
very carefully controlled the size of an element so that it would have
an even number of background-image tiles, adding a border would
introduce the possibility of partial clipping of tiles. (Especially if a
border side color ever got set to transparent.)

As for the best value to use, that’s a matter of opinion and
circumstance. It’s likely that in most cases, setting both
background-origin and background-clip to padding-box will get you
the results you desire. If you plan to have borders with see-through
bits, though, then border-box might be a better choice.

Getting Attached

So, now you can place the origin image for the background anywhere in
the background of an element, and you can control (to a large degree)
how it tiles. As you may have realized already, placing an image in the
center of the body element could mean, given a sufficiently long
document, that the background image won’t be initially visible to the
reader. After all, a browser provides only a window onto the document.
If the document is too long to be displayed in the window, then the user
can scroll back and forth through the document. The center of the body
could be two or three “screens” below the beginning of the document, or
just far enough down to push most of the origin image beyond the bottom
of the browser window.

Furthermore, even if you assume that the origin image is initially
visible, it always scrolls with the document—it’ll vanish every time a
user scrolls beyond the location of the image. Never fear: there is a way to prevent this scrolling.

Using the property background-attachment, you can declare the origin
image to be fixed with respect to the viewing area and therefore immune
to the effects of scrolling:

body {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-attachment: fixed;}

Doing this has two immediate effects, as you can see in Figure 9-43. The
first is that the origin image does not scroll along with the document.
The second is that the placement of the origin image is determined by
the size of the viewport, not the size (or placement within the
viewport) of the element that contains it.

Figure 9-43. Nailing the background in place

In a web browser, the viewing area can change as the user resizes the
browser’s window. This will cause the background’s origin image to shift
position as the window changes size. Figure 9-44 depicts another view of
the same document, where it’s been scrolled partway through the text.

Almost the inverse of fixed is local, which has background images scrolling with content. In this case, though, the effect is only seen when an element’s content has to be scrolled. This is tricky to grasp at first.

Figure 9-44. The centering continues to hold

Consider the following, where no background-attachment has been set:

aside {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-position: top right;
    max-height: 20em;
    overflow: scroll;}

In this situation, if the content of an aside is taller than 20 em, the rest of the content can be accessed by using a scrollbar. The background image, however, will not scroll with the content. It will instead stay in the top-left corner of the element box.

By adding background-attachment: local, the image is attached to the local context. The visual effect is rather like an iframe, if you have any experience with those. Figure 9-45 shows the results of the previous code sample and the following code side by side:

aside {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-position: top right;
    background-attachment: local; /* attaches to content */
    max-height: 20em;
    overflow: scroll;}

Figure 9-45. Default-attach versus local-attach

There is one other value for background-attachment, and that’s
the default value scroll. As you might expect, this causes the background image
to scroll along with the rest of the document when viewed in a web
browser, and it doesn’t necessarily change the position of the origin image as the window is resized. If the document width is fixed (perhaps by assigning an explicit width to the body element), then resizing the viewing area won’t affect the placement of a scroll-attachment origin
image at all.

Interesting effects

In technical terms, when a background image has been fixed, it is
positioned with respect to the viewing area, not the element that
contains it. However, the background will be visible only within its
containing element. This leads to a rather interesting consequence.

Let’s say you have a document with a tiled background that actually
looks like it’s tiled, and both h1 and h2 elements with the same
pattern, only in a different color. Both the body and heading elements
are set to have fixed backgrounds, resulting in something like Figure 9-46, which is the result of the following code:

body {background-image: url(grid1.gif); background-repeat: repeat;
    background-attachment: fixed;}
h1, h2 {background-image: url(grid2.gif); background-repeat: repeat;
    background-attachment: fixed;}

How is this perfect alignment possible? Remember, when a background is
fixed, the origin element is positioned with respect to the viewport.
Thus, both background patterns begin tiling from the top-left corner of
the viewport, not from the individual elements. For the body, you can see
the entire repeat pattern. For the h1, however, the only place you can
see its background is in the padding and content of the h1 itself.
Since both background images are the same size, and they have precisely
the same origin, they appear to line up, as shown in Figure 9-46.

Figure 9-46. Perfect alignment of backgrounds

This capability can be used to create some very sophisticated effects.
One of the most famous examples is the “complexspiral distorted”
demonstration ( http://bit.ly/meyer-complexspiral),
shown in Figure 9-47.

Figure 9-47. The complexspiral distorted

The visual effects are caused by assigning different fixed-attachment
background images to nonbody elements. The entire demo is driven by one
HTML document, four JPEG images, and a stylesheet. Because all four
images are positioned in the top-left corner of the browser window but
are visible only where they intersect with their elements, the images
line up to create the illusion of translucent rippled

It is also the case that in paged media, such as printouts, every page
generates its own viewport. Therefore, a fixed-attachment background
should appear on every page of the printout. This could be used for
effects such as watermarking all the pages in a document:


Unfortunately, placing a fixed-attachment background
on each page in paged media was poorly supported as of late 2017, and
most browsers don’t print background images by default in any case.

Sizing Background Images

Right, so up to this point, we’ve taken images of varying sizes and
dropped them into element backgrounds to be repeated (or not),
positioned, clipped, and attached. In every case, we just took the image
at whatever intrinsic size it was (with the automated exception of
round repeating). Ready to actually change the size of the origin
image and all the tiled images that spawn from it?

Let’s start by explicitly resizing a background image. We’ll drop in an
image that’s 200 × 200 pixels and then resize it to be twice as big, as
shown in Figure 9-48, which is the result of the following code:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 400px 400px;}

Figure 9-48. Resizing the origin image

You could just as easily resize the origin image to be smaller, and you
aren’t confined to pixels. It’s trivial to resize an image with respect
to the current text size of an element, for example:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 4em 4em;}

You can mix things up if you like, and in the process squeeze or stretch
the origin image:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 400px 4em;}

And as you might expect, if you allow the image to repeat, then all the
repeated images will be the same size as the origin image. This and the
previous example are both illustrated in Figure 9-49, which is the result of the following code:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 400px 4em;}

Figure 9-49. Distorting the origin image by resizing it

As that last example shows, when there are two values for
background-size–the first is the horizontal size and the second is
the vertical. (As per usual for CSS.)

Percentages are a little more interesting. If you declare a percentage
value, then it’s calculated with respect to the background positioning
area; that is, the area defined by background-origin, and not by
background-clip. Suppose you want an image that’s half as wide and
half as tall as its background positioning area, as shown in Figure 9-50:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 50% 50%;}

Figure 9-50. Resizing the origin image with percentages

And yes, you can mix lengths and percentages:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: 25px 100%;}

Negative length and percentage values are not permitted for

Now, what about the default value of auto? First off, in a case where
the there’s only one value, it’s taken for the horizontal size, and the
vertical size is set to auto. (Thus background-size: auto is
equivalent to background-size: auto auto.) If you want to size the
origin image vertically and leave the horizontal size to be automatic, thus preserving the intrinsic aspect ratio of the image,
you have to write it explicitly, like this:

background-size: auto 333px;

But what does auto actually do? There’s a three-step fallback process:

  1. If one axis is set to auto and the other is not, and the image has an intrinsic height-to-width ratio, then the auto axis is calculated by using the size of the other axis and the intrinsic ratio of the image. Thus, an image that’s 300 pixels wide by 200 pixels tall (a 3:2 ratio) and that is set to background-size: 100px; would be resized to be 100 pixels wide and 66.6667 pixels tall. If the declaration is changed to background-size: auto 100px;, then the image will be resized to 150 pixels wide by 100 pixels tall. This will happen for all raster images (GIF, JPEG, PNG, etc.), which have intrinsic ratios due to the nature of their image formats. This is also true of SVG images that have explicitly declared sizing information inside the file.

  2. If the first step fails for some reason, but the image has an intrinsic size, then auto is set to be the same as the intrinsic size of that axis. Suppose you have an image with an intrinsic size of 300 pixels wide by 200 pixels tall that somehow fails to have an intrinsic ratio. In that case, background-size: auto 100px; would result in a size of 300 pixels wide by 100 pixels tall.

  3. If the first and second steps both fail for whatever reason, then auto resolves to 100%. Thus, an image with no intrinsic size that’s set to background-size: auto 100px; would be resized to be as wide as the background positioning area and 100 pixels tall. This can happen fairly easily with vector images like SVGs when they don’t contain explicit sizing information, and is always the case for CSS gradient images (covered in detail in “Gradients”).

As you can see from this process, in many ways, auto in
background-size acts a lot like the auto values of height and width
act when applied to replaced elements such as images. That is to say, you’d
expect roughly similar results from the following two rules, if they
were applied to the same image in different contexts:

img.yinyang {width: 300px; height: auto;}

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-size: 300px auto;}

Covering and containing

Now for the real fun! Suppose you have an image that you want to cover
the entire background of an element, and you don’t care if parts of it
stick outside the background painting area. In this case, you can use
cover, as shown in Figure 9-51, which is the result of the following code:

main {background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-position: center;
    background-size: cover;}

Figure 9-51. Covering the background with the origin image

This scales the origin image so that it completely covers
the background positioning area while still preserving its intrinsic
aspect ratio, assuming it has one. You can see an example of this in
Figure 9-52, where a 200 × 200 pixel image is scaled up to cover the
background of an 800 × 400 pixel element, which is the result of the following code:

main {width: 800px; height: 400px;
    background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-position: center;
    background-size: cover;}

Note that there was no background-repeat in that example. That’s
because we expect the image to fill out the entire background, so
whether it’s repeated or not doesn’t really matter.

You can also see that cover is very much different than 100% 100%.
If we’d used 100% 100%, then the origin image would have been
stretched to be 800 pixels wide by 400 pixels tall. Instead, cover
made it 800 pixels wide and tall, then centered the image inside the
background positioning area. This is the same as if we’d said
100% auto in this particular case, but the beauty of cover is that
it works regardless of whether your element is wider than it is tall, or
taller than it is wide.

Figure 9-52. Covering the background with the origin image, redux

By contrast, contain will scale the image so that it fits exactly
inside the background positioning area, even if that leaves some of the
rest of the background showing around it. This is illustrated in Figure 9-53, which is the result of the following code:

main {width: 800px; height: 400px;
    background-image: url(yinyang.png);
    background-repeat: no-repeat;
    background-position: center;
    background-size: contain;}

Figure 9-53. Containing the origin image within the background

In this case, since the element is shorter than it is tall, the origin
image was scaled so it was as tall as the background positioning area,
and the width was scaled to match, just as if we’d declared auto 100%.
If an element is taller than it is wide, then contain acts
like auto 100%.

You’ll note that we brought no-repeat back to the example so that
things wouldn’t become too visually confusing. Removing that declaration would cause the background to repeat, which is no big deal if that’s what you want. The result is shown in Figure 9-54.

Figure 9-54. Repeating a contained origin image

Always remember: the sizing of cover and contain images is always
with respect to the background positioning area, which is defined by
background-origin. This is true even if the background painting area
defined by background-clip is different! Consider the following rules,
which are depicted in Figure 9-55:

div {border: 1px solid red;
     background: green url(yinyang-sm.png) center no-repeat;}
.cover {background-size: cover;}
.contain {background-size: contain;}
.clip-content {background-clip: content-box;}
.clip-padding {background-clip: padding-box;}
.origin-content {background-origin: content-box;}
.origin-padding {background-origin: padding-box;}

Figure 9-55. Covering, containing, positioning, and clipping

Yes, you can see background color around the edges of some of those, and
others get clipped. That’s the difference between the painting area and
the positioning area. You’d think that cover and contain would be
sized with respect to the painting area, but they aren’t. Keep that
firmly in mind whenever you use these values.


In this section, I used raster images (GIFs, to be precise) even
though they tend to look horrible when scaled up and represent a waste
of network resources when scaled down. (I did this so that it would be
extra obvious when lots of up-scaling was happening.) This is
an inherent risk in scaling background raster images. On the other hand,
you can just as easily use SVGs as background images, and they scale up
or down with no loss of quality or waste of bandwidth. Once upon a time,
SVGs were unusable because browsers didn’t support them, but those days
are long past. If you’re going to be scaling a background image and it
doesn’t have to be a photograph, strongly consider using SVG.

Bringing It All Together

As is often the case with thematic areas of CSS, the background
properties can all be brought together in a single shorthand property:
background. Whether you might want to do that is another question

The syntax here can get a little confusing. Let’s start simple and work our
way up from there.

First off, the following statements are all equivalent to each other and will have the
effect shown in Figure 9-56:

body {background-color: white;
      background-image: url(yinyang.png);
      background-position: top left;
      background-repeat: repeat-y;
      background-attachment: fixed;
      background-origin: padding-box;
      background-clip: border-box;
      background-size: 50% 50%;}
body {background:
    white url(yinyang.png) repeat-y top left/50% 50% fixed
     padding-box border-box;}
body {background:
    fixed url(yinyang.png) padding-box border-box white repeat-y
     top left/50% 50%;}
body {background:
    url(yinyang.png) top left/50% 50% padding-box white repeat-y
    fixed border-box;}

Figure 9-56. Using shorthand

You can mostly mix up the order of the values however you like, but
there are three restrictions. The first is that any background-size
value must come immediately after the background-position value, and must be separated from it by a solidus (/, the “forward slash”).
Additionally, within those values, the usual restrictions apply: the
horizontal value comes first, and the vertical value comes second,
assuming that you’re supplying axis-derived values (as opposed to, say,

The last restriction is that if you supply values for both
background-origin and background-clip, the first of the two you list
will be assigned to background-origin, and the second to
background-clip. That means that the following two rules are
functionally identical:

body {background:
    url(yinyang.png) top left/50% 50% padding-box border-box white
     repeat-y fixed;}
body {background:
    url(yinyang.png) top left/50% 50% padding-box white repeat-y
     fixed border-box;}

Related to that, if you only supply one such value, it sets both
background-origin and background-clip. Thus, the following shorthand
sets both the background positioning area and the background painting
area to the padding box:

body {background:
    url(yinyang.png) padding-box top left/50% 50% border-box;}

As is the case for shorthand properties, if you leave out any values,
the defaults for the relevant properties are filled in automatically.
Thus, the following two are equivalent:

body {background: white url(yinyang.png;}
body {background: white url(yinyang.png) transparent 0% 0%/auto repeat
      scroll padding-box border-box;}

Even better, there are no required values for background—as long as
you have at least one value present, you can omit the rest.
It’s possible to set just the background color using the
shorthand property, which is a very common practice:

body {background: white;}

On that note, remember that background is a shorthand property, and,
as such, its default values can obliterate previously assigned values
for a given element. For example:

h1, h2 {background: gray url(thetrees.jpg) center/contain repeat-x;}
h2 {background: silver;}

Given these rules, h1 elements will be styled according to the first
rule. h2 elements will be styled according to the second, which means
they’ll just have a flat silver background. No image will be applied to
h2 backgrounds, let alone centered and repeated horizontally. It is
more likely that the author meant to do this:

h1, h2 {background: gray url(thetrees.jpg) center/contain repeat-x;}
h2 {background-color: silver;}

This lets the background color be changed without wiping out all the
other values.

There’s one more restriction that will lead us very neatly into the next
section: you can only supply a background color on the final background
layer. No other background layer can have a solid color declared. What
the heck does that mean? So glad you asked.

Multiple Backgrounds

Throughout most of this chapter, I’ve been gliding
right past the fact that almost all the background properties accept a
comma-separated list of values. For example, if you wanted to have three
different background images, you could do it like this:

section {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);
         background-repeat: no-repeat;}

Seriously. It will look like what we see in Figure 9-57.

Figure 9-57. Multiple background images

This creates three background layers, one for each image.
Technically, it’s two background layers and a final background layer,
which is the third in this series of three.

As we saw in Figure 9-57, the three images were piled into the top-left corner of the element and didn’t repeat. The lack of repetition is because we declared background-repeat: no-repeat, and the top-left positioning is because the default value of background-position is 0% 0% (the top-left corner). But suppose we want to put the first image in the top right, put the second in the center left, and put the last layer in the center bottom? We can also layer background-position, as shown in Figure 9-58, which is the result of the following code:

section {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%;
         background-repeat: no-repeat;}

Figure 9-58. Individually positioning background images

Now, suppose we want to keep the first two from repeating, but
horizontally repeat the third:

section {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%;
         background-repeat: no-repeat, no-repeat, repeat-x;}

Nearly every background property can be comma-listed this way. You can
have different origins, clipping boxes, sizes, and just about everything
else for each background layer you create. Technically, there is no
limit to the number of layers you can have, though at a certain point
it’s just going to get silly.

Even the shorthand background can be comma-separated. The following
example is exactly equivalent to the previous one, and the result is
shown in Figure 9-59:

section {
    background: url(bg01.png) right top no-repeat,
                url(bg02.gif) center left no-repeat,
                url(bg03.jpg) 50% 100% repeat-x;}

Figure 9-59. Multiple background layers via shorthand

The only real restriction on multiple backgrounds is that
background-color does not repeat in this manner, and if you provide
a comma-separated list for the background shorthand, then the color
can only appear on the last background layer. If you add a color to any other layer, the entire background declaration is made invalid.
Thus, if we wanted to have
a green background fill for the previous example, we’d do it in one of the
following two ways:

section {
    background: url(bg01.png) right top no-repeat,
                url(bg02.gif) center left no-repeat,
                url(bg03.jpg) 50% 100% repeat-x green;}
section {
    background: url(bg01.png) right top no-repeat,
                url(bg02.gif) center left no-repeat,
                url(bg03.jpg) 50% 100% repeat-x;
    background-color: green;}

The reason for this restriction is pretty straightforward. Imagine if
you were able to add a full background color to the first background
layer. It would fill in the whole background and obscure all the
background layers behind it! So if you do supply a color, it can only be
on the last layer, which is “bottom-most.”

This ordering is important to internalize as soon as possible, because
it runs counter to the instincts you’ve likely built up in the course of
using CSS. After all, you know what will happen here: the h1
background will be green:

h1 {background-color: red;}
h1 {background-color: green;}

Contrast that with this multiple-background rule, which will make the
h1 background red, as shown in Figure 9-60:

h1 {background:
    url(box-green.gif) green;}

Figure 9-60. The order of background layers

Yes, red. The red GIF is tiled to cover the entire background area, as
is the green GIF, but the red GIF is “on top of” the green GIF. It’s
closer to you. And the effect is exactly backward from the “last one
wins” rules built into the cascade.

I visualize it like this: when there are multiple backgrounds, they’re
listed like the layers in a drawing program such as Photoshop or
Illustrator. In the layer palette of a drawing program, layers at the
top of the palette are drawn over the layers at the bottom. It’s the same
thing here: the layers listed at the top of the list are drawn over the
layers at the bottom of the list.

The odds are pretty good that you will, at some point, set up a bunch of
background layers in the wrong order, because your cascade-order
reflexes will kick in. (This error still gets me from time to time, so
don’t beat yourself up if it gets you.)

Another fairly common mistake when you’re getting started with multiple
backgrounds is to forget to turn off background tiling for your
background layers, thus obscuring all but the top layer. See Figure 9-61, for example, which is the result of the following code:

section {background-image: url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);}

Figure 9-61. Obscuring layers with repeated images

We can only see the top layer because it’s tiling infinitely, thanks to
the default value of background-repeat. That’s why the example at the
beginning of this section had a background-repeat: no-repeat. But how
did the browser know to apply that single repeat value to all the
layers? Because CSS defines an algorithm for filling in the missing

Filling in missing values

Multiple backgrounds are cool and all, but what happens if you forget to
supply all the values for all the layers? For example, what happens with
background clipping in this code?

section {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%;
         background-clip: content-box;}

What happens is that the declared value is filled in for the missing values, so the preceding code is functionally equivalent to this:

section {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%;
         background-clip: content-box, content-box, content-box;}

All right, great. But then someone comes along and adds a background
layer by adding another image. Now what?

section {background-image:
             url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg), url(bg04.svg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%;
         background-clip: content-box, content-box, content-box;}

What happens is the declared set of values is repeated as many times as
necessary to fill in the gaps. In this case, that means a result
equivalent to declaring the following:

section {background-image:
             url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg), url(bg04.svg);
         background-position: top right, left center, 50% 100%, top right;
         background-clip: content-box, content-box, content-box, content-box;}

Notice how the fourth background-position is the same as the first?
That‘s also the case for the fourth background-clip, though it’s not
as obvious. Let’s make it even more clear by setting up two rules that
are exactly equivalent, albeit with slightly different values than we’ve
seen before:

body {background-image:
          url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg), url(bg04.svg);
      background-position: top left, bottom center, 33% 67%;
      background-origin: border-box, padding-box;
      background-repeat: no-repeat;
      background-color: gray;}
body {background-image:
          url(bg01.png), url(bg02.gif), url(bg03.jpg), url(bg04.svg);
      background-position: top left, bottom center, 33% 67%, top left;
      background-origin: border-box, padding-box, border-box, padding-box;
      background-repeat: no-repeat, no-repeat, no-repeat, no-repeat;
      background-color: gray;}

That’s right: the color didn’t get repeated, because there can only be
one background color!

If we take away two of the background images, then the leftover values
for the others will be ignored. Again, two rules that are exactly the
same in effect:

body {background-image: url(bg01.png), url(bg04.svg);
      background-position: top left, bottom center, 33% 67%;
      background-origin: border-box, padding-box;
      background-repeat: no-repeat;
      background-color: gray;}
body {background-image: url(bg01.png), (bg04.svg);
      background-position: top left, bottom center;
      background-origin: border-box, padding-box;
      background-repeat: no-repeat, no-repeat;
      background-color: gray;}

Notice that I actually removed the second and third images (bg02.gif
and bg03.jpg). Since this left two images, the third value of
background-position was dropped. The browser doesn’t
remember what CSS you had last time, and certainly doesn’t (because it
can’t) try to maintain parallelism between the old values and the new
ones. If you cut values out of the middle of background-image, you
have to drop or rearrange values in other properties to keep up.

The easy way to avoid these sorts of situations is just to use
background, like so:

body {background:
         url(bg01.png) top left border-box no-repeat,
         url(bg02.gif) bottom center padding-box no-repeat,
         url(bg04.svg) bottom center padding-box no-repeat gray;}

That way, when you add or subtract background layers, the values you
meant to apply specifically to them will come in or go out with them.
This can mean some annoying repetition if all the backgrounds
should have the same value of a given property, like
background-origin. If that’s the situation, you can blend the two
approaches, like so:

body {background:
         url(bg01.png) top left no-repeat,
         url(bg02.gif) bottom center no-repeat,
         url(bg04.svg) bottom center no-repeat gray;
     background-origin: padding-box;}

This works just as long as you don’t need to make any exceptions. The
minute you decide to change the origin of one of those background
layers, then you’ll need to explicitly list them, however you do it.

Remember that the number of layers is determined by the number of
background images, and so, by definition, background-image values are
not repeated to equal the number of comma-separated values given for
other properties. You might want to put the same image in all four
corners of an element and think you could do it like this:

background-image: url(i/box-red.gif);
background-position: top left, top right, bottom right, bottom left;
background-repeat: no-repeat;

The result, however, would be to place a single red box in the top-left
corner of the element. In order to get images in all four corners, as
shown in Figure 9-62, you’ll have to list the same image four times:

background-image: url(i/box-red.gif), url(i/box-red.gif),
                  url(i/box-red.gif), url(i/box-red.gif);
background-position: top left, top right, bottom right, bottom left;
background-repeat: no-repeat;

Figure 9-62. Placing the same image in all four corners


There are two new image types defined by CSS that are described
entirely in CSS: linear gradients and radial gradients. Of each type, there are two sub-types: repeating and non-repeating. Gradients are most
often used in backgrounds, which is why they’re being covered here,
though they can be used in any context where an image is
permitted—list-style-image, for example.

A gradient is just a smooth visual transition from one color to
another. For example, a gradient from white to black will start white,
run through successively darker shades of gray, and eventually arrive at
black. How gradual or abrupt a transition that is depends on how much
space the gradient has to operate. If you run from white to black over
100 pixels, then each pixel along the gradient’s progression will be
another 1% darker gray. This is diagrammed in Figure 9-63.

Figure 9-63. The progression of a simple gradient

As we go through the process of exploring gradients, always keep this in
mind: gradients are images. It doesn’t matter that you describe them
by typing CSS—they are every bit as much images as SVGs, PNG, GIFs, and
so on.

What’s interesting about gradients is that they have no intrinsic
dimensions, which means that if the background-size property’s value
auto is used, it is treated as if it were 100%. Thus, if you don’t
define a background-size for a background gradient, it will be set to
the default value of auto, which is the same as declaring 100% 100%.
So, by default, background gradients fill in the entire background
positioning area.

Linear Gradients

Linear gradients are gradient fills that proceed along a linear
vector, referred to as the gradient line. They can be anything but
simple, however. Here are a few relatively simple gradients, with the
results shown in Figure 9-64:

#ex01 {background-image: linear-gradient(purple, gold);}
#ex02 {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg, purple, gold);}
#ex03 {background-image: linear-gradient(to left, purple, gold);}
#ex04 {background-image: linear-gradient(-135deg, purple, gold, navy);}
#ex05 {background-image: linear-gradient(to bottom left, purple, gold, navy);}

Figure 9-64. Simple linear gradients

The first of these is the most basic that a gradient can be: two colors. This causes a gradient from the first color at the top of the background
positioning area to the second color at the bottom of the background
positioning area.

The gradient goes from top to bottom because the default direction for
gradients is to bottom, which is the same as 180deg and its various
equivalents (for example, 0.5turn). If you’d like to go a different
direction, then you can start the gradient value with a direction.
That’s what was done for all the other gradients shown in Figure 9-64.

So the basic syntax of a linear gradient is:

    [[ <angle> | to <side-or-quadrant> ],]? [ <color-stop> [, <color-hint>]? ]# ,

We’ll explore both color stops and color hints very soon. For now, the basic pattern to keep in mind is: an optional direction at the start, a list of color stops and/or color hints, and a color stop at the end.

While you only use the to keyword if you’re describing a side or
quadrant with keywords like top and right, the direction you give
always describes the direction in which the gradient line points. In
other words, linear-gradient(0deg,red,green) will have red at the
bottom and green at the top because the gradient line points toward
zero degrees (the top of the element) and thus ends with green. Just
remember to leave out the to if you’re using an angle value because
something like to 45deg is invalid and will be ignored.

Gradient colors

You’re able to use any color value you like, including alpha-channel
values such as rgba() and keywords like transparent. Thus it’s entirely possible to fade out pieces of your gradient by blending to (or from) a color with zero opacity. Consider the following rules, which are depicted in Figure 9-65:

#ex01 {background-image:
    linear-gradient( to right, rgb(200,200,200), rgb(255,255,255) );}
#ex02 {background-image:
    linear-gradient( to right, rgba(200,200,200,1), rgba(200,200,200,0) );}

Figure 9-65. Fading to white versus fading to transparent

As you can see, the first example fades from light gray to white,
whereas the second example fades the same light gray from opaque to
transparent, thus allowing the parent element’s yellow background to show

You’re certainly not restricted to two colors, either. You’re free to
add as many colors as you can stand. Consider the following gradient:

#wdim {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,
    red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet

The gradient line points toward 90 degrees, which is the right side.
There are 14 color stops in all, one for each of the
comma-separated color names, and they are distributed evenly along the
gradient line, with the first at the beginning of the line and the last
at the end. Between the color stops, the colors are blended as smoothly
as possible from one color to the other. This is shown in Figure 9-66.

Figure 9-66. The distribution of color stops along the gradient line

So, without any indication of where the color stops should be
positioned, they’re evenly distributed. What happens if you give them

Positioning color stops

The full syntax of a <color-stop> is:

<color> [ <length> | <percentage> ]?

After every color value, you can (but don’t have to) supply a
position value. This gives you the ability to distort the usual regular
progression of color stops into something else.

We’ll start with lengths, since they’re pretty simple. Let’s take a
rainbow progression (only a single rainbow this time) and have each
color of the rainbow occur every 25 pixels, as shown in Figure 9-67:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
               red, orange 25px, yellow 50px, green 75px,
               blue 100px, indigo 125px, violet 150px)};

Figure 9-67. Placing color stops every 25 pixels

This worked out just fine, but notice what happened after 150 pixels—the
violet just continued on to the end of the gradient line. That’s what
happens if you set up the color stops so they don’t make it to the end
of the gradient line: the last color is just carried onward.

Conversely, if your color stops go beyond the end of the gradient line,
then the gradient just stops at whatever point it manages to reach when
it gets to the end of the gradient line. This is illustrated in Figure 9-68:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
               red, orange 200px, yellow 400px, green 600px,
               blue 800px, indigo 1000px, violet 1200px)};

Figure 9-68. Gradient clipping when colors stops go too far

Since the last color stop is at 1,200 pixels but the gradient line is
shorter than that, the gradient just stops right around the color
blue. That’s as far as the gradient gets before running out of room.

Note that in the preceding two examples and figures, the first color
(red) didn’t have a length value. If the first color has no position,
it’s assumed to be the beginning of the gradient line. Similarly, if you
leave a position off the last color stop, it’s assumed to be the end of
the gradient line. (But note that this is not true for repeating gradients, which we’ll cover in the upcoming section “Repeating Gradients”.)

You can use any length value you like, not just pixels. Ems, inches, you
name it. You can even mix different units into the same gradient, although this is not generally recommended for reasons we’ll get to in a little bit. You can even have negative length values if you want; doing so will place a color stop before the beginning of the gradient line, and
clipping will occur in the same manner as it happens at the end of the
line, as shown in Figure 9-69:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
               red -200px, orange 200px, yellow 400px, green 600px,
               blue 800px, indigo 1000px, violet 1200px)};

Figure 9-69. Gradient clipping when color stops have negative positions

As for percentages, they’re calculated with respect to the total length
of the gradient line. A color stop at 50% will be at the
midpoint of the gradient line. Let’s return to our rainbow example, and
instead of having a color stop every 25 pixels, we’ll have one every 10%
of the gradient line’s length. This would look like the following, which
has the result shown in Figure 9-70:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red, orange 10%, yellow 20%, green 30%, blue 40%, indigo 50%, violet 60%)};

Figure 9-70. Placing color stops every 10 percent

As we saw previously, since the last color stop comes before the end of
the gradient line, its color (violet) is carried through to the end of
the gradient. These stops are a bit more spread out than the 25-pixel
example we saw earlier, but otherwise things happen in more or less the
same way.

In cases where some color stops have position values and others don’t,
the stops without positions are evenly distributed between the ones that
do. Consider the following:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red, orange, yellow 50%, green, blue, indigo 95%, violet)};

Because red and violet don’t have specified position values, they’re
taken to be 0% and 100%, respectively. This means than orange,
green, and blue will be evenly distributed between the explicitly
defined positions to either side.

For orange, that means the point midway between red 0% and
yellow 50%, which is 25%. For green and blue, these need to be arranged between yellow 50% and indigo 95%. That’s a 45% difference, which is divided in three, because there are three intervals between the four values. That means 65% and 80%. In the end, we get the distorted rainbow shown in Figure 9-71, exactly as if we’d declared the following:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red 0%, orange 25%, yellow 50%, green 65%, blue 80%, indigo 95%, violet 100%)};

Figure 9-71. Distributing color stops between explicitly placed stops

This is the same mechanism used to evenly distribute stops along the
gradient line when none of them are given a position. If none
of the color stops have been positioned, the first is assumed to be 0%, the last is assumed to be 100%, and the other color stops are
evenly distributed between those two points.

You might wonder what happens if you put two color stops at
exactly the same point, like this:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red 0%, orange, yellow, green 50%, blue 50%, indigo, violet)};

All that happens is that the two color stops are put on top of each
other. The result is shown in Figure 9-72.

Figure 9-72. The effect of coincident color stops

The gradient blended as usual all along the
gradient line, but at the 50% point, it instantly blended from green to
blue over zero length. So the gradient blended from yellow at the 33.3%
point (two-thirds of the way from 0% to 50%) to green at the 50% point,
then blended from green to blue over zero length, then blended from blue
at 50% over to indigo at 75% (midway between 50% and 100%).

This “hard-stop” effect can be useful if you want to create a striped
effect, like that shown in Figure 9-73, which is the result of the following code:

.stripes {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    gray 0%, gray 25%,
    transparent 25%, transparent 50%,
    gray 50%, gray 75%,
    transparent 75%, transparent 100%);}

Figure 9-73. Hard-stop stripes

OK, so that’s what happens if you put color stops right on top of each
other, but what happens if you put one before another? Something like
this, say:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red 0%, orange, yellow, green 50%, blue 40%, indigo, violet)};

In that case, the offending color stop (blue in this case) is set to
the largest specified value of a preceding color stop. Here, it would be
set to 50%, since the stop before it had that position. Thus, the effect is the same as we saw earlier in this section, when the green and blue color stops were placed on top of each other.

The key point here is that the color stop is set to the largest
specified position of the stop that precedes it. Thus, given the
following, the indigo color stop would be set to 50%:

#spectrum {background-image: linear-gradient(90deg,
    red 0%, orange, yellow 50%, green, blue, indigo 33%, violet)};

In this case, the largest specified position before the indigo stop is
the 50% specified at the yellow stop. Thus, the gradient fades from
red to orange to yellow, then has a hard switch to indigo before fading
from indigo to violet. The gradient’s fades from yellow to green to blue
to indigo all take place over zero distance. See Figure 9-74 for the

Figure 9-74. Handling color stops that are out of place

This behavior is the reason why mixing units within a single gradient
is generally discouraged. If you mix rems and percentages, for example,
you could end up with a situation where a color stop positioned with
percentages might end up before an earlier color stop positioned with

Setting color hints

Thus far, we’ve worked with color stops, but you may remember that the syntax for linear gradients permits “color hints” after each color stop:

    [[ <angle> | to <side-or-quadrant> ],]? [ <color-stop> [, <color-hint>]? ]# ,

A <color-hint> is a way of modifying the blend between the two color stops to either side. By default, the blend from one color stop to the next is linear. Thus, given the following, we get the result shown in Figure 9-75:

    to right, #000 25%, rgb(90%,90%,90%) 75%

Figure 9-75. Linear blending from one color stop to the next

The blend from the 25% point to the 75% point is a constant linear progression from black (#000) to a light gray (rgb(90%,90%,90%)). Halfway between them, at the 50% mark, the shade of gray is exactly halfway between the colors defined by the color stops to either side. That calculates to rgb(45%,45%,45%).

With color hints, we can change the midpoint of the progression. Instead of reaching rgb(45%,45%,45%) at the halfway point, it can be set for any point in between the two stops. Thus, the following CSS leads to the result seen in Figure 9-76:

#ex01 {background: linear-gradient(to right, #000 25%, rgb(90%,90%,90%) 75%);}
#ex02 {background: linear-gradient(to right, #000 25%, 33%, rgb(90%,90%,90%)
#ex03 {background: linear-gradient(to right, #000 25%, 67%, rgb(90%,90%,90%)
#ex04 {background: linear-gradient(to right, #000 25%, 25%, rgb(90%,90%,90%)
#ex05 {background: linear-gradient(to right, #000 25%, 75%, rgb(90%,90%,90%)

Figure 9-76. Black-to-gray with differing midpoint hints

In the first case (#ex01), the default linear progression is used, with the middle color (45% black) occurring at the midpoint between the two color stops.

In the second case (#ex02), the middle color happens at the 33% point of the gradient line. So the first color stop is at the 25% point on the line, the middle color happens at 33%, and the second color stop happens at 75%.

In the third example (#ex03), the midpoint is at the 67% point of the gradient line; thus, the color fades from black at 25% to the middle color at 67%, and then from that middle color at 67% to light gray at 75%.

The fourth and fifth examples show what happens when you put a color hint’s distance right on top of one of the color stops: you get a “hard stop.”

The interesting thing about color hinting is that the progression from color stop to color hint to color stop is not just a set of two linear progressions. Instead, there is some “curving” to the progression, in order to ease from one side of the color hint to the other. This is easiest to see by comparing what would seem to be, but actually are not, two gradients that do the same thing. As you can see in Figure 9-77, the result is rather different:

#ex01 {background:
    linear-gradient(to right,
        #000 25%,
        rgb(45%,45%,45%) 67%,   /* this is a color stop */
        rgb(90%,90%,90%) 75%);}
#ex02 {background:
    linear-gradient(to right,
        #000 25%,
        67%,                    /* this is a color hint */
        rgb(90%,90%,90%) 75%);}

Figure 9-77. Comparing two linear gradients to one hinted transition

Notice how the gray progression is different between the two examples. The first shows a linear progression from black to rgb(45%,45%,45%), and then another linear progression from there to rgb(90%,90%,90%). The second progresses from black to the light gray over the same distance, and the color-hint point is at the 67% mark, but the gradient is altered to attempt a smoother overall progression. The colors at 25%, 67%, and 75% are the same in both examples, but all the other shades along the way are different between the two.


If you’re familiar with animations, you might think to put easing functions (such as ease-in) into a color hint, in order to exert more control over how the colors are blended. This isn’t possible as of late 2017, but the capability was under discussion.

Gradient lines: the gory details

Now that you have a grasp of the basics of placing color stops, it’s
time to look closely at how gradient lines are actually constructed, and
thus how they create the effects that they do.

First, let’s set up a simple gradient so we can then dissect how
it works:

    55deg, #4097FF, #FFBE00, #4097FF

Now, how does this one-dimensional construct—a line at 55 degrees on the
compass—create a two-dimensional gradient fill? First, the gradient line
is placed and its start and ending points determined. This is diagrammed in
Figure 9-78, with the final gradient shown next to it.

Figure 9-78. The placement and sizing of the gradient line

The first thing to make very clear is that the box seen here is not an
element—it’s the linear-gradient image itself. (Remember, we’re
creating images here.) The size and shape of that image can depend on a
lot of things, whether it’s the size of the element’s background or the
application of properties like background-size, which is a topic we’ll
cover in a bit. For now, we’re just concentrating on the image itself.

OK, so in Figure 9-78, you can see that the gradient line goes straight
through the center of the image. The gradient line always goes through
the center of the gradient image. In this case, we set it to a 55-degree
angle, so it’s pointing at 55 degrees on the compass. What’s interesting
are the start and ending points of the gradient line, which are actually
outside the image.

Let’s talk about the start point first. It’s the point on the gradient
line where a line perpendicular to the gradient line intersects with the
corner of the image furthest away from the gradient line’s direction
(55deg). Conversely, the gradient line’s ending point is the point on the
gradient line where a perpendicular line intersects the corner of the
image nearest to the gradient line’s direction.

Bear in mind that the terms “start point” and “ending point” are a little
bit misleading—the gradient line doesn’t actually stop at either point.
The gradient line is, in fact, infinite. However, the start point is
where the first color stop will be placed by default, as it corresponds
to position value 0%. Similarly, the ending point corresponds to the
position value 100%.

Therefore, given the gradient we defined before:

    55deg, #4097FF, #FFBE00, #4097FF

the color at the start point will be #4097FF, the color at the
midpoint (which is also the center of the image) will be #FFBE00, and
the color at the ending point will be #4097FF, with smooth blending in
between. This is illustrated in Figure 9-79.

Figure 9-79. The calculation of color along the gradient line

All right, fine so far. But, you may wonder, how do the bottom-left and
top-right corners of the image get set to the same blue that’s
calculated for the start and ending points, if those points are outside the
image? Because the color at each point along the gradient line is
extended out perpendicularly from the gradient line. This is partially
shown in Figure 9-80 by extending perpendicular lines at the start and ending
points, as well as every 5% of the gradient line between them.

Figure 9-80. The extension of selected colors along the gradient line

That should be enough to let you fill in the rest mentally, so let’s
consider what happens to the gradient image in various other settings.
We’ll use the same gradient definition as before, but this time apply it
to wide, square, and tall images. These are shown in Figure 9-81. Note how
the start-point and ending-point colors always make their way into the
corners of the gradient image.

Figure 9-81. How gradients are constructed for various images

Note how I very carefully said “the start-point and ending-point colors,”
and did not say “the start and end colors.” That’s because, as we saw
earlier, color stops can be placed before the start point and after the
ending point, like so:

    55deg, #4097FF -25%, #FFBE00, #4097FF 125%

The placement of these color stops as well as the start point and ending
point, the way the colors are calculated along the gradient line, and
the final gradient are all shown in Figure 9-82.

Figure 9-82. A gradient with stops beyond the start and ending points

Once again, we see that the colors in the bottom-left and top-right
corners match the start-point and ending-point colors. It’s just that in
this case, since the first color stop came before the start point, the
actual color at the start point is a blend of the first and second color
stops. Likewise for the ending point, which is a blend of the second and
third color stops.

Now here’s where things get a little bit wacky. Remember how you can use
directional keywords, like top and right, to indicate the direction
of the gradient line? Suppose you wanted the gradient line to go toward
the top right, so you create a gradient image like this:

    to top right, #4097FF -25%, #FFBE00, #4097FF 125%

This does not cause the gradient line to intersect with the top-right
corner. Would that it did! Instead, what happens is a good deal
stranger. First, let’s diagram it in Figure 9-83 so that we have something
to refer to.

Your eyes do not deceive you: the gradient line is way off from the top-right corner. On the other hand, it is headed into the top-right
quadrant of the image. That’s what to top right really means: head
into the top-right quadrant of the image, not into the top-right corner.

As Figure 9-83 shows, the way to find out exactly what that means is to do
the following:

  1. Shoot a line from the midpoint of the image into the corners adjacent to the corner in the quadrant that’s been declared. Thus, for the top-right quadrant, the adjacent corners are the top left and bottom right.

  2. Draw the gradient line perpendicular to that line, pointing into the declared quadrant.

  3. Construct the gradient—that is, determine the start and ending points, place or distribute the color stops, then calculate the entire gradient image, as per usual.

Figure 9-83. A gradient headed toward the top right

This process has a few interesting side effects. First, it means that
the color at the midpoint will always stretch from one quadrant-adjacent
corner to the other. Second, it means that if the image’s shape
changes—that is, if its ratio of height to width changes—then the
gradient line will also change direction, meaning that the gradient will
reorient. So watch out for that if you have flexible elements. Third, a
perfectly square gradient image will have a gradient line that
intersects with a corner. Examples of these three side effects are
depicted in Figure 9-84, using the following gradient definition in all
three cases:

    to top right, purple, green 49.5%, black 50%, green 50.5%, gold

Figure 9-84. Examples of the side effects of a quadrant-directed gradient

Sadly, there is no way to say “point the gradient line into the corner
of a nonsquare image” short of calculating the necessary degree heading
yourself and declaring it explicitly, a process that will require
JavaScript unless you know the image will always be an exact size in all
cases, forever.

Radial Gradients

Linear gradients are pretty awesome, but there are times when you really
want a circular gradient. You can use such a gradient to create a
spotlight effect, a circular shadow, a rounded glow, or any number of
other effects. The syntax used is similar to that for linear gradients,
but there are some interesting differences:

    [ [ <shape> ‖ <size> ] [ at <position>]? , | at <position>, ]?
      [ <color-stop> [, <color-hint>]? ] [, <color-stop> ]+

What this boils down to is you can optionally declare a shape and size,
optionally declare where it center of the gradient is positioned, and
then declare two or more color stops with optional color hints in between the stops. There are some interesting options
in the shape and size bits, so let’s build up to those.

First, let’s look at a simple radial gradient—the simplest possible, in
fact—presented in a variety of differently shaped elements (Figure 9-85):

.radial {background-image: radial-gradient(purple, gold);}

Figure 9-85. A simple radial gradient in multiple settings

In all of these cases, because no position was declared, the default of
center was used. Because no shape was declared, the shape is an
ellipse for all cases but the square element; in that case, the shape is
a circle. Finally, because no color-stop or color-hint positions were declared, the
first is placed at the beginning of the gradient ray, and the last at
the end, with a linear blend from one to the other.

That’s right: the gradient ray, which is the radial equivalent to the
gradient line in linear gradients. It extends outward from the center of
the gradient directly to the right, and the rest of the gradient is
constructed from it. (We’ll get to the details on that in just a bit.)

Shape and size

First off, there are exactly two possible shape values (and thus two
possible shapes) for a radial gradient: circle and ellipse. The
shape of a gradient can be declared explicitly, or it can be implied by
the way you size the gradient image.

So, on to sizing. As always, the simplest way to size a radial gradient
is with either one non-negative length (if you’re sizing a circle) or
two non-negative lengths (if it’s an ellipse). Say you have this radial

radial-gradient(50px, purple, gold)

This creates a circular radial gradient that fades from purple at the
center to gold at a distance of 50 pixels from the center. If we add
another length, then the shape becomes an ellipse that’s as wide as the
first length, and as tall as the second length:

radial-gradient(50px 100px, purple, gold)

These two gradients are illustrated in Figure 9-86.

Figure 9-86. Simple radial gradients

Notice how the shape of the gradients has nothing to do with the overall
size and shape of the images in which they appear. If you make a
gradient a circle, it will be a circle, even if it’s inside a rectangular
gradient image. So too will an ellipse always be an ellipse, even when
inside a square gradient image (where it will look like a circle, since an ellipse with the same height and width forms a circle).

You can also use percentage values for the size, but only for
ellipses. Circles cannot be given percentage sizes because there’s no
way to indicate the axis to which that percentage refers. (Imagine an
image 100 pixels tall by 500 wide. Should 10% mean 10 pixels or 50
pixels?) If you try to provide percentage values for a circle, the entire declaration will fail due to the invalid value.

If you do supply percentages to an ellipse, then as usual, the first refers
to the horizontal axis and the second to the vertical. The following
gradient is shown in various settings in Figure 9-87:

radial-gradient(50% 25%, purple, gold)

Figure 9-87. Percentage-sized elliptical gradients

When it comes to ellipses, you’re also able to mix lengths and
percentages, with the usual caveat to be careful. So if you’re feeling
confident, you can absolutely make an elliptical radial gradient 10
pixels tall and half the element width, like so:

radial-gradient(50% 10px, purple, gold)

As it happens, lengths and percentages aren’t the only way to size
radial gradients. In addition to those value types, there are also four
keywords available for sizing radial gradients, the effects of which are
summarized in Table 9-3.

Table 9-3. Radial gradient sizing keywords
Keyword Meaning

If the radial gradient’s shape is a circle, the gradient is sized so that the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the edge of the gradient image that is closest to the center point of the radial gradient. If the shape is an ellipse, then the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the closest edge in each of the horizontal and vertical axes.


If the radial gradient’s shape is a circle, the gradient is sized so that the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the edge of the gradient image that is farthest from the center point of the radial gradient. If the shape is an ellipse, then the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the farthest edge in each of the horizontal and vertical axes.


If the radial gradient’s shape is a circle, the gradient is sized so that the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the corner of the gradient image that is closest to the center point of the radial gradient. If the shape is an ellipse, then the end of the gradient ray still touches the corner closest to the center, and the ellipse has the same aspect ratio that it would have had if closest-side had been specified.

farthest-corner (default)

If the radial gradient’s shape is a circle, the gradient is sized so that the end of the gradient ray exactly touches the corner of the gradient image that is farthest from the center point of the radial gradient. If the shape is an ellipse, then the end of the gradient ray still touches the corner farthest from the center, and the ellipse has the same aspect ratio that it would have had if farthest-side had been specified. Note: this is the default size value for a radial gradient and so is used if no size values are declared.

In order to better visualize the results of each keyword, see Figure 9-88,
which depicts each keyword applied as both a circle and an ellipse.

Figure 9-88. The effects of radial gradient sizing keywords

These keywords cannot be mixed with lengths or percentages in elliptical
radial gradients; thus, closest-side 25px is invalid and will be

Something you might have noticed in Figure 9-88 is that the gradients
didn’t start at the center of the image. That’s because they were
positioned elsewhere, which is the topic of the next section.

Positioning radial gradients

If you want to shift the center of a radial gradient away from the
default of center, then you can do so using any position value that
would be valid for background-position. I’m not going to reproduce
that rather complicated syntax here; flip back to the section on
background-position (“Background Positioning”) if you need a refresher.

When I say “any position value that would be valid,” that means any
permitted combination of lengths, percentages, keywords, and so on. It also means that if you leave off one of the two position values, it will be inferred just the same as for background-position. So, just for one
example, center is equivalent to center center. The one major difference between radial gradient positions and background
positions is the default: for radial gradients, the default position is
center, not 0% 0%.

To give some idea of the possibilities, consider the following rules,
illustrated in Figure 9-89:

radial-gradient(at bottom left, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(at center right, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(at 30px 30px, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(at 25% 66%, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(at 30px 66%, purple, gold);

Figure 9-89. Changing the center position of radial gradients

None of those positioned radial gradients were explicitly
sized, so they all defaulted to farthest-corner. That’s a reasonable
guess at the intended default behavior, but it’s not the only
possibility. Let’s mix some sizes into the gradients we just saw and
find out how that changes things (as depicted in Figure 9-90):

radial-gradient(30px at bottom left, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(30px 15px at center right, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(50% 15% at 30px 30px, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(farthest-side at 25% 66%, purple, gold);
radial-gradient(farthest-corner at 30px 66%, purple, gold);

Figure 9-90. Changing the center position of explicitly sized radial gradients

Nifty. Now, suppose we want something a little more complicated than a
fade from one color to another. Next stop, color stops!

Radial color stops and the gradient ray

Color stops for radial gradients have the same syntax, and work in a similar fashion, to linear
gradients. Let’s return to the simplest possible radial gradient and
follow it with a more explicit equivalent:

radial-gradient(purple, gold);
radial-gradient(purple 0%, gold 100%);

So the gradient ray extends out from the center point. At 0% (the start
point, and also the center of the gradient), the ray will be purple. At
100% (the ending point), the ray will be gold. Between the two stops is a
smooth blend from purple to gold; beyond the ending point, solid gold.

If we add a stop between purple and gold, but don’t give it a position,
then it will be placed midway between them, and the blending will be
altered accordingly, as shown in Figure 9-91:

radial-gradient(100px circle at center, purple 0%, green, gold 100%);

Figure 9-91. Adding a color stop

We’d have gotten the same result if we’d added green 50% there, but
you get the idea. The gradient ray’s color goes smoothly from purple to
green to gold, and then is solid gold beyond that point on the ray.

This illustrates one difference between gradient lines (for linear
gradients) and gradient rays: a linear gradient is derived by extending
the color at each point along the gradient line off perpendicular to the
gradient line. A similar behavior occurs with a radial gradient, except
in that case, they aren’t lines that come off the gradient ray. Instead,
they are ellipses that are scaled-up or scaled-down versions of the ellipse at the ending point. This is illustrated in Figure 9-92, where an ellipse shows its gradient ray and then the ellipses that are drawn at various points along that ray.

Figure 9-92. The gradient ray and some of the ellipses it spawns

That brings up an interesting question: how is the ending point (the 100%
point, if you like) determined for each gradient ray? It’s the
point where the gradient ray intersects with the shape described by the
size. In the case of a circle, that’s easy: the gradient ray’s ending point is however far from the center that the size value indicates. So for a 25px circle gradient, the ending point of the ray is 25 pixels from the center.

For an ellipse, it’s essentially the same operation, except that the
distance from the center is dependent on the horizontal axis of the
ellipse. Given a radial gradient that’s a 40px 20px ellipse, the ending
point will be 40 pixels from the center and directly to its right.
Figure 9-93 shows this in some detail.

Figure 9-93. Setting the gradient ray’s ending point

Another difference between linear gradient lines and radial gradient
rays is that you can see beyond the ending point. If you recall, a linear
gradient line is always drawn so that you can see the colors at the 0% and 100% points, but nothing beyond them; the gradient line can never be any smaller than the longest axis of the gradient image, and will frequently be longer than that. With a radial gradient, on the other hand, you can size the radial shape to be smaller than the total gradient image. In that case, the color at the last color stop is extended outward from the ending point. (We’ve already seen this in several previous figures.)

Conversely, if you set a color stop that’s beyond the ending point of a
ray, you might get to see the color out to that stop. Consider the
following gradient, illustrated in Figure 9-94:

radial-gradient(50px circle at center, purple, green, gold 80px)

Figure 9-94. Color stops beyond the ending point

The first color stop has no position, so it’s set to 0%, which is the
center point. The last color stop is set to 80px, so it will be 80
pixels away from the center in all directions. The middle color stop,
green, is placed midway between the two (40 pixels from the center).
So we get a gradient that goes out to gold at 80 pixels and then
continues gold beyond that point.

This happens even though the circle was explicitly set to be 50 pixels
large. It still is 50 pixels in radius, it’s just that the positioning
of the last color stop makes that fact vaguely irrelevant. Visually, we
might as well have declared this:

radial-gradient(80px circle at center, purple, green, gold)

or, more simply, just this:

radial-gradient(80px, purple, green, gold)

The same behaviors apply if you use percentages for your color stops.
These are equivalent to the previous examples, and to each other,
visually speaking:

radial-gradient(50px, purple, green, gold 160%)
radial-gradient(80px, purple, green, gold 100%)

Now, what if you set a negative position for a color stop? It’s pretty
much the same result as we saw with linear gradient lines: the negative
color stop is used to figure out the color at the start point, but is
otherwise unseen. Thus, the following gradient will have the result
shown in Figure 9-95:

radial-gradient(80px, purple -40px, green, gold)

Figure 9-95. Handling a negative color-stop position

Given these color-stop positions, the first color stop is at -40px,
the last is at 80px (because, given its lack of an explicit position, it defaults to the ending point), and the middle is placed midway between
them. The result is the same as if we’d explicitly said:

radial-gradient(80px, purple -40px, green 20px, gold 80px)

That’s why the color at the center of the gradient is a green-purple:
it’s a blend of one-third purple, two-thirds green. From there, it
blends the rest of the way to green, and then on to gold. The rest of
the purple-green blend, the part that sits on the “negative space” of
the gradient ray, is invisible.

Degenerate cases

Given that we can declare size and position for a radial gradient, the
question arises: what if a circular gradient has zero radius, or an
elliptical gradient has zero height or width? These conditions aren’t
quite as hard to create as you might think: besides explicitly
declaring that a radial gradient has zero size using 0px or 0%, you
could also do something like this:

radial-gradient(closest-corner circle at top right, purple, gold)

The gradient’s size is set to closest-corner, and the center has been
moved into the top right corner, so the closest corner is zero pixels
away from the center. Now what?

In this case, the specification very explicitly says that the gradient
should be rendered as if it’s “a circle whose radius [is] an arbitrary
very small number greater than zero.” So that might mean as if it had a
radius of one-one-billionth of a pixel, or a picometer, or heck, the
Planck length. (Kids, ask your science teacher.) The interesting thing
is that it means the gradient is still a circle. It’s just a very, very,
very small circle. Probably, it will be too small to actually render
anything visible. If so, you’ll just get a solid-color fill that
corresponds to the color of the last color stop instead.

Ellipses with zero-length dimensions have fascinatingly different
defined behaviors. Let’s assume the following:

radial-gradient(0px 50% at center, purple, gold)

The specification states that any ellipse with a zero width is rendered
as if it’s “an ellipse whose height [is] an arbitrary very large number
and whose width [is] an arbitrary very small number greater than zero.”
In other words, render it as though it’s a linear gradient mirrored
around the vertical axis running through the center of the ellipse. The
specification also says that in such a case, any color stops with
percentage positions resolve to 0px. This will usually result in a
solid color matching the color defined for the last color stop.

On the other hand, if you use lengths to position the color stops, you
can get a vertically mirrored horizontal linear gradient for free.
Consider the following gradient, illustrated in Figure 9-96:

radial-gradient(0px 50% at center, purple 0px, gold 100px)

Figure 9-96. The effects of a zero-width ellipse

How did this happen? First, remember that the specification says that the 0px horizontal width is treated as if it’s a tiny non-zero number. For the sake of illustration, let’s suppose that’s one-one-thousandth of a pixel (0.001 px). That means the ellipse shape is a thousandth of a pixel wide by half the height of the image. Again for the sake of illustration, let’s suppose that’s a height of 100 pixels. That means the first ellipse shape is a thousandth of a pixel wide by 100 pixels tall, which is an aspect ratio of 0.001:100, or 1:100,000.

OK, so every ellipse drawn along the gradient ray has a 1:100,000 aspect ratio. That means the ellipse at half a pixel along the gradient ray is 1 pixel wide and 100,000 pixels tall. At 1 pixel, it’s 2 pixels wide and 200,000 pixels tall. At 5 pixels, the ellipse is 10 pixels by a million pixels. At 50 pixels along the gradient ray, the ellipse is 100 pixels wide and 10 million tall. And so on. This is diagrammed in Figure 9-97.

Figure 9-97. Very, very tall ellipses

So you can see why the visual effect is of a mirrored linear gradient. These ellipses are effectively drawing vertical lines. Technically they aren’t, but in practical terms they are. The result is as if you have a vertically mirrored horizontal gradient, because each ellipse is centered on the center of the gradient, and both sides of it get drawn. While this may be a radial gradient, we can’t see its radial nature.

On the other hand, if the ellipse has width but not height, the results are quite different. You’d think the result would be to have a vertical linear gradient mirrored around the horizontal axis, but not so! Instead, the result is a solid color equal to the last color stop. (Unless it’s a repeating gradient, a subject we’ll turn to shortly, in which case it should be a solid color equal to the average color of the gradient.) So, given either of the following, you’ll get a solid gold:

radial-gradient(50% 0px at center, purple, gold)
radial-gradient(50% 0px at center, purple 0px, gold 100px)

Why the difference? It goes back to how radial gradients are constructed from the gradient ray. Again, remember that, per the specification, a zero distance here is treated as a very small non-zero number. As before, we’ll assume that 0px is reassigned to 0.001px, and that the 50% evaluates to 100 pixels. That’s an aspect ratio of 100:0.001, or 100,000:1.

So, to get an ellipse that’s 1 pixel tall, the width of that ellipse must be 100,000 pixels. But our last color stop is only at 100 pixels! At that point, the ellipse that’s drawn is 100 pixels wide and 1,000th of a pixel tall. All of the purple-to-gold transition that happens along the gradient ray has to happen in that thousandth of a pixel. Everything after that is gold, as per the final color stop. Thus, we can only see the gold.

You might think that if you increased the position value of the last color stop to 100000px, you’d see a thin sliver of purple-ish color running horizontally across the image. And you’d be right, if the browser treats 0px as 0.001px in these cases. If it assumes 0.00000001px instead, you’d have to increase the color stop’s position a lot further in order to see anything. And that’s assuming the browser was actually caulculating and drawing all those ellipses, instead of just hard-coding the special cases. The latter is a lot more likely, honestly. It’s what I’d do if I were in charge of a browser’s gradient-rendering code.

And what if an ellipse has zero width and zero height? In that case, the specification is written such that the zero-width behavior is used; thus, you’ll get the mirrored-linear-gradient behavior.


As of late 2017, browser support for the defined behavior in
these edge cases was unstable, at best. Some browsers used the last
color-stop’s color in all cases, and others refused to draw a
gradient at all in some cases.

Manipulating Gradient Images

As has been emphasized (possibly to excess), gradients are images. That
means you can size, position, repeat, and otherwise affect them with the
various background properties, just as you would any PNG or SVG.

One way this can be leveraged is to repeat simple gradients. (Repeating
in more complex ways is the subject of the next section.) For example,
you could use a hard-stop radial gradient to give your background a
dotted look, as shown in Figure 9-97:

body {background: tan center/25px 25px repeat
    radial-gradient(circle at center,
                    rgba(0,0,0,0.1), rgba(0,0,0,0.1) 10px,
                    transparent 10px, transparent);}

Figure 9-98. Tiled radial gradient images

Yes, this is visually pretty much the same as tiling a PNG that has a
mostly-transparent dark circle 10 pixels in diameter. There are three
advantages to using a gradient in this case:

  • The CSS is almost certainly smaller in bytes than the PNG would be.

  • Even more importantly, the PNG requires an extra hit on the server. This slows down both page and server performance. A CSS gradient is part of the stylesheet and so eliminates the extra server hit.

  • Changing the gradient is a lot simpler, so experimenting to find exactly the right size, shape, and darkness is much easier.

Gradients can’t do everything a raster or vector image can,
so it’s not as though you’ll be giving up external images completely now
that gradients are a thing. You can still pull off some pretty
impressive effects with gradients, though. Consider the background
effect shown in Figure 9-99.

Figure 9-99. It’s time to start the music…

That curtain effect was accomplished with just two linear gradients
repeated at differing intervals, plus a third to create a “glow” effect
along the bottom of the background. Here’s the code that accomplished

    linear-gradient(0deg, rgba(255,128,128,0.25), transparent 75%),
        transparent, transparent 30%,
        #510A0E 35%, #510A0E 40%, #61100F 43%, #B93F3A 50%,
        #4B0408 55%, #6A0F18 60%, #651015 65%, #510A0E 70%,
        #510A0E 75%, rgba(255,128,128,0) 80%, transparent),
        #510A0E, #510A0E 20%, #61100F 25%, #B93F3A 40%, #4B0408 50%,
        #6A0F18 70%, #651015 80%, #510A0E 90%, #510A0E);
background-size: auto, 300px 100%, 109px 100%;
background-repeat: repeat-x;

The first (and therefore topmost) gradient is just a fade from a
75%-transparent light red up to full transparency at the 75% point of
the gradient line. Then two “fold” images are created. Figure 9-100
shows each separately.

With those images defined, they are repeated along the x-axis and given different sizes. The first, which is the “glow” effect,
is given auto size in order to let it cover the entire element
background. The second is given a width of 300px and a height of
100%; thus, it will be as tall as the element background and 300
pixels wide. This means it will be tiled every 300 pixels along the x-axis. The same is true of the third image, except it tiles every 109
pixels. The end result looks like an irregular stage curtain.

Figure 9-100. The two “fold” gradients

The beauty of this is that adjusting the tiling intervals is just a
matter of editing the stylesheet. Changing the color-stop positions or
the colors is less trivial, but not too difficult if you know what
effect you’re after. And adding a third set of repeating
folds is no more difficult than just adding another gradient to the

Repeating Gradients

Gradients are pretty awesome by themselves, but because they are images,
they can be subject to strange behaviors when they are tiled. For
example, if you declare:

h1.exmpl {background:
    linear-gradient(-45deg, black 0, black 25px, yellow 25px, yellow 50px)
    top left/40px 40px repeat;}

then you could easily end up with a situation like that shown in Figure 9-101.

Figure 9-101. Tiling gradient images with background-repeat

As the figure shows, there is a discontinuity where the images repeat.
You could try to nail down the exact sizes of the element and gradient
image and then mess with the construction of the gradient image in
order to try to make the sides line up, but it would be a lot better if
there was just a way to say, “repeat this seamlessly forever.”

Enter repeating gradients. For the previous example, all we need is to
convert linear-gradient to repeating-linear-gradient and drop the
background-size value. Everything else about the code stays the same.
The effect is much different, however, as you can see in Figure 9-102:

h1.exmpl {background: repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg,
        black 0, black 25px, yellow 25px, yellow 50px) top left;}

Figure 9-102. A repeating gradient image with repeating-linear-gradient

An equivalent to the previous code block, using color hints instead of all color stops, is:

h1.exmpl {background: repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg,
        black 0, black 25px, 25px, yellow 50px) top left;}

What happens with a repeating linear gradient is that the declared
color stops and color hints are repeated on a loop along the gradient line, over and
over, forever. Given the previous examples, that means switching between
black and yellow every 25 pixels forever.

Note that the last color stop has an explicit length (50px). This is important with repeating gradients, because the length value on the last color stop defines the overall length of the pattern.

Now, those examples work because there’s supposed to be a hard stop
where the gradient repeats. If you’re using smoother transitions, you
need to be careful that the color value at the last color stop matches
the color value at the first color stop. Consider this:

repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg, purple 0px, gold 50px)

This will produce a smooth gradient from purple to gold at 50 pixels,
and then a hard switch back to purple and another 50-pixel
purple-to-gold blend. By adding one more color stop with the same color
as the first color stop, the gradient can be smoothed out to avoid
hard-stop lines. See Figure 9-103 for a comparison of the two approaches:

repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg, purple 0px, gold 50px, purple 100px)

Figure 9-103. Dealing with hard resets in repeating-gradient images

You may have noticed that none of the repeating gradients we’ve seen so
far have a defined size. That means the images are defaulting in size to
the full background positioning area of the element to which they’re
applied, per the default behavior for images that have no intrinsic
height and width. If you were to resize a repeating-gradient
image using background-size, the repeating gradient would only be
visible within the gradient image. If you then repeated it using
background-repeat, you could very easily be back to the situation of
having discontinuities in your background, as illustrated in Figure 9-104:

h1.exmpl {background:
    repeating-linear-gradient(-45deg, purple 0px, gold 50px, purple 100px)
    top left/50px 50px repeat;}

Figure 9-104. Repeated tiling of repeating-gradient images

If you use percentages in your repeating linear gradients, they’ll be
placed the same as if the gradient wasn’t of the repeating variety. Then
again, this would mean that all of the gradients defined by those color
stops would be seen and none of the repetitions would be visible, so
percentages are kind of pointless with repeating linear gradients.

On the other hand, percentages can be very useful with repeating radial
gradients, where the size of the circle or ellipse is defined,
percentage positions along the gradient ray are defined, and you can see
beyond the endpoint of the gradient ray. For example, assume:

.allhail {background:
    repeating-radial-gradient(100px 50px, purple, gold 20%, green 40%,
                              purple 60%, yellow 80%, purple);}

Given this rule, there will be a color stop every 20 pixels, with the
colors repeating in the declared pattern. Because the first and last
color stops have the same color value, there is no hard color switch.
The ripples just spread out forever, or at least until they’re beyond
the edges of the gradient image. See Figure 9-105 for an example.

Figure 9-105. Repeating radial gradients

Just imagine what that would look like with a repeating radial gradient
of a rainbow!

.wdim {background:
        100px circle at bottom center,
        rgb(83%,83%,83%) 50%,
        violet 55%, indigo 60%, blue 65%, green 70%,
        yellow 75%, orange 80%, red 85%,
        rgb(47%,60%,73%) 90%

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when creating repeating
radial gradients:

  • If you don’t declare size dimensions for a radial, it will default to an ellipse that has the same height-to-width ratio as the overall gradient image; and, if you don’t declare a size for the image with background-size, the gradient image will default to the height and width of the element background where it’s being applied. (Or, in the case of being used as a list-style bullet, the size that the browser gives it.)

  • The default radial size value is farthest-corner. This will put the endpoint of the gradient ray far enough to the right that its ellipse intersects with the corner of the gradient image that’s furthest from the center point of the radial gradient.

These are reiterated here to remind you that if you stick to the
defaults, there’s not really any point to having a repeating gradient,
since you’ll only be able to see the first iteration of the repeat. It’s
only when you restrict the initial size of the gradient that the repeats
become visible.


Radial gradients, and in particular repeating radial gradients,
created massive performance drains in older mobile devices. Crashes were not uncommon in these situations, and both page rendering time and
battery performance could suffer greatly. Think very, very carefully about
using radial gradients in mobile contexts, and be sure to rigorously
test their performance and stability in any context, especially if you have users with older devices (and therefore older browsers).

Average gradient colors

Another edge case is what happens if a repeating gradient’s first and
last color stops somehow end up being in the same place. For example,
suppose your fingers missed the “5” key and you accidentally declared
the following:

repeating-radial-gradient(center, purple 0px, gold 0px)

The first and last color stops are zero pixels apart, but the gradient
is supposed to repeat ad infinitum along the gradient line. Now what?

In such a case, the browser finds the average gradient color and fills
it in throughout the entire gradient image. In our simple case in the preceding code, that will be a 50/50 blend of purple and gold (which will be about #C06C40 or rgb(75%,42%,25%)). Thus, the resulting gradient image should be a solid orangey-brown, which doesn’t really look much like a gradient.

This condition can also be triggered in cases where the browser rounds
the color-stop positions to zero, or cases where the distance between
the first and last color stops is so small as compared to the output
resolution that nothing useful can be rendered. This could happen if,
for example, a repeating radial gradient used all percentages for the
color-stop positions and was sized using closest-side, but was
accidentally placed into a corner.


As of late 2017, no browsers really do this correctly. It is
possible to trigger some of the correct behaviors under very
limited conditions, but in most cases, browsers either just use the
last color stop as a fill color, or else try really hard to draw
sub-pixel repeating patterns.

Box Shadows

In an earlier chapter, we explored the property text-shadow, which adds a drop shadow to the text of a non-replaced element. There’s a version of this that creates a shadow for the box of an element, called box-shadow.

It might seem a little out of place to talk about shadows in a chapter mostly concerned with backgrounds and gradients, but there’s a reason it goes here, which we’ll see in a moment.

Let’s consider a simple box drop shadow: one that’s 10 pixels down and 10 pixels to the right of an element box, with no spread or blur, and a half-opaque black. Behind it we’ll put a repeating background on the body element. All of this is illustrated in Figure 9-106.

#box {background: silver; border: medium solid;
     box-shadow: 10px 10px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}

Figure 9-106. A simple box shadow

We can see that the body’s background is visible through the half-opaque (or half-transparent, if you prefer) drop shadow. Because no blur or spread distances were defined, the drop shadow exactly mimics the outer shape of the element box itself. At least, it appears to do so.

The reason it only appears to mimc the shape of the box is that the shadow is only visible outside the outer border edge of the element. We couldn’t really see that in the previous figure, because the element had an opaque background. You might have just assumed that the shadow extended all the way under the element, but it doesn’t. Consider the following, illustrated in Figure 9-107.

#box {background: transparent; border: thin dashed;
     box-shadow: 10px 10px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}

Figure 9-107. Box shadows are incomplete

So it looks as though the element’s content (and padding and border) area “knocks out” part of the shadow. In truth, it’s just that the shadow was never drawn there, due to the way box shadows are defined in the specification. This does mean, as Figure 9-107 demonstrates, that any background “behind” the box with a drop shadow can be visible through the element itself. This (perhaps bizarre-seeming) interaction with the backgrounds and borders is why box-shadow is covered here, instead of at an earlier point in the text.

So far, we’ve seen box shadows defined with two length values. The first defines a horizontal offset, and the second a vertical offset. Positive numbers move the shadow down and to right right, and negative numbers move the shadow up and to the left.

If a third length is given, it defines a blur distance, which determines how much space is given to blurring. A fourth length defines a spread distance, which change the size of the shadow. Positive length values make the shadow expand before blurring happens; negative values cause the shadow to shrink. The following have the results shown in Figure 9-108.

.box:nth-of-type(1) {box-shadow: 1em 1em 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(2) {box-shadow: 2em 0.5em 0.25em rgba(128,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(3) {box-shadow: 0.5em 2ch 1vw 13px rgba(0,128,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(4) {box-shadow: -10px 25px 5px -5px rgba(0,128,128,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(5) {box-shadow: 0.67em 1.33em 0 -0.1em rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(6) {box-shadow: 0.67em 1.33em 0.2em -0.1em rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(7) {box-shadow: 0 0 2ch 2ch rgba(128,128,0,0.5);}

Figure 9-108. Various blurred and spread shadows

You may have noticed that some of the boxes in Figure 9-108 have rounded corners (via border-radius), and that their shadows were curved to match. This is the defined behavior, fortunately.

There’s one aspect of box-shadow we have yet to cover, which is the inset keyword. If inset is added to the value of box-shadow, then the shadow is rendered inside the box, as if the box were a punched-out hole in the canvas rather than floating above it (visually speaking). Let’s take the previous set of examples and redo them with inset shadows. This will have the result shown in Figure 9-109.

.box:nth-of-type(1) {box-shadow: inset 1em 1em 2px rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(2) {box-shadow: inset 2em 0.5em 0.25em rgba(128,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(3) {box-shadow: 0.5em 2ch 1vw 13px rgba(0,128,0,0.5) inset;}
.box:nth-of-type(4) {box-shadow: inset -10px 25px 5px -5px  rgba(0,128,128,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(5) {box-shadow: 0.67em 1.33em 0 -0.1em rgba(0,0,0,0.5) inset;}
.box:nth-of-type(6) {box-shadow: inset 0.67em 1.33em 0.2em -0.1em rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
.box:nth-of-type(7) {box-shadow: 0 0 2ch 2ch rgba(128,128,0,0.5) inset;}

Figure 9-109. Various inset shadows

Note that the inset keyword can appear before the rest of the value, or after, but not in the middle of the lengths and colors. A value like 0 0 0.1em inset gray would be ignored as invalid, because of the placement of the inset keyword.

The last thing to note is that you can apply to an element a list of as many comma-separated box shadows as you like, just as with text shadows. Some could be inset, and some outset. The following rules are just two of the infinite possibilities.

#shadowbox {background: #EEE;
     box-shadow: inset 1ch 1ch 0.25ch rgba(0,0,0,0.25),
          1.5ch 1.5ch 0.4ch rgba(0,0,0,0.33);}
#wacky {box-shadow: inset 10px 2vh 0.77em 1ch red,
     1cm 1in 0 -1px cyan inset,
     2ch 3ch 0.5ch hsla(117,100%,50%,0.343),
     -2ch -3ch 0.5ch hsla(297,100%,50%,0.23);}

The filter property is another way to create element drop shadows, although it is much closer in behavior to text-shadow than box-shadow, albeit applying to the entire element box and text. See Chapter 19 for details.


Setting colors and backgrounds on elements gives authors a great deal of
power. The advantage of CSS over traditional methods is that colors and
backgrounds can be applied to any element in a document.

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