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A Close-up Look at the CSS mix-blend-mode Property

By Maria Antonietta Perna

Up until not too long ago, creating artistic effects on your web graphics could be done only by using complex image editors like Photoshop or GIMP. How cool would it be to mix two or more background colors, or two images, into one new digital art piece straight from your CSS?

This is exactly what you can do with the CSS3’s background-blend-mode and mix-blend-mode properties. In this post I will focus on the capabilities of the mix-blend-mode property and how you can leverage these capabilities in your projects.

But first, let’s examine blend modes more closely.

What are Blend Modes?

Blend modes come into play in compositing operations of graphical elements. Compositing is just a technical word for layering two or more images to combine them into a single image. A layer’s blend mode determines how the pixels on that layer interact with the visible pixels on the layers below it.

When compositing two elements, the bottom one is called destination and the top one is called source. The overlapping content behind the top element is where the blending occurs, and it’s called backdrop.

Source and Destination/Backdrop

Blend modes such as overlay, multiply, screen, etc., achieve different results according to some mathematical formula that we don’t need to master in order to create visually interesting composited elements. If you’d like to dive deeper into how each blend mode works, this Ultimate Guide to Photoshop Blend Modes by Pye is a must-read.

The simple blend mode available to pure CSS has been the opacity property: full opacity on the top element hides the overlapping regions of the bottom element; less than full opacity reveals the element below.

This can accomplish some pleasant results, but nothing as sophisticated as Photoshop-like blend modes — until the W3C Compositing and Blending specification arrived.

This spec introduces three properties, background-blend-mode, mix-blend-mode, and isolation, and makes possible the use of sixteen CSS blend modes.

The default blend mode value is normal, which doesn’t apply any blending. If all you want to blend are background colors or background images, try out the background-blend-mode property. To find out a few neat tricks about this property, head over to Chaining Multiple Blend Modes by Robin Rendle.

Let’s now take a look at the mix-blend-mode property and how the isolation property can help when blending HTML elements.

The mix-blend-mode Property

The exciting thing about the CSS3 mix-blend-mode property is that you can quickly blend images, including SVG images, as well as other HTML elements.

How to Apply Blending to SVG

Here’s how to apply the difference blend mode to a basic SVG graphic.

The HTML:

<svg width="467" height="462">
  <rect x="80" y="60" width="250" height="250" rx="1" fill="pink" />
  <rect x="140" y="120" width="250" height="250" rx="80" fill="blue" />
  <rect x="180" y="180" width="250" height="250" rx="1" fill="turquoise" />
</svg>

The CSS:

rect {
  mix-blend-mode: difference;
}

What the SVG graphic looks like without applying any blend mode:

SVG without blending applied

… and what it looks like with the difference blend mode applied:

SVG with blending applied

Here’s the CodePen demo:

See the Pen SVG with Difference Blend Mode by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

How to Blend HTML Elements

Blending two or more HTML elements can lead to subtle artistic results. For instance, layering this cityscape image (the source):

Source image

… on top of this sea image (the destination/backdrop):

Destination image

… while applying the hard-light blend mode to the source and the difference blend mode to the destination, achieves this result:

Source and backdrop blending of two images

Here’s the CSS that accomplishes the blending:

/* destination/backdrop image */
.box img {
  mix-blend-mode: multiply;
}

/* source image */
.box .top-img {
  mix-blend-mode: difference;
}

When using this technique, ensure the edges of the blended image don’t show through to spoil the effect.

You can produce some inventive visual effects by blending text with images. Instantly the text acquires texture and personality. As an example of how to do this using the CSS mix-blend-mode property, here’s the previous example with some text layered on top of the surreal watery cityscape:

Blending text with images

The text is blended on the images using this CSS snippet:

.box h1 {
  mix-blend-mode: overlay;
}

Visit the live demo and experiment with different blend modes:

See the Pen NqRxmZ by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

When Isolation Comes into Play

There may be times when you come up with an attractive visual effect that blends images, colors, and text, but the background of what is behind the mixed elements spoils your entire design.

This happens because the mix-blend-mode property blends with every visual element layered below it. Here’s a case in point.

Let’s say you have an HTML structure similar to this:

<body>
  <div>
    <img src="path/image.jpg" alt="example">
    <h1>City</h1>
  </div>
</body>

An img and h1 element are nested inside a div element, contained inside the body.

Next, in your CSS document, apply a background image to the body and the mix-blend-mode property to the image and the heading, like this:

body {
  background: url(path/pattern.png);
}

div img {
  mix-blend-mode: multiply;
}

div h1 {
  mix-blend-mode: overlay;
}

Depending on the background image (mine is a decidedly loud) and your chosen colors and blend mode, you could end up with a result similar to this:

Issue with image blending with background

However, what you’re really after is something closer to this:

isolate property to solve image blending with background

Your goal is to have text and image nicely blending together, but without any interference from the page background. Here’s how you can do this.

The trick lies in understanding the concept of a stacking context. Think of stacking contexts in terms of a chest of drawers. Each drawer is self-contained and separate from other drawers. Inside each drawer are placed layers of different items.

In the above example, the div containing the image and the heading is inside the same stacking context as the body element. To keep the page background out of the blending, the right move is to detach the div element from the body. You do this by creating a new stacking context on the div which, much like a self-contained drawer, will keep its items separate from their surroundings.

You can do the job in different ways, but CSS offers the handy isolation property just for this. The default value is auto. Using the isolate value instead creates a new stacking context.

Try commenting out the isolation property on the div element in the demo and check the result for yourself:

See the Pen Text/Image blend with mix-blend-mode by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

Is the mix-blend-mode Property Animatable?

The Compositing and Blending specification makes this point very clear: the mix-blend-mode property can’t be animated. One alternative is to use CSS filters instead, which are animatable properties.

A second approach is to blend an image with a background color and then animate the background-color property. Check out Fading effects using blend modes by Ion Rosca for some amazing results using this technique.

Alternatively, as a workaround, you could fake the animation of the mix-blend-mode property on an element by creating a duplicate of the element and animating the duplicate’s opacity value. This technique is inspired by Dave Lunny’s CSS-only solution to animating CSS3 gradients.

Let’s say you’d like gradually to change the blend mode of an h1 element on a hover state, here’s what you could do:

The HTML:

<div class="box">
  <h1>Hover to Animate Me</h1>
</div>

The key CSS declarations:

.box {
  background: url(path/image.jpg) no-repeat;
  mix-blend-mode: luminosity;
}

/* original h1 element with hard-light blend mode */ 
.box h1 {
  position: relative;
  mix-blend-mode: hard-light;
}

/* duplicate of h1 element with multiply blend mode */
.box h1:before {
  content: "Hover to Animate Me";
  display: block;
  opacity: 0;
  position: absolute;
  top: 0;
  left: 0;
  bottom: 0;
  right:0;
  mix-blend-mode: multiply;
  transition: opacity .5s linear;
}

/* hovering on the image transitions the duplicate's opacity to 1 */
.box:hover h1:before {
  opacity: 1;
}

In the code block above we do the following:

  • Duplicate the h1 element using a pseudo-element (alternatively, you can choose to embed the duplicate directly in the HTML document)
  • Place the duplicate on top of the original using absolute positioning
  • Hide the pseudo-element by setting its opacity value to 0
  • Apply different blend modes to the original element and the pseudo-element
  • Finally, transition the opacity of the pseudo-element to a value of 1 on hover. This shows the duplicate and hides the original h1 element with a subtle animation effect.

Check out the live demo to see this solution in action:

See the Pen Animating CSS mix-blend-mode by SitePoint (@SitePoint) on CodePen.

Browser Support

The CSS mix-blend-mode property is supported by the latest version of all major desktop browsers except Internet Explorer. Note that although caniuse.com indicates that Opera has no support, this is not correct and will likely be fixed soon.

Lack of support, however, shouldn’t let this stop you from using mix-blend-mode right now. Blending elements achieves an enhanced visual effect that gracefully degrades to the default appearance in non supporting browsers – access to information for your users is not at stake.

Tools and Resources

Experimenting with CSS is fun. That’s why I’ve set up a small interactive demo that lets you select from all the CSS blend modes available, change a few background colors on the body element, and toggle the isolation property to isolate the background from the image.

If you’d like to upload your own image to see the effect of applying each blend mode to it, I warmly recommend you try out the CSS Blender tool by Sara Soueidan.

Here are some relevant links if you want to look more into this powerful CSS feature:

Conclusion

Here I’ve offered a quick introduction on how to apply blend modes to SVG and HTML elements using the mix-blend-mode property. Now you can add sophisticated visual effects to your web designs by CSS alone, no professional-grade image manipulation software required. This by itself is no small feat.

Feel free to experiment with the live demos, expand on them, and start enhancing your web creations with this cool CSS3 property.

I look forward to your feedback!

  • Shane Spader

    Great information thanks for sharing.

  • http://ramonlapenta.com/ Ramon Lapenta

    This sadly doesn’t work on Chrome under Windows 7, and it doesn’t degrade gracefully either (all the samples look just black), which makes it impossible to use for client projects.

    • Antonella

      Hi Ramon,
      There seems to be a ‘difference’ in the way Chrome handles the ‘difference’ blend mode with respect to Firefox. If you replace the difference blend mode in the code with something else, e.g., overlay, screen, etc., it should show interesting effects. On the other hand, when you see the examples in IE, which doesn’t support this property at all, the page degrades gracefully in that no effect is applied and the top image retains its original appearance without blending.

      Thank you for pointing this out.

      • http://ramonlapenta.com/ Ramon Lapenta

        I was using “multiply” in this case, but I tried also others and the result was the same, my boxes completely disappear in Chrome on Windows 7 :(

        I was expecting the property to be ignored in case of lack of support, but is actually breaking my site.

        • Antonella

          Yes, Ramon, ignoring the unsupported property is the expected behavior. Also, I seem to remember I tested my demos on Chrome in Windows 8.1 at the time I wrote this article (I always do it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have done it this time too), and they were working fine; they aren’t now. I’ve just checked Opera and the demos work fine there. Could this have something to do with a Chrome update?

          It’s very interesting, thank you again for reporting this bug.

          • Chris

            I’m experiencing the exact same thing – mix-blend-mode with value “multiply” is working everywhere except in Chrome / Win 8.1. I was equally sure to have tested in this browser before, but now it’s broken. Really looks like a bug in the most recent version (46.0.2490.80 m at the time of writing this). Let’s hope for a proper fix in the next update!

          • Antonella

            Thanks Chris for confirming this :)

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