Coding Colour with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico Displays

Coding Colour with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico Displays

Got a Waveshare Raspberry Pi Pico LCD display but not sure where to start? How about experimenting with colours and shapes with MicroPython!

In this article we will show you colour control using MicroPython with Waveshare Raspberry Pi Pico displays, including:

  • How screen colours are controlled
  • Basic text and graphical drawing instructions - rectangles
  • How to input values from potentiometers within a given range
  • How to build a simple colour mixing application with additional components

What you’ll need

Display Options

We sell several bright and colourful Pico displays from Waveshare with different sizes, pixel counts and features. In order of size:

These displays all plug directly into the pins of your Pico and are programmed in the same way but require slightly different driver code, supplied by Waveshare via their Wiki pages.

Comparing the displays

All these displays need some memory in the Pico, a 'buffer', to hold the data to be displayed on the screen. As the number of pixels increases so does the size of this buffer requirement and the space available for code decreases. As the pixel size gets smaller the basic text gets progressively harder the read as it is so small.


0.96" 1.3" 1.44" 1.8" 2.0"
Pixels 160x80 240x240 128x128 160x128 320x240
Buffer 25600 115200 32768 40960 153600
Driver ST7735S ST7789 ST7735S ST7735S ST7789VW
Joystick Y Y N N N
Buttons 2 4 4 0 4
GPIO used 13 15 10 6 10

For this tutorial we are going to use the 1.44” 128x128 display as it provides a good compromise between basic text size, number of pixels on the display for graphics, buffer size, input buttons and price. The code is easily converted to run on the other displays.

Hardware Connection

This is simple – just push the Pico’s pins into the socket on the rear of the display and use the USB cable to connect it to your computer. Make sure you have it the right way round - the USB end is marked on the bottom of the board. Once Thonny has been installed we are ready to go.

As usual, Waveshare provide a basic example MicroPython program with the driver included. You can find the documentation and code here.

The file needs to be unzipped. The code is quite long because it contains the complicated driver for the board, but we do not need to understand how it works to make full use of it. 

The co-ordinate system

With the buttons on the right and the USB cable on the left, the top left corner is the origin with x = 0 and y = 0 (0, 0)

This screen has a width and height of 128 pixels so the bottom right corner will be (127, 127). The pixels are counted 0 to 127 inclusive.

The most useful section is here:

LCD = LCD_1inch44()
#color BRG
The first line initialises the display using the driver code at the start of the program. It calls the display device LCD, but we could call it something different – but using LCD makes typing code easier!

The next instruction fills the display buffer with the number representing BLACK (at this point the display does not change):
The third instruction sends the contents of the buffer to the display and turns it BLACK (still no actual display change yet):
It is very important to remember that we can keep writing values to the screen buffer but the screen does not update and show us the changes until the following instruction is executed:
The line below draws a solid rectangle on the screen starting at position (15, 40) 75 pixels wide and 12 pixels deep in a colour called YELLOW:
The following line draws an outline rectangle, also in YELLOW:
This line writes the text 1in44-LCD inside the YELLOW rectangle with WHITE pixels.

Investigating the colour coding system

All of these Waveshare displays use 16-bit colour codes to mix colours by varying the brightness ratios of red, green and blue in each pixel. As human eyes are more sensitive to green light, an extra bit is given to the green component. This code is called RGB565 with 5 bits for red and blue and 6 bits for green.

5-bits provide 32 different levels of brightness, 0 to 31, and 6-bits allow 64 levels, 0 to 63. By mixing these together we can generate 32 x 64 x 32 = 65536 different colours!

Red and Blue brightness levels will be: OFF, or a combination of 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16. Green will be OFF, or a combination of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 32.

Each of these coloured-brightness levels is switched on or off by a single bit in a 2 byte, 16-bit number. If more than one is switched on at the same time the brightness adds up. If all are switched off the screen shows black. If all are switched on the screen shows white.

We need to know which colour, and how bright each of the 16 bits of the colour control values, contribute to the final colour.

This code helps find the answer:

bits = []
bit = 1
for i in range(16):
    bit = bit *2
It creates a list of the powers of 2, from least significant to most significant for the 16-bits in our colour control number. bits[0] = 1 and bits{15] = 32768 [1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768]
hexx = "0123456789ABCDEF" # Bit count in base 16 – Hexadecimal – as a string.
The following instructions clear the screen and write a heading:
lcd.text("Colour",25,5,colour(255,0,0))         # RED Screen heading
lcd.text("Control",25,15,colour(0,200,0))       # GREEN
lcd.text("Bits 0-15",25,25,colour(0,0,255))     # BLUE
These instructions take each bit in turn and draws a rectangle on the screen in the colour/brightness controlled by that single bit. The Hex value is then drawn on the rectangle.
for i in range(16):
    bit = 15 - i
    lcd.fill_rect(i*8,40,8,90,bits[bit])  # Coloured rectangle      
    lcd.text(hexx[bit],i*8,50+i*4,colour(150,150,150)) # Hex symbol   # Makes the instructions visible on the screen
utime.sleep(7) # Delay for 7 seconds

Executing this code produces the following image:

Waveshare LCD colour control

Probably not what you expected!

Blue is controlled by bits 3,4,5,6 and 7
Red is controlled by bits 8,9,10,11 and 12
Green is controlled by bits 13,14,15,0,1 and 2

In each case listing dimmest to brightest. You can even see the individual pixels. To get the brightest rendering of each colour all its control bits have to be turned on together:

  • 11100000 00000111 is brightest green
  • 00011111 00000000 is brightest red
  • 00000000 11111000 is brightest blue
  • 00000000 00000000 is black = 0x0000
  • 11111111 11111111 is brightest white => red, green and blue all full on => 0xFFFF

Making it simpler with RGB!

These binary patterns are difficult to understand. So, we have written a function to produce any of the available colours from a much simpler system. You can use:

code = colour(r, g, b)

where r, g and b represent the brightness of the three basic colours in the range 0 to 255. For example:

  • red = colour(255, 0, 0) is bright red
  • green = colour(0, 255, 0) is bright green
  • blue = colour(0, 0, 127) is half-power blue
  • yellow = colour(255, 255, 0) Red + Green
  • cyan = colour(0, 255, 255) Green + Blue
  • magenta = colour(255, 0, 255) Red + Blue
  • white = colour(255, 255 ,255) Red + Green + Blue
  • mid-grey = (127, 127, 127) Half brightness of white

(If you have used addressable RGB LEDS you will be familiar with this RGB888 format to define a colour.)

Here is the function:

def colour(R,G,B): # Convert RGB888 to RGB565
    return (((G&0b00011100)<<3) +((R&0b11111000)>>3)<<8) + (B&0b11111000)+((G&0b11100000)>>5)

This involves bit-masks and bit shifting. You do not need to understand how it works to use it but this may help if you want to understand what is going on:

7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0    7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0   7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0   (RGB888 = 24-bit -> 3 separate bytes).

These bits are transformed into this:

4 3 2 7 6 5 4 3   7 6 5 4 3 7 6 5   (RGB565 = 16-bit -> 2 bytes holding a 16-bit number)

Here's an explanation to make it clearer (if you're curious!):

Least significant byte

((G&0b11100000)>>5) Select the top 3 green bits and shift 5 places right -> 00000111

(B&0b11111000) Select all the blue bits -> 11111000

Most significant byte

((G&0b00011100)<<3) Select the lowest 3 green bits and shift 3 places left ->1110000

((R&0b11111000)>>3) Select all the red bits and shift 3 places right -> 00011111

<<8 Shift whole byte left 8 places => more significant byte

The end result is: 11111111 11111111

Download the Programs

You can download the 5 Colour Check programs here:

Demonstrated Procedures

This procedure clears the screen to the given colour:

def clear(c):

clear(0) # Black background

clear(colour(160, 160, 160)) # Grey background
The next section of code shows each of the single bit colours on a full screen with the bit number and colour bit number:
srs =["Green 4","Green 5","Green 6","Blue 0","Blue 1","Blue 2","Blue 3","Blue 4","Red 0","Red 1","Red 2","Red 3","Red 4","Green 0","Green 1","Green 2"]
for i in range(16):
    lcd.text("Bit "+str(i),20,20,colour(200,200,200))
The last section of code shows the use of the colour() function with some simple text examples and calculates how much memory is still available for extra code:
lcd.text("Dark Orange",0,60,colour(255,165,0))
lcd.text("Mem free: "+str(gc.mem_free()),0,70,0xFFFF)
Then a tidy up at the end:
pwm.duty_u16(32768)#max 65535 ========= HALF BRIGHTNESS

Note: The colour constants given in the 1.44” driver are not all correct. That is why the YELLOW background appears to look pink. We suggest you use the colour(R, G, B) function.

At this point we ported the code to work on the other four displays and found that they use a slightly different system - the blue and red bits have been swapped over:

Waveshare colour control example 2

For these boards we need to change the colour function to:

def colour(R,G,B): # Convert RGB888 to RGB565
    return (((G&0b00011100)<<3) +((B&0b11111000)>>3)<<8) + (R&0b11111000)+((G&0b11100000)>>5)

Just exchange the R and B variable positions.

Easy-Start Downloadable Setup Programs

To make things easy we are providing minimum setup programs for each of the 5 boards. Each program includes the correct screen driver, sets up the buttons and joystick, if available, and includes the correct version of the colour(R, G ,B) function. It also displays a 3-line colour check at the start.

You can download the basic program to drive your board here:

Each program contains the screen driver code, sets up the buttons/joystick and sets the width and height variables correctly, loads the essential libraries, defines the colour(R, G, B) and clear(c) procedures. It then displays some colour checking text.

We suggest that you save the one for your board and use it as a starting point for developing new projects.

Things to try

1. Draw 50 randomly sized rectangles in random colours on the screen. Hint: Here's how to generate random numbers:

import random
for i in range(10):
    print(random.randint(0,255)) #numbers in range 0 - 255

2. Near the centre of the screen, on a dark grey background, display your name, in red, and post/zip code, in cyan. Indent the post code by 10 pixels more than your name.

3. Centre both the name and post code on their lines.

Colour mixing project

At this point we need to separate the Pico and the display. We need access to some of the GPIO pins to attach three 10 K 0hm potentiometers. You could press the Pico into a breadboard or, more conveniently use a Pico Decker, which has all the Pico pins neatly numbered and named. The circuit is shown in the diagram.

Waveshare Pico LCD project

If your display has buttons, you will not need the extra one here. Connect up the SPI, power and button pins from your display (the product page/Wiki page for your particular display will show the pinout).

Connections to the breadboard circuit

  • Black to GND
  • Orange to 3.3V
  • Red to ADC0 = GP26
  • Green to ADC1 = GP27
  • Blue to ADC2 = GP28
  • Yellow to GP15 = Key0 on the 1.44” display

In Thonny make a new copy of the Colour Check program for your display.
(File => Save as One

In the copy, delete the code below the # ========== END OF SETUP === MAIN =========== line.

Copy the following code and paste it onto the end of the program:

# Set up potentiometers
c = colour(0,0,0)    # BLACK

for i in range(100):
    r = rpot.read_u16()

pwm.duty_u16(32768)#max 65535 ========= HALF BRIGHTNESS
Save it and run the program.

Turn the turn the RED potentiometer, on GP26. You should see rapid colour changes on the screen and changes in the bottom window of Thonny – Shell area. The numbers should range from zero to 65535 – the full 16-bit range used for our colour codes. We usually get the top value, or very near it, but have never managed to get the zero.

For this project we need to obtain values from 0 to 255 to represent the three primary colours – red, green and blue. We will need to make some adjustments with the software!

Change to loop counter to 10. Turn the potentiometer to its low end and run the program again.

We got this:

So, we changed the loop to:
t = 0
for i in range(10):
    r = rpot.read_u16()
    t = t + r
print("Average: ",int(t/10))

Which then gave us:

Average: 348

Changing the pot reading line to:

r = int((rpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
If you run through the loop a hundred times you occasionally get a few -1 readings. We can easily fix this by adding two extra lines and simplifying:
for i in range(10):
    r = int((rpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if r < 0:
        r = 0

Now we can get accurate input values we can produce a colour mixing program. We need four rectangles. The three smaller rectangles show the setting for red, green and blue. The last, a larger rectangle shows the colour made by combining them.

Save the current program as Pots and replace the loop with:

for i in range(100):
    r = int((rpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if r < 0:
        r = 0
    g = int((gpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if g < 0:
        g = 0
    b = int((bpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if b < 0:
        b = 0
    print(r, g, b)

Turn all three pots in turn and check that the range of each is 0 – 255. The 1.44” display is 128 x 128 so we added these lines just above the loop and updated the loop.

width = 128   # Display size in pixels
height = 128  # Adjust for your display

w3 = int(width / 3)
h2 = int(height / 2)

while True:
    r = int((rpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if r < 0:
        r = 0
    g = int((gpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if g < 0:
        g = 0
    b = int((bpot.read_u16() - 348) /255)
    if b < 0:
        b = 0
    print(r, g, b)
    lcd.fill_rect(0,0,w3,h2,colour(r,0,0)) # RED
    lcd.fill_rect(w3+1,0,w3,h2,colour(0,g,0)) # GREEN
    lcd.fill_rect(w3*2+2,0,w3,h2,colour(0,0,b)) # BLUE
    lcd.fill_rect(0,h2,width,h2,colour(r,g,b)) # MIXED
    c = colour(255,255,255)
    if g > 200:
        c = 0
    c = colour(255,255,255)
    c = colour(255,255,255)
    if r+g+b > 300:
        c = 0
    lcd.text(str(hex(colour(r,g,b))),10 + int(width/2),10+h2,c)

How it works

  1. Calculate values for a third of the width and half the height
  2. Read the three pots and adjust the range to 0 – 255
  3. Draw the four rectangles: Red, Green, Blue and Mixed
  4. Write numeric values in the rectangles in a contrasting colour

Running the program and turning the pots allows the user to mix any of the available 65 K colours and read off the colour value.

You can download the finished code here: WS 1-44 128x128 Pots

Things to try

  1. Try turning the pots to find the colour codes for: Bright Orange, Bright Pink, Dark Brown, Light Brown, Violet, Light Yellow, Lime Green. ( might help if you are stuck.)
  2. Add the hex value in the 3 small rectangles
  3. Stop the loop by pressing the button; then tidy up
  4. Make the rectangles slightly smaller showing more black background Draw Red, Green, Blue and White frames round the rectangles
  5. Add a Title screen at the start, with instructions.

We hope you have found this tutorial useful and interesting!

About the Author

This article was written by Tony Goodhew. Tony is a retired teacher of computing who starting writing code back in 1968 when it was called programming - he started with FORTRAN IV on an IBM 1130! An active Raspberry Pi community member, his main interests now are coding in MicroPython, travelling and photography.

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Any idea of how to display a picture?

Any idea of how to display a picture?



Thank you so much for this tutorial. It clarify many questions that I had.

Thank you so much for this tutorial. It clarify many questions that I had.

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