5 Best Ways to Obtain 3D Colored Surfaces via Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: In data visualization, creating 3D colored surfaces can greatly enhance the comprehensibility and aesthetic appeal of complex data sets. Python users might require displaying geographical landscapes, visualizing mathematical functions, or creating abstract art. This article discusses how to obtain a 3D colored surface from an input data set, such as a list of x, y, z coordinates, with the desired output being a visual, colored 3D representation of this data.

Method 1: Using matplotlib

Matplotlib is a versatile plotting library for Python that offers a module called mplot3d for 3D graphics. By employing the Axes3D object and its plot_surface method, users can create 3D colored surfaces. This method supports a wide range of colormaps and customization options, perfect for both scientific applications and creative visualizations.

Here’s an example:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D
import numpy as np

x = np.outer(np.linspace(-2, 2, 30), np.ones(30))
y = x.copy().T
z = np.cos(x ** 2 + y ** 2)

fig = plt.figure()
ax = fig.add_subplot(111, projection='3d')
surf = ax.plot_surface(x, y, z, cmap='viridis')

The output is a window displaying a 3D colored surface plot with a color bar representing the height values.

This code snippet creates a grid of x and y values, calculates the corresponding z values using the cosine function, and then uses Matplotlib’s plot_surface method to create and display the colored surface. The cmap='viridis' argument applies a colormap to the surface to indicate elevation gradient.

Method 2: Using Plotly

Plotly’s Python graphing library enables users to create interactive, publication-quality graphs. By using Plotly’s plotly.graph_objs module, particularly the Surface class, developers can construct 3D colored surfaces that are interactive, with zoom and rotate capabilities, ideal for web-based presentations and applications.

Here’s an example:

import plotly.graph_objs as go
import plotly.offline as pyo
import numpy as np

x = np.outer(np.linspace(-2, 2, 30), np.ones(30))
y = x.copy().T
z = np.sin(x ** 2 + y ** 2)

surface = go.Surface(x=x, y=y, z=z, colorscale='Viridis')
data = [surface]
layout = go.Layout(
    title='3D Colored Surface Plot',
    scene=dict(zaxis=dict(range=[-1, 1]))
fig = go.Figure(data=data, layout=layout)
pyo.plot(fig, filename='3d_colored_surface.html')

The output is an HTML file containing an interactive 3D colored surface plot that users can explore via a web browser.

The code generates a grid of x and y values, and computes the z values as the sine of x^2 + y^2. It then defines a Surface object with the computed coordinates and applies a colormap. The go.Figure combines the data and layout, and pyo.plot generates an interactive HTML file to view the plot.

Method 3: Using Mayavi

Mayavi is a powerful 3D scientific data visualization and plotting tool that integrates seamlessly with numpy. It provides a high-level scripting interface for 3D plotting, which is perfect for rendering large-scale volumetric data. Mayavi’s mplot3d toolkit allows for fine-grained control over the visual appearance of 3D surfaces, including their color and opacity.

Here’s an example:

from mayavi import mlab
import numpy as np

x, y = np.mgrid[-3:3:100j, -3:3:100j]
z = np.sin(x**2 + y**2)

mlab.figure(bgcolor=(1, 1, 1))
surf = mlab.surf(x, y, z, colormap='RdYlBu')
mlab.colorbar(surf, orientation='vertical')

The output is a 3D representation of a sinusoidal surface colored using the ‘RdYlBu’ colormap.

This snippet generates a sinusoidal surface by computing the x, y, and z components using NumPy’s meshgrid function. Mayavi’s surf function is then used to plot the surface, with the background set to white and a vertical colorbar added for clarity.

Method 4: Using PyVista

PyVista is a simplified interface to the VTK library for 3D plotting and mesh analysis through an intuitive set of Python tools. PyVista provides a straightforward API for creating complex 3D visualizations and is specifically tailored for scientific computing and geometrical analysis.

Here’s an example:

import pyvista as pv
import numpy as np

x = np.arange(-3, 3, 0.1)
y = np.arange(-3, 3, 0.1)
x, y = np.meshgrid(x, y)
z = np.sin(x**2 + y**2)

grid = pv.StructuredGrid(x, y, z)
plotter = pv.Plotter()
plotter.add_mesh(grid, cmap='coolwarm')

The output is a standalone window that shows a 3D surface, which users can interact with by rotating and zooming.

The code creates a grid of x, y, and z values with PyVista’s mesh grid capabilities and displays a 3D plot of the sinusoidal surface using the coolwarm colormap for visual appeal.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Using PyOpenGL

For users comfortable with OpenGL’s low-level API, PyOpenGL provides Python bindings to create fully customizable 3D graphics. This approach affords maximum control over the graphics pipeline but requires a solid understanding of OpenGL’s rendering techniques.

Here’s an example:

# This is a conceptual one-liner and will not run without additional OpenGL setup code
show_surface(lambda x, y: np.sin(x**2 + y**2), colormap='Spectral')

The output would be a customized 3D surface plot rendered directly via the OpenGL library.

While this example is conceptual and oversimplified for brevity, it conceptually represents how you might call a function to render a surface using OpenGLβ€”this typically requires more setup and understanding of the graphics pipeline for proper execution.


  • Method 1: Matplotlib. Well-suited for simple plots and scientific papers. Extensive documentation. Limited interactivity and performance with large data sets.
  • Method 2: Plotly. Creates interactive plots ideal for web applications. User-friendly API. Higher learning curve and requires a web browser for viewing.
  • Method 3: Mayavi. Offers beautiful and sophisticated visualizations, especially for large volumetric data. Steeper learning curve and heavier computational requirements.
  • Method 4: PyVista. Simplifies complex 3D visualizations, combining user-friendliness with powerful analysis features. Limited community support compared to other libraries.
  • Bonus Method 5: PyOpenGL. Offers maximum control and customization. Best for advanced users familiar with the OpenGL ecosystem. Steep learning curve and complex setup.