Technical Blog - Overlays

6 May 2009

I like pictures. I think it’s neat that in Explorer you can put a little graphic in the bottom right of the listview. I wanted to do the same thing with an ObjectListView. Surely, it can’t be that difficult.

First step: be clear on what I want. I want a background image on the ListView. It has to stay fixed in place, not scrolling when the listview scrolls. It has to work on XP and Vista. It has to be easy to customise, ideally just setting an image within the IDE. If the image could be positioned in whatever corner, or have a varying level of transparency, those would be bonuses.

And obviously, I want it to work flawlessly – though I will be content with working spectacularly well.


The classic solution is to intercept the WM_ERASEBKGROUND message, erase the ClientRectangle, draw whatever you want, and the rest of the control then draws over what you’ve already drawn. Easy.

But it doesn’t work. Actually, it works, so long as you don’t double buffer the ListView. While the ListView is unbuffered, the image drawn in the WM_ERASEBKGROUND handler appears fine. But, when the control is double buffered, it doesn’t work.

This is because, when DoubleBuffered is set to true, it also sets the style AllPaintingInWmPaint style, which means: don’t use WM_ERASEBKGROUND, the paint handler will do everything, including erase the background. So, for a double- buffered ListView (which is what I want), drawing in the WM_ERASEBKGROUND handler doesn’t work.


The second try was to use LVM_SETBKIMAGE. This WinSDK message tells a listview control to draw an image under the control. Exactly what I wanted. But life is rarely that easy.

The first difficulty was actually making it work. TortoiseSVN sometimes has a background image on their list views, and Stefan had kindly documented some of his troubles in getting it to work. Using the information there, I managed to put an image under the control! Excellent... well not really.


As can be seen, this did put an image under the ListView, but with a number of unpleasant side-effects:

  • With a background image in place, row background colours no longer worked.
  • The background image was always hard pressed in the bottom right corner. The LVBKIMAGE structure has fields, xOffset and yOffset, which supposedly allow you to change this, but as far as I could see, they had no effect.
  • Under XP, images with transparent areas do not draw transparently - the transparent area is always coloured blue. This is even when LVBKIF_FLAG_ALPHABLEND flag is set.
  • Grid lines were drawn over the top of the image, which looked odd.
  • Icons on subitems made the subitem cell draw over the image.
  • Owner drawn cells always erased the image (I suspect this could be fixed).

The show stopper was with Details view. Column 0 always erased the image. I could live with the other problems but what’s the good of a underlay image when column 0 wipes it out? I checked to see if Stefan had found a solution for this one, but he hadn’t.

Custom Draw

Another possibility would be to tap into the custom draw facility that the Windows list view control offers. This is not the same as OwnerDraw in .NET, though they are related.

Michael Dunn wrote a great introduction to custom drawing for CodeProject, which is required reading for anyone wanting to understand or use custom drawing.

The basic structure of custom drawing is (or at least should be):

-> WmPaint
    NmCustomDraw: PreErase
    NmCustomDraw: PostErase
    NmCustomDraw: PrePaint
        [For each visible item]
        NmCustomDraw: ItemPreErase
        NmCustomDraw: ItemPostErase
        NmCustomDraw: ItemPrePaint
        NmCustomDraw: ItemPostPaint
    NmCustomDraw: PostPaint
<- WmPaint

In actuality, none of the Erase notifications are actually sent (see here). This isn’t a problem for me, but it’s something to be aware of in any case.

So, if we intercept the PostPaint stage, we should be able to draw our image over the top of the already painted control. This is slightly different from the other two solutions: there, the image is drawn first and then the control painted over the top; but here, the control is painted first and the image painted on top. As long as the image is drawn in a translucent/transparent manner, the contents of the ListView would still be legible.

So the basic structure of HandleCustomPaint method will be like this:

unsafe protected void HandleCustomDraw(ref Message m) {
    const int CDDS_PREPAINT = 1;
    const int CDDS_POSTPAINT = 2;
    const int CDDS_PREERASE = 3;
    const int CDDS_POSTERASE = 4;
    const int CDDS_ITEM = 0x00010000;

    const int CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTPAINT = 0x10;
    const int CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTERASE = 0x40;

    NativeMethods.NMLVCUSTOMDRAW* lParam = (NativeMethods.NMLVCUSTOMDRAW*)m.LParam;

    switch (lParam->nmcd.dwDrawStage) {
        case CDDS_PREPAINT:
            base.WndProc(ref m);
            // Make sure that we get postpaint notifications
            m.Result = (IntPtr)((int)m.Result | CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTPAINT | CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTERASE);
        case CDDS_POSTPAINT:
            base.WndProc(ref m);
            base.WndProc(ref m);
            m.Result = (IntPtr)((int)m.Result | CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTPAINT | CDRF_NOTIFYPOSTERASE);
            base.WndProc(ref m);
        // We could listen for the erase events too, but they are never sent

The only interesting thing here is that in the PREPAINT stages, we have to specifically tell Windows that we also want to receive post paint and post erase messages.

In our case, we are interested in the post paint stage. We want to draw our image overlay after everything else has been painted:

    base.WndProc(ref m);
    using (Graphics g = Graphics.FromHdc(lParam->nmcd.hdc)) {

In the post paint stage, we cannot use a normal CreateGraphic() method. That would make a new DC, and we need to get the DC that the listview is using internally to double buffer the control. We can get a handle to that DC via the custom draw notification member, hdc. We create a Graphics from that handle using the Graphic.FromHdc() method. Now we can draw our overlay directly into the listview control’s own double buffered DC.

The DrawOverlay does the work of translucently drawing the image:

private void DrawOverlay(Graphics g) {
    if (this.OverlayImage == null)

    Point pt = this.CalculateAlignedLocation(this.ClientRectangle, this.OverlayImage.Size);

    ImageAttributes imageAttributes = new ImageAttributes();
    if (this.OverlayTransparency != 255) {
        float a = (float)this.OverlayTransparency / 255.0f;
        float[][] colorMatrixElements = {
            new float[] {1,  0,  0,  0, 0},
            new float[] {0,  1,  0,  0, 0},
            new float[] {0,  0,  1,  0, 0},
            new float[] {0,  0,  0,  a, 0},
            new float[] {0,  0,  0,  0, 1}};

        imageAttributes.SetColorMatrix(new ColorMatrix(colorMatrixElements));

       new Rectangle(pt, this.OverlayImage.Size),
       0, 0, image.Size.Width, this.OverlayImage.Size.Height,

After a few more tweaks and false starts, I could successful paint the image translucently over the list view. It all work perfectly and hubris reigned supreme... until I scrolled the listview.

Scrolling does a bitblt of the scrolled region of the listview, and then redraws the little bit that is revealed by the scrolling. This is excellent for appearances, but dreadful for me. The bitblt moves the image as well, and then redraws part of the image. So we ended up with two images.


This was less than ideal.

There is no way to tell the bitblt not to scroll the image. The image is part of the DC for the listview. The only way to prevent the image from scrolling is to remove it from the listview, do the scrolling, and then draw it again. This works but flickers annoyingly. This was far from my “works flawlessly” goal.

Now what?

Transparent Form

The fourth attempted solution was to make use of the Layered Windows API, which .NET exposes through the Opacity and TransparencyKey properties of Form.

The idea there would be to place a completely transparent form over the top of ListView, and then draw onto that form (Mathieu Jacques did the same thing with his LoadingCurtain idea). From the user’s point of view, the image appeared to be draw onto the ObjectListView, but from the ObjectListView point of view, the image was not there, so only the contents of the control itself was scrolled.

The GlassPanelForm implemented this transparent overlay:

public partial class GlassPanelForm : Form
    public GlassPanelForm() {
        SetStyle(ControlStyles.Selectable, false);
        FormBorderStyle = FormBorderStyle.None;
        SizeGripStyle = SizeGripStyle.Hide;
        StartPosition = FormStartPosition.Manual;
        MaximizeBox = false;
        MinimizeBox = false;
        ShowInTaskbar = false;

        this.Opacity = 0.5f;
        this.BackColor = Color.FromArgb(255, 254, 254, 254);
        this.TransparencyKey = this.BackColor;

    protected override CreateParams CreateParams {
        get {
            CreateParams cp = base.CreateParams;
            cp.ExStyle |= 0x20; // WS_EX_TRANSPARENT
            return cp;

We set the TransparencyKey to be the BackgroundColor so that any pixels that isn’t painted is treated as transparent. The BackgroundColor should be a colour that isn’t common since any pixel painted with that colour will be treated as transparent. Since we are going to be drawing translucently, the background colour should also be a value near white, since all drawing operations are going to be alpha combined with the background before being painted.

We also override the CreateParams property, so that the Form is created with the WX_EX_TRANSPARENT style. This has nothing to do with visible transparency – this means that the window should not be considered as a target for mouse actions. This is what we want since we are putting this form over the top of our list view, but we still want our list view to receive mouse events.

Once this panel is created and correctly positioned, it can now call the DrawOverlay(Graphics g) method from within its OnPaint() method, which now draw the image overlays.


Finally, success! But, sadly, no!

Houston, we (still) have a problem

The GlassPanelForm is a separate top-level window. It sits in front of our listview, but in completely separate window. If the listview is hidden, we have to make sure that the GlassPanelForm is hidden too, otherwise we will see the image overlays even when the listview is no longer there.

When the listview is specifically hidden, we can catch the VisibleChanged event. But if the listview is on a tab control, and that tab control changes visible tab, the listview doesn’t receive any notification. The tab control works by changing the z-order of the children windows. All the controls on a Tab control are technically still visible, but the z-ordering ensures that only the controls on the top most tab are visible.

For my case, this was a tricky dilemma. How can I know if the overlay should be visible? When a control is made invisible by its owning tab being sent to the back, the control does not receive any notification. The control doesn’t know that it is no longer visible.

I could do complicated things look for tab controls in the parent window chain, but they would all be clunky and error prone. What happens if someone uses something like tab control, but that isn’t a TabControl (almost all commercial WinForm control libraries would qualify).

Producing a hybrid

Maybe I could combine the CustomDrawing solution for the majority of cases, and use the Transparent form just while the control is scrolling. That is, normally, the overlays would be drawn during the Custom draw cycle, but just before scrolling, we would switch to using the transparent form. When the scrolling finished, we would revert to the custom drawing.

This should give the best of all worlds. But the devil is always in the details.

With this hybrid, the problem was with the transitions: removing the custom drawn overlays and showing the transparent form. Since the two controls are on two separate forms, they cannot be both updated atomically. There is a slight delay between when the ObjectListView is redrawn and when the transparent form is redrawn.

If we remove the custom drawn overlays before showing the transparent form, there is a brief flicker when there are no overlays. If we show the transparent form before removing the custom drawn overlays, there is a brief flicker where two alpha-channeled images are drawn over the top of each other, making it look completely solid.

At first, I didn’t think the flicker of the second case was too bad. But the flicker happens every time the list was scrolled, mostly annoyingly when the mouse wheel rolled. After a couple of days, I was thoroughly sick of the flickering and ready to throw the whole thing out. There had to be another way.


There wasn’t another way. So I eventually decided to ditch the hybrid and return to the transparent form. In 90% of cases, it will works exactly as the programmer expects. By listening to various events, we can catch and handle almost all of the problem cases mentioned above, including when an ObjectListView is reparented.

The only thing we can’t handle automatically is when an ObjectListView is contained in a non-standard TabControl-like container. When an ObjectListView is included in a TabControl-like container, the programmer must call HideOverlays() explicitly when an ObjectListView is hidden by the container.

You will know when you need to call HideOverlays() because the overlays from ObjectListView that are not currently visible, will be shown over the top of your TabControl-like container.