CARTO VL is a JavaScript library to create custom Location Intelligence applications over vector rendering.

Style with Expressions

CARTO VL styling is based on the concept of visualizations. A visualization is a set of styling properties and variables that are assigned expressions. Visualizations allow you to control everything from the color of features to the available properties in interactivity events.

Styling properties

Visualizations have a fixed set of styling properties like color or width that adapt automatically to the geometry type. Select between the different geometry types in the map below to see how these styling properties work.

You can explore this map here

The complete list of CARTO VL styling properties and their semantics can be seen here.

What is an expression?

As seen above, each styling property is assigned a value: a CARTO VL expression.

Expressions assigned to properties can be constants (red, #FFF,7) or functions (sqrt, +, or ramp):

width: 7
color: white

Expressions can be combined together with expression functions:

width: 7+3
color: white

Note: The concept of function and its related terms function call and function parameter are borrowed from programming terminology. A function is a transformation between inputs, the function parameters, to an output. A function call is the application of the function to some values as the function parameters.

Each styling property imposes limitations on the types of expressions that can be used as its input parameters.

For example, the styling below would not work because a numeric parameter (7) can’t be added to a color parameter (white):

width: 7+white

Similarly, even though the 7+3 is valid, this example would not work because a numeric expression (the addition) is being assigned to the styling property color (which only accepts color expressions):

color: 7+3

For a complete list of types and valid functions, see the reference.

Color expressions

There are multiple ways to get color expressions (expressions whose type is color):

  • Color constants: are colors defined by name (red, blue, white…) or by hexadecimal RGB(A) composition (#F88, #F88A, #F08080, #F08080A0).
  • Color constructors: are functions that define colors by the components of its color space: rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.6), hsv(0, 1, 1).
  • opacity: a function that overrides an input color’s alpha channel.
  • ramp: a function that is covered in more detail in the Data-driven visualization guide.
  • Other: the use of advanced expressions like color arithmetic or blending.

You can explore this map here

You can take a look at the reference for a detailed description of all color expressions.

Transparency, alpha channel, opacity, and filtering

There are multiple ways to set the alpha channel:

  • Color constant or color constructor: use this whenever you want to change the alpha channel of a color constant or color constructor (rgba(255,255,255,0.5) or #F375).
  • opacity: use to override the alpha channel. Use this when the input color expression is not a color constant or color constructor. For example, combining opacity with ramp (opacity(ramp($price, prism), 0.5))
  • filter: this property multiplies the color alpha channel (both fill and stroke) of the features with its value. This, however, has a special semantic regarding viewport aggregation expressions. We’ll look at this later.

Numeric and boolean expressions

In CARTO VL numeric expressions are a first class citizen. You have access to math like +, -, *,/,^,log,sin… out of the box.

You can also get boolean-like values within CARTO VL. Some ways to get these “boolean-like” types are comparison functions (==, !=, >, <, >=), utils (between, in) and logic functions (not, or, and). We talk about boolean-like types and not just boolean types because there is no “boolean” type in CARTO VL. Every “boolean-like” type is actually emulated by the numeric type. This makes our boolean logic a fuzzy boolean logic, making most animations (blendings) work out of the box.

Access dataset feature properties

To access feature properties from a dataset, use the dollar sign ($). For example, $price refers to a feature property named ‘price’ in a dataset.

We’ll use this extensively in the Data-driven visualizations guide.

Access and modify visualization properties

Once a visualization has been created, you can access and modify all styling properties through the returned Visualization object.

Once you have a Visualization object, you can:

  • Get its property values by using the .value getter (const currentColor = viz.color.value;)
  • Modify its property values by using the .blendTo() method (viz.color.blendTo(‘green’);)

The map below demonstrates how to access and modify the color property:

You can explore this map here

The String and JavaScript Visualization APIs

CARTO VL provides two equivalent and similar APIs to define visualizations: String and JavaScript.

Throughout this guide, you have seen the String API syntax which is nothing more than a small layer of syntax sugar for the JavaScript API. In fact, internally, the usage of the String API is implemented through the usage of the public JavaScript API.

Usage of the JavaScript API can facilitate some advanced topics, but both are equivalent and everything that can be done through the JavaScript API can be done with the String API and vice versa.

In the reference documentation examples are shown with both APIs for each expression.

This basic example of coloring a feature red and setting its width to 5 shows how the String API provides syntax sugar for things like named colors:

Usage of the JS API:

const s = carto.expressions;
const viz = new carto.Viz({
    width: 5
    color: s.namedColor(red)

Usage of the String API:

const viz = new carto.Viz(`
    width: 5
    color: red

The String API also provides easier usage of:

  • Arithmetic operators (+, /, ^`…)
  • Boolean operators (and, or, not…)
  • Color constants (#FFF)
  • Access to data properties ($propertyName)
  • Eliminates the need to access the carto.expressions namespace
  • The use of Variables


As we’ve seen, the CARTO VL visualization language follows the pattern property: expression, where expression can be a constant or a function call of the form functionName (param1, param2, …) or a built-in infix function call like param1/param2.

Variables are not required to apply any of the CARTO VL styling capabilities although they can be used to simplify some visualizations. However, variables are required for Interactivity.

The use of variables is covered more in-depth in the Add interactivity and events guide.

Comparison to CSS-derived languages

In contrast with cascading languages like CSS and CSS-derived languages, CARTO VL styling properties cannot be redefined based on selectors. Instead, CARTO VL expressions like ramp are used to select the expected values based on some input (the selector).

Below is a comparison between both approaches to get the gist of it (it’s ok if you don’t fully understand them now since we’ll cover this in depth later in the Data driven visualization guides).

CSS-derived language

// Use a selector
[price < 100] {
  // Set the width if the feature match with the previous selector
  marker-width: 5

// Selector for the other case
[price >= 100] {
  // Set the width for this other case, redefining the width
  marker-width: 15

CARTO VL valid visualization

// The buckets expression will classify the input property in two buckets: features with prices less than 100, and features with prices greater than or equal to 100
// The ramp expression will assign 5 to the first bucket and 15 to the second
// Finally, we'll use ramp's output as the width

width: ramp(buckets($price, [100]), [5, 15])