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One of the really fun things that artists can do with “photo manipulation” software is create digital paintings. Today I’ll show you how to use some of GIMP’s basic tools to create your own digital artwork.

What you’ll need to create a digital painting

The great thing about painting digitally on your computer is that there are no brushes to clean, no paint to buy and you have every color you can imagine at your disposal!

You WILL need a copy of GIMP (the free image manipulation program) which you can learn how to download here (for a PC) or here if you own a Mac.

A Wacom drawing tablet isn’t required, but if you’ve got one you’re ahead of the game—you’ll be able to use your natural hand/eye coordination as you paint, instead of using a mouse.

If this is your first time painting on GIMP, I’d suggest working from a sketch that you scan in (which I’ll explain how to do in a minute.) If you don’t have a scanner, you can always photograph one of your sketches with a digital camera and upload the image to your computer that way.

When creating a sketch for a digital painting, DO NOT shade! You’ll do that that in GIMP itself. Also make sure to “close” all your shapes—if there are breaks in your line drawing, it will make it more difficult to select certain areas of your sketch in GIMP.

I sketched out a rough drawing and then traced it with a 4B pencil, carefully closing all my shapes. Below you’ll see a good sketch on the left and a bad sketch on the right, just to show what I mean.

01originalscanSM

Start by scanning in your drawing.

As soon as your sketch is finished and sitting in the scanning bed, go to “File” (in the menu bar above the toolbox) click on “Acquire” and then choose your scanner.

02Aquire

Set the scanning resolution to at least 300 dpi so you can print your digital artwork later on. You can always lower the resolution of a image without any problems but you can’t increase resolution and maintain the same quality.

When GIMP imports the image, it may not be right side up, so go to “Image” in the image’s menu bar, click on “Transform,” and then rotate it in the direction necessary.

03RotateImage

Now that your image is in place, it’s a good time to save your document. Use the default GIMP file format of .xcf for the time being.

04CroppingImageAfter you save, crop the drawing to create a pleasing composition for your digital painting. Take a look at my article on cropping and resizing images if you’d like more information on using the crop tool itself.

Now, even though you drew carefully and dusted the eraser crumbs off the drawing before scanning it, there’s almost always something that needs to be cleaned up a little.

09EraserZoom in (Z) and use the eraser tool (Shift+E) to clean up anything you feel necessary. Don’t go crazy, just fix any major issues.

After your line drawing is good, you might want to save your file again, using Ctrl+S. It’s a good idea to save your file frequently, throughout this process, since there’s nothing worse than losing everything and being forced to start all over if your computer decides to crash.

One of the advantages of working digitally as opposed to paint and canvas is the safety net that software provides. I am going to duplicate my first layer so I will still have it in case I make a real mess of my would-be masterpiece.

05Copy-layerTo duplicate a layer in GIMP, make sure you have the layers tab selected in the Layers/Channels/Paths/Undo dialog box. Click and drag the name of the layer to the “Duplicate Layer” button at the bottom of that box, then release the mouse button. A new layer will appear.

Both layers are identical, meaning you can work on one and use the other for reference, in case you smudge the original drawing.

The last thing to do before painting is to change the “mode” of the top layer so you can see through it to the layer below (which you’ll be working on).

07MultiplyLayerSelect your top layer then click on the “Mode” drop down menu and choose “Multiply.” You can lock the layer to preserve it or click on the eyeball symbol to remove it from sight. I’d suggest locking it to keep yourself from accidentally painting on that layer.

If this all seems like a lot of work just to make a digital painting, remember that prep is important when painting traditionally, too! And with that, let’s take a look at some tools.

Five important GIMP painting tools

In your toolbox there are five tools you’ll probably use the most when painting: select, fill, gradient, paintbrush, and dodge/burn. Each tool also has its own options in the area below the toolbox—you’ll need to explore all those options to become proficient.

08ToolsIt’s always handy to know your keyboard shortcuts so you can work quicker and more intuitively. Here are the shortcuts for some of the more important tools:

The Fuzzy Selection Tool (U) selects an enclosed area (that’s why you drew closed shapes for your sketch).

The Paint Bucket or Fill Tool (Shift+B) fills an area with solid color.

The Gradient Tool (L) fills an area while fading from one color to another color.

The Paintbrush (P) paints a line based on whatever size, edge, color or pattern you choose.

The Dodge/Burn Tool (Shift+D) lightens or darkens colors already onscreen. It’s great for creating highlights and shadows in a painting.

All right, let’s choose a color and start making use of some of these tools.

Click on the foreground color in your toolbox and a beautiful dialog box will appear with every hue imaginable. (You can also click on the small white arrow—next to the mouse in the image below—to switch to your background color.)

10Colorpicker

Pick a color to paint with, then choose the Fuzzy Selection Tool (U) and click on any area of your drawing. You will see “marching ants” appear around the edges of the area, indicating that it has been selected.

Switch to the Paint Bucket (Shift+B) and click inside those “ants” to color it.

Grab the Dodge/Burn Tool from your toolbox (or press shift+D) and click to create lighter colors anywhere you’ve already painted or drawn. Hit the Ctrl key to switch over to the burn tool which make things darker instead of lighter.

To fill an area with a gradient, select an area of your image with the Fuzzy Selection Tool (U) then choose the gradient tool (L).

Click and drag within the selected area and you’ll see a gradient appear. If the way the colors are transitioning doesn’t look right, just click and drag again.

Keep in mind, there are other types of gradients in the options area of your toolbox.

12Gradient

You can choose from radial gradients, linear gradients, and several other choices. In the gradient tab section of the Layers box you can create and save gradients for later use, or simply choose from a list of pre-made gradients.

13PaintbrushDon’t forget to use your Paintbrush Tool (P) to add details and texture.

There are dozens of brushes available in GIMP right out of the box—some have soft edges, others have rough texture, and for those of you with Wacom tablets, try adjusting the Pressure sensitivity for even more control.

You can also choose the opacity level to suit your needs—this can help you achieve pastel and watercolor effects, with the right brush shape and texture.

Continue to select areas and fill them as you see fit until the entire image is filled.

If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. You always undo your last steps by pressing Ctrl+Z. (Now that’s something you can’t do on canvas!)

Whew! That was a lot to learn. It may feel a bit overwhelming at first, but just like traditional painting all you need to do is keep practicing and you’ll begin to improve.

Stay tuned for another GIMP tutorial next week!

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

What's the difference between painting in GIMP and drawing in GIMP? A big part is the tools that you use. In today's tutorial I'll show you how to use the Pen tool in GIMP to create beautiful lines that remain adjustable even when you're finished drawing. The Pen tool is a little tricky, so we'll begin with. . . read more

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