Can’t Move Layer in GIMP: Why & How to Fix It

GIMP is an impressive open-source image editor, but nobody will ever claim that it’s a user-friendly app. If you’re trying to move a layer in your GIMP document and it’s stubbornly stuck in the same place, GIMP doesn’t exactly go out of its way to tell you what’s going wrong, which can get frustrating very quickly. 

Here are a few possible reasons why your layer isn’t moving, along with some solutions that can help you get your layers moving the way you want! 

Before jumping into the reasons and solutions, here’s a quick overview of the Layers panel in GIMP.

The Layers Panel in GIMP

The Layers panel is one of the most important parts of GIMP, and you will find yourself using it frequently. By default, it is located in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface, as shown below.

If your Layers panel is missing from the interface, you can bring it back using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + L (use Command + L if you’re on a Mac). You can also open the Windows menu, select the Dockable Dialogs submenu, and click Layers.  

Reason 1: Move Tool Settings

Many new GIMP users are unaware of the fact that GIMP’s Move tool actually has a few different settings that affect how it operates. 

The Move tool can be set to move layers, selections, or paths, but when it’s on the wrong setting, GIMP simply won’t respond the way you’re expecting. Fortunately, the solution is very simple!

Solution: Change Move Tool Options

With the Move tool active, locate the Tool Options panel. In the default GIMP interface, the Tool Options panel is located on the left side of the screen, just below the Toolbox

At the top of the Tool Options panel, you’ll see a row of three icons that determine how the Move tool operates and which parts of your document will be affected.

To move your layer, make sure that the Layer option is selected, as shown above.

There’s one other setting that you can also check while you’re there, although it’s optional. The Tool Toggle section of the Tool Options panel has two options: Pick a layer or guide and Move the active layer

To get the most commonly-expected Move tool behavior, make sure that the Move the active layer setting is selected. 

If necessary, you can quickly toggle the Move tool into the other mode by holding down the Shift key while you click and drag, but for most situations, I find that Move the active layer prevents any mistakes on GIMP’s part. 

Reason 2: Locked Layers

Because GIMP allows you to have hundreds or even thousands of layers in a document (assuming you have enough RAM, of course), there are also a few options for controlling whether a layer can be edited or not. 

GIMP has three different methods for locking layers: you can lock the pixels to prevent changes to the pixel contents, you can lock the position and size to prevent movement or scaling, and you can lock the layer’s alpha channel to prevent changes to the transparency of the layer.

If you accidentally locked the position and size of your layer, you won’t be able to move it using the Move tool until it is unlocked. This is one of the few situations where GIMP actually does provide some kind of notification of the problem through the user interface. 

If you try to move a locked layer, the Lock section of the Layers panel will be highlighted with a flashing white outline, and the 

Solution: Unlock Your Layers

Layers can be locked and unlocked using the Layers panel. By default, the Layers panel should be visible in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface.

Select the layer you want to move by clicking the appropriate layer thumbnail in the Layers panel. With the correct layer selected, click the icon for Lock position and size to unlock it, as shown above.

Reason 3: Linked Layers

This might actually be considered Reason 2B instead of Reason 3 because it’s also about locked layers, but with an extra twist that only applies when you have multiple layers in your document. 

GIMP allows you to link multiple layers together so that they can be moved and transformed together as a cohesive whole. This is very useful when creating photo composites because you can link composited sections of your image on separate layers together and then move, scale, or rotate them without changing their positions relative to each other. 

If you lock the position of Layer A and then link it to Layer B, the “locking” effect from Layer A will also be applied to Layer B. 

If you check the lock settings for Layer B, they will say the layer is technically unlocked, but you still won’t be able to move it because it is linked to the locked Layer A. 

Solution: Unlink or Unlock the Affected Layer

To solve this particular issue, you have two options: you can unlock the linked layer, or you can unlink the layers. They’re both easy to do, you just have to determine which is the optimal solution for your situation.

To unlock your layers, follow the solution listed in the previous section.

To unlink the layers, click the chain link icon next to the thumbnails of the layer you want to move in the Layers panel, as highlighted above. 

Reason 4: Incorrect Layer Selected

While it’s a bit embarrassing when you realize it, sometimes there’s a very simple reason that you can’t move your layer in GIMP: you have selected the wrong layer. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. It happens to every image editor at some point 😉 

There are two possible explanations for why you might have the wrong layer selected: you might have just made a mistake in the Layers panel, or the Move tool might be automatically selected the wrong layer. 

Solution: Select the Correct Layer or Change Move Tool Settings

If you have made a mistake in the Layers panel, then you can simply click on the appropriate layer thumbnail in the Layers panel to select the correct layer you wish to move. The selected layer thumbnail will have a solid white outline around it, although this can be difficult to see against some layer thumbnails. 

If you’re certain that you have selected the correct layer in the Layers panel, then the Move tool settings may be interfering with your layer selections.

With the Move tool active, locate the Tool Options panel at the left side of the interface. At the top of the panel, change the Move tool setting to Move the active layer to ensure that you only move the layer you have selected, not the layer that GIMP thinks you want to move. 

Reason 5:  Layer Masks Getting in the Way

Last but not least, layer masks can also prevent you from moving your layers in the way you expect. It’s possible to add a new mask to your layer without realizing it, but you can check the Layers panel in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface to make sure. 

If your selected layer has multiple layer thumbnails, then the layer has a mask associated with it. If the mask is selected instead of the pixel layer, your layer won’t move the way you expect it to. 

Solution: Select the Pixel Layer Instead of the Mask

Fortunately, this is also one of the easiest problems to solve! In the Layers panel, click the thumbnail that corresponds to the pixel layer instead of the mask, and then you should be able to move the layer as normal. 

In this screenshot, the mask layer is selected, as indicated by the solid white outline surrounding the thumbnail

The active thumbnail will have a solid white outline around it, indicating that it’s currently selected.

Now the pixel layer is selected instead of the mask

Note: If your mask thumbnail has a green outline, then you’re viewing the layer mask itself in the main document window and not the pixel layer. To correct this, open the Layer menu, select the Mask submenu, and disable the Show Layer Mask setting. 

A Final Word

Few things are more frustrating than an app that won’t respond the way you expect it to, but at least now you know what to do if you can’t move your layer in GIMP. If you run into an unusual problem with moving layers that I didn’t cover in this guide, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to help out. 

Happy layering!

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Nathan Durham

    I’m trying to drag and layers into a new group, but it wouldn’t do anything. I can move the layer via the buttons, but that’s about it.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Nathan, that sounds frustrating! Do you get any error messages when trying to move your layers into your new layer group, or does it just not work at all?

  • Rubai

    Thank you very much. it worked for me

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome, Rubai!