How to Add Drop Shadow in GIMP

Drop shadows are one of those graphic design techniques that rise and fall in a cycle of popularity similar to those found in the fashion world. 

If you spend long enough in the graphic arts, the style shows up again seemingly out of nowhere, so here’s how to master adding drop shadows in GIMP!

We’ll need to add a drop shadow to our text to have it match Wilber’s shadow

Like many common tasks that image editors face, there are lots of different ways to add a drop shadow in GIMP, and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. 

I recommend you follow the Quick Guide to Custom Drop shadows later in the article, but sometimes it’s faster and easier to go with the filter-based method found in the Lazy Editor’s guide. Don’t worry – sometimes we all need to go with the lazy option! 

The Lazy Editor’s Guide to Drop Shadows

GIMP actually has two built-in filters that create drop shadows in your images automatically. These can be handy if you’re working on a quick project, but I recommend that you get comfortable making custom drop shadows using the method found further down the post, as they give you much more flexibility.

If you want to use the automatic versions, both filters can be located by opening the Filters menu, selecting Light and Shadow, and then clicking either Drop Shadow or Drop Shadow (legacy)

For some inexplicable reason, the newer version of the filter is actually a bit less helpful than the old one, because it renders your drop shadow into the same layer as your original image element. 

Drop Shadow

The Drop Shadow filter offers a lot of customization options, although it doesn’t let you choose whether or not you want to have your shadow appear on a new layer beneath your selected layer, which seems like a major omission to me. 

The Drop Shadow filter settings dialog box 

The settings are fairly self-explanatory: X and Y determine the offset of the shadow, while Blur radius determines how soft the shadow is at the edges. Grow radius controls the shadow gradient’s midpoint, allowing for very faint or very dark shadows as needed.

The Split View Option shows the results on half the image, as you can see in the text

Thanks to the handy Preview option, you can see the effect in real-time before you accept it. This is presumably why the developers felt it wasn’t necessary to render the shadow to a separate layer, but I wish they’d given us the option.

Important Note: if you apply this filter to a text layer, you’ll lose the ability to edit your text! Another good reason to use the custom shadows guide below. 

Drop Shadow (legacy)

Sadly, this isn’t a gloriously, terribly bad 80’s action movie sequel title, but just the older version of the Drop Shadow filter that has been left in the program for those who prefer it. Developers often discontinue legacy features from their programs after some time, so you may not be able to rely on this version forever. 

The main advantage of using the legacy version of the filter is that it automatically creates your drop shadow on a separate layer below your source image element. Using layers like this is definitely the ‘best practice’ option, which is why it’s so puzzling that the newer version doesn’t work the same way. 

Unfortunately, the legacy version doesn’t offer the option to show a preview of what your drop shadow will look like, which makes it also 

The Quick Guide to Custom Drop Shadows

If you need a bit more flexibility from your drop shadow, it’s probably time to ditch the filters and start working on your images more like an artist – make everything yourself! 

Overall, the process is pretty simple once you understand the basics, and it’s also fairly universal across all graphics programs, including GIMP. The only trick to a proper custom drop shadow is all in the layers – and getting just the right blur. 

  • Step 1: Create a selection around the object you want to shadow. 
  • Step 2: Create a new layer, and fill the selection with black
  • Step 3: Adjust the layer order to place the shadow beneath the original object, and then adjust distance and angle to create the desired effect.
  • Step 4: Apply a Blur filter to the shadow layer to soften the edges

That’s the quick guide covering how to add a drop shadow in GIMP! 

If you’re an advanced user who’s familiar with GIMP’s tools and panels, that should be enough information to get you started. Just remember to use your powers for good, not evil! Skipping the drop shadow completely can be better than adding too much of it.

For those of you who want to go over the steps in more detail, I’ll break the process down and give you some helpful tips and tricks along the way.

The Extremely Detailed and Complete Guide to Drop Shadows

In this more detailed guide, I’ll use the same steps from the Quick Guide to Drop Shadows above as a general outline, but I’ll explain the process fully with some handy screenshots. Here’s what we’re going to make in the tutorial example, but you can apply the steps to any image you want.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Create a Selection

The first step to creating a drop shadow is to define the shape of your shadow. In order to create the proper ‘drop’ effect, the shadow should be very close in shape to the actual image element. The simplest way to do that is to create a selection and then fill it – but there are lots of ways to create a selection, depending on what shape you want your shadow to be. 

Most of the time you’re creating a drop shadow, you’ve already got your image element on a transparent background. Text that you’ve added to GIMP or a transparent logo PNG that you’ve opened in GIMP are common examples, though in this example Wilber already has a shadow.

First, locate the Layers panel in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface. If it’s not visible, you can bring it back by opening the Windows menu, selecting Dockable Dialogs, and clicking Layers

You can also use the shortcut Shift + L to open the Layers panel, or Command + L if you’re using GIMP on a Mac. 

In my example, the Layers panel shows me that I’ve got a background layer, a text layer, and another pixel layer showing the little Wilber icon on a transparent background. Let’s start working with the text layer. 

It would take forever to create this selection by hand

To select all the pixels on the text layer perfectly, hold down the Alt key while clicking on the text layer thumbnail icon in the Layers panel. Instantly, you’ll see a selection border around your image element.

If you don’t want to use the exact shape of your text, you could also simply use the Elliptical selection to create a general oval shadow behind your text, or any other shape you’d care to add, but if it’s too different than your main object, it won’t look like a drop shadow.  

Step 2: Create and Fill a New Layer

This step is quite simple! Create a new layer by opening the Layer menu and clicking Create New Layer, or by using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N (use Command + Shift + N if you’re using GIMP on macOS). 

The New Layer dialog box in GIMP 2.10

Name it something memorable, make sure that the Fill with option is set to Transparency, and click OK. Your new layer is selected automatically in the Layers panel, so now we can fill our selection using the color of our choice. 

Usually, black is used for drop shadows, but other colors can create interesting effects that are worth exploring. 

Switch to the Bucket Fill tool using the toolbox or the shortcut Shift + B. Hold down the Shift key and click anywhere inside your selection to fill it with your foreground color.

Step 3: Positioning

In order to make sure that your shadow looks like a shadow and not an obscuring cloak of darkness, it needs to be below your main object. In the layers panel, click and drag your layer thumbnails to re-arrange the layer order, or use the arrow buttons at the bottom of the panel. 

Almost there, but the shadows are a bit too harsh to match the soft shadow under Wilber

Next, switch to the Move tool using the toolbox or the shortcut M. Make sure that Move the active layer is selected in the Tool Options panel, and that your shadow layer is selected. Click and drag to reposition your shadow in the desired location (though you can adjust this later on). 

Step 4: Blurring Your Shadow

Most drop shadows have a little bit of blur on them to make them look a bit more like natural shadows. There’s a bunch of different blur tools in GIMP, but Gaussian Blur is fine for this example. Feel free to use anything that you want, although you might not get the desired result. 

Gaussian Blur is located in the Filters menu

Make sure that your shadow layer is selected in the Layers panel, then open the Filters menu, select Blur, and click Gaussian Blur

Just a bit of blur makes the effect much more natural

The default settings are fine, although you’ll probably want to play around with the Size settings. They’re linked by default, and usually, it’s best to leave them linked unless you’re trying to create a specific distortion effect. Thanks to the Preview option, you can see how it will look before you click OK

And with that, you’re done creating your very own custom drop shadow! It’s on a separate layer, all your original pixels are intact, and it wasn’t much harder than using the filter. 

There are all kinds of ways that you can adjust the results of the process, from changing your blur style to changing your selection shape back in Step One. The only limit is your creativity! 

A Final Word on Drop Shadows

That was pretty exhaustive, overall. Most of you will probably be happy using the simple filters, but just because a tool is easy doesn’t necessarily make it the right tool. The ability to create your own custom drop shadows is much more powerful, and now it’s time to get back to GIMP and use what you’ve learned on your next project! 

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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