How to Copy and Paste in GIMP

Copy and paste are two of the most useful commands that you can use on a computer, no matter what you’re doing, and GIMP is no exception to the rule. It does have some interesting quirks that make it a bit different than copying and pasting text in a word processor, so let’s take a look at how it all works.

All Thanks To Lawrence Tesler (1945-2020)

Yes, I copied and pasted this image from his Wikipedia page
(Source: By Yahoo! Blog from Sunnyvale, California, USA – Larry Tesler Smiles at Whisper, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2650493)

No article about copy and paste commands would be complete without paying tribute to Larry Tesler, who recently passed away in February 2020 at age 74. While working at Xerox PARC in the early 1980s, he invented the basic cut, copy, and paste commands we still use today, as well as several other industry-standard processes and terms. 

Cheers, Larry, and thanks for everything. Cheers, Larry, and thanks for everything.

The Quick Guide to Copy and Paste in GIMP

Here’s a quick explanation of the process:

  • Step 1: Select the area of your image that you want to copy
  • Step 2: Press Control + C to copy the selected area to the clipboard
  • Step 3: Press Control + V to paste image data from the clipboard back into your image
  • Step 4: Position your new floating selection and press Control + H to anchor it 

That’s all there is to it! There’s more than you can do with floating selections and pasting images from outside GIMP, so if you want to master the essential copy and paste commands, read on.

The Detailed Guide to Copy and Paste in GIMP

Copy and paste commands are pretty basic, so there isn’t too much more to explain here, but there are a few useful details that don’t really belong in the “Quick Guide” above. Let’s take a closer look at how this whole system works!

Step 1: Making A Selection

The most important step in copy/paste operations is telling the computer what you actually want to copy. In GIMP, you’ll use one of the many selection tools to highlight the area that you want to copy. There are quite a few selection tools available:

  • Rectangle Select (R)
  • Ellipse Select (E)
  • Free Select (F)
  • Scissors Select (I)
  • Fuzzy Select (U)
  • Select By Color (Shift + O)

It doesn’t matter which selection tool you use, but it is important to make sure that you’ve also got the right layer selected in the Layers panel before you get started. 

If your image only has one layer, you don’t have to worry, but for multi-layer images, it’s always important to make sure that you’re working on the correct layer. 

If you want to select your entire image, you can use the universal shortcut Control + A, which tells the computer to ‘select all’ in virtually every program ever made.

The dashed lines indicate that those pixels are currently selected

Your selected area will be outlined by a moving series of dashed lines known as a selection marquee (as shown above, but appears animated within GIMP).

Step 2: Copy Your Selection

At last, we get to the actual copy and paste part of the tutorial! 

When you copy any data on your computer, it gets stored in a section of temporary memory known as the clipboard. The clipboard only has room for one object at a time, so if you copy another selection, the first one you stored in the clipboard will be overwritten.

Press the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + C to copy your selection to the clipboard. There is no visual confirmation that this was successful, but you’ll know for sure in a second.

Step 3: Paste Your Selection

Once you’ve copied your selection to the clipboard, press Control + V to paste the contents of the clipboard back into GIMP.

Since this is all digital, you can paste the contents of your clipboard as many times as you want, and it will come out the exact same every time, just like a rubber stamp. 

However, GIMP doesn’t just dump the pixels right back into the image – instead, it places them in a specialized kind of layer called a floating selection, as you can see in the Layers panel screenshot below.

Before you continue editing your image (or pasting additional copies of your clipboard contents), you’ll have to either convert the floating selection into a new layer or anchor it.

Step 4: Finalizing Your Floating Selection

My personal preference is always to convert a floating selection into a new layer. It gives you the maximum flexibility, and you can scale, distort, or otherwise transform your pasted image data without having to also apply those edits to the rest of the image. 

You can use the green ‘New Layer’ button at the bottom of the Layers panel, or you can use the keyboard shortcut Control + Shift + N to convert your floating selection into a new layer. 

The Layers panel showing my pasted content as a new layer

You can also simply anchor your floating selection using the green ‘anchor’ button at the bottom of the Layers panel, but this will discard any pixel information that was below your floating selection, so it’s not usually the best choice unless you’re in a hurry and you don’t care.

That’s just about everything there is to know about copying and pasting in GIMP! 

Bonus Tip: Copying From Outside GIMP

If you’re pursuing a master’s degree in making memes, you’ll probably appreciate this tip. When you run across a great image browsing the web, you can simply right-click on the image and choose Copy Image

The exact wording might change depending on which browser you use, but they’re all similar enough that you should be able to spot the right command. 

Copying an image from the web is extremely easy, but make sure you provide the proper attribution when required!

Then with another image open in GIMP, you can just paste as normal using the Control + V shortcut, and the image will appear as a floating selection in GIMP. It saves you all the long and extremely tedious work of saving the image as a file on your computer and then opening it in GIMP 😉

Happy copying and pasting!

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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  • Jonathan Mason

    Have been learning how to use GIMP for about 4 days now and have found all your articles absolutely invaluable, clear, easy to follow, and most of all you answer the questions I want answered. I am already removing pedestrians from photos, cloning brick walls, adding flower-boxes full of blooming geraniums to buildings where they have no right to be, removing signs from walls, changing traffic light colors, and building a library of useful skies and clouds.

    The most difficult part for a beginner is learning the language and terminology. Like what exactly is a mask or an alpha channel? You provide clear explanations which make it so much easier to grasp the lingo. Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Jonathan, I’m glad you’re finding the site useful as you learn GIMP! It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun with it.

      You’re also absolutely right about the technical lingo – I remember feeling almost like I was learning another language when I started out in the graphic arts! But like any new language, it gets easier the more you use it =)

      Enjoy!

      Reply
  • LM

    Clear and succinct! Thank you

    Reply
    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re very welcome!

      Reply
  • Kilser

    How do I copy and paste text in Gimp?

    Reply
    • Thomas Boldt

      If the text you want to copy is contained in a text layer, just switch to the Text tool, click and drag to select your text, and then copy/paste the same as you would anywhere else. Use Ctrl + C to copy your selected text, and Ctrl + V to paste.

      If the text is actually pixel data instead of a text layer, then you can use a rectangular selection to copy and paste the pixels the same way.

      Reply
  • Irene Reijnen

    Thank you very much for your good explanation! It helps me very much! Kind regards Irene.

    Reply
    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad you’re finding the site useful =)

      Reply