How to Do Line Art in GIMP

Line art is one of the simplest forms of drawing in physical media, and a lot of people assume that it will be just as simple when working with the digital version.

They’re half-right: it’s simple once you get everything set up properly, but GIMP isn’t exactly user-friendly, especially not when you first start exploring its capabilities.

Here’s how you can create line art in GIMP! 

Use a Pressure-Sensitive Drawing Tablet

If you’ve ever tried to draw something using a mouse, you will already be very aware of how difficult it is. To do line art in GIMP, you absolutely need to use a drawing tablet for precise line control

Ideally, your drawing tablet will also be pressure-sensitive, which allows you to change your line thickness automatically based on the amount of pressure you apply using the stylus pen. 

You can also customize which aspect of your brush will change based on pressure, and GIMP has a huge range of dynamic options, including opacity, color, size, and more. 

To get the most out of your drawing tablet, check out this quick guide on how to use pressure sensitivity in GIMP

Plan Your Line Art Canvas Size in GIMP

Before you create your new file and dive right into the drawing phase, take a second to think about what you want to do with your finished line artwork.

If you just want to look at it on-screen or share it on the web, you don’t need to worry too much about resolution and image size, and you can just choose whatever works for you.

If you might want to print out your finished piece, then you should create your new file using a higher resolution. 

Print resolution works out to around 300 pixels per inch, so if you want to create a sharp 8” x 10” print, your new file should be 2400 x 3000 pixels.

You can also choose to set the background color for your image by changing the Fill with setting, although you can also use the Bucket Fill tool to change it before you start drawing. If you use the layers tip that I mention below, you will be able to change the background color of your artwork at any time. 

Choose Your Tool and Brush for Line Art in GIMP

The setup process is almost over, but now comes the hardest part: choosing which tool and brush combination you want to use for your line art. 

Despite what you might think from the name, the Pencil tool produces a blocky and pixelated result, so I recommend that you use the Paintbrush tool to do line art in GIMP

Since most line art has a very minimal variation in shading, you probably don’t want to use a brush that’s too soft, but using a brush that’s too hard can create unwanted pixelated edges similar to the Pencil tool, and it can make your lines that looks odd. 

A lot of this choice will come down to personal preference, so it’s a good idea to experiment with GIMP’s various brushes to find one you like. 

The Brushes panel is visible in the upper right corner of the GIMP interface by default, and you can use it to browse through GIMP’s built-in brushes. If you don’t like any of the available options, you can download thousands of free brushes from around the internet.

Learn more about installing custom brushes in GIMP.

If you want to recreate the look of physical media, you can also try using the MyPaint Brush. The MyPaint system actually started in its own standalone app and was integrated into GIMP to provide a more realistic set of brushes for everything from pencils to charcoal to ink. 

Don’t let the name fool you – it’s not just for paint! 

Use Layers to Separate Objects in GIMP

Since you’re working in the digital world, you may as well take full advantage of all the features that it offers, including layers. If you have ever experimented with animation drawing using onion skin paper or acetate cels, you already understand the layer concept, but here’s a quick refresher.

Layers in GIMP act like a stack of clear plastic sheets. You can draw a different image element on each layer/sheet, and when viewed from the top, each layer merges together to create a single image.

But since each element is on a separate layer, you can move each layer around individually, edit it, colorize it, transform it, or do anything else with it while still leaving the rest of your image unchanged. 

Even if you don’t want to use a new layer for each different part of your line art, you should use different layers for your artwork and your background so you can adjust the colors later on.

To create a new layer, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N (use Command + Shift + N if you’re using GIMP on a Mac). 

Give your layer a descriptive name in the New Layer dialog window, and click OK

I know it’s boring, but try to get in the habit of naming your layers right from the beginning. It doesn’t seem like a big deal when you only have two or three layers, but by the time you pass 10 layers, it can be hard to keep track of which object is located on which layer without proper names!

Try a Little Symmetry

If you want to switch things up and go abstract with your line art, you can experiment with GIMP’s symmetrical drawing features. This is one of GIMP’s lesser-known features, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t even know it was possible!

Open the Windows menu, select the Dockable Dialogs submenu, and click Symmetry Painting. The Symmetry Painting panel will open in the upper right corner of the GIMP interface.

Choose your desired symmetry type from the dropdown menu. I recommend using the Mirror or Mandala settings and not Tiling, which is used to create a seamless tiling texture. 

The Mandala setting can make the most dramatic results, and it’s easy to use. 

Center abscissa and Center ordinate control the placement of the central point along the X and Y axes, and Number of points controls the number of symmetrical reflections that GIMP will create. 

A blue guide overlay will appear over your document canvas to help you visualize where the center of the pattern will be placed. 

Start drawing using your favorite brush, and watch as the symmetrical patterns unfold!

Considering that the GIMP developers claim that it’s not intended as a drawing app, they sure included a lot of features just for drawing… 

A Final Word

We covered a lot of ground in this post, so hopefully, you’ve got a better idea of how to do line art in GIMP!

There’s no substitute for practice, though, so it’s time to take what you’ve learned in this post and put it to good use. If you have to choose a single piece of advice to follow, the most important tip from this post is to use a drawing tablet. Drawing with a mouse is just too frustrating.

Enjoy your line artwork!

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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