How to Draw a Circle in GIMP

Despite the mythical prowess of Leonardo da Vinci, most of us mere mortals can’t draw a mathematically perfect circle by hand – but it’s possible to do with GIMP, even if you can’t draw at all with a pencil. 

Now before you start getting cheeky, I’m going to just openly admit that *I* am one of those people who can’t draw by hand at all. I’ve come to the graphics world through photography and design rather than the more traditional fine arts, so please forgive my complete lack of drawing skills 😉

GIMP doesn’t have something as simple as a Circle tool as you can find in Inkscape or Illustrator, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to channel the legendary (and probably apocryphal) skill of a Renaissance man just to draw a mathematically perfect circle.

Two Quick Methods to Draw a Circle in GIMP

Here are the two fastest and simplest methods to draw a circle in GIMP:

1. The Paintbrush Method

Step 1: Select the Paintbrush tool from the toolbox, or use the shortcut P

Step 2: In the Tool Options panel, set the Size option to whatever size you want your circle to be, and then set the Hardness option to 100.

Step 3: Click once anywhere on your image to draw your perfect circle.

2. The Ellipse Select Method

Step 1: Switch to the Ellipse Select tool from the toolbox, or use the shortcut E.

Step 2: Hold down the Shift key to lock the selection into a circle, and click and drag to create your circular selection. 

Step 3: Switch to the Bucket Fill tool using the toolbox or use the shortcut Shift + B, and click anywhere inside your selection to fill it with the currently-selected foreground color. 

I can’t choose which of these two methods is easier, so it’s up to you to choose which one fits best with your personal style and workflow. 

The Paintbrush method might be slightly faster, but the Ellipse Select method gives you a lot of extra flexibility – and you can reposition it if you don’t place it perfectly right away. 

What About The Paths Tool?

In a couple of the other drawing tutorial posts, I’ve recommended using the Paths tool to create reusable stencils for your drawings. You can definitely do the same thing for drawing circles, but it’s not nearly as effective because ensuring that your path is actually a perfect circle can quickly become a tedious and time-consuming process. 

Instead of wasting your time fiddling around with Bezier curve handles, you can use a modified version of the Ellipse Select method to create a reusable path for you! This option is definitely the most time-consuming, but it also gives you a perfectly circular stencil you can use for a range of purposes.

Follow the first two steps as described above to create a perfectly circular selection, but when you get to Step 3, do not use the Bucket Fill tool. Instead, look for the Paths panel, usually located in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface. 

It’s located in a tabbed window within the Layers panel, but if it’s not visible you can bring the Layers panel back using the shortcut Ctrl + L. You can also recover the panel by opening the Windows menu, selecting Dockable Dialogs, and clicking Layers

Along the bottom of the Paths panel, find the button labeled Selection to path (see the highlighted button above). This will convert your selection into a set of Bezier curves automatically, without you having to fiddle around trying to get all the handles positioned properly

Optionally, you can hold down the Shift key while you click Selection to path to get access to some advanced settings that control how GIMP creates your new paths, but as you can see below, they’re not kidding when they say ‘advanced’. For our purposes, the default settings are fine. 

When they say ‘Advanced Settings,’ they’re really, really serious – too advanced for this article!

GIMP will calculate the shape of your selection and draw a path, which appears as a new entry in the Paths panel named Selection by default, but you can rename it to something easier to remember like Circle Stencil. 

The Paths panel showing our new automatically-generated path

Cancel the Ellipse Select marquee by pressing Ctrl + Shift + A (Command + Shift + A on a Mac), or open the Select menu and choose Select None. You can then switch to the Paths tool using the toolbox or by pressing the shortcut B to see how GIMP has constructed it. 

I would never have even tried placing my points like that if I was doing it by hand

With the Paths tool active, select your path in the Paths panel and hold down the Alt key (use the Option key on macOS) to move it around your image as needed.

Once you’re happy with its location, it’s time to apply a stroke or fill to the path to create your actual circle. In the Tool Options panel, you’ll see that the Paths tool has a few extra features that make this longer process worth it for the extra flexibility. 

The Tool Options panel showing the Paths tool options

If you want to fill your circle completely, choose the Fill Path option. GIMP will show you a simple dialog box that lets you choose between filling your circle with the currently selected foreground color or the currently selected pattern in the Patterns panel (located in a tabbed dock next to the Brushes panel). 

If you’d rather have an outlined circle, choose the Stroke Path option. This has a few more options than the Fill Path route, but that extra flexibility lets you set all the characteristics of your line, even creating your outline with a pattern.

The Stroke Path options in GIMP 2.10

But most importantly, you can also set the stroke to use any of GIMP’s brush tools from the trusty paintbrush to the Dodge/Burn tool used for local contrast adjustments. This lets you create perfect circles that look hand-painted thanks to the brush effects – and once you’ve got the stencil set up the first time, it’s to move them around and reuse them! 

A Final Word

I often say that there are many ways to accomplish the same result in the world of digital graphics, but few examples showcase the fact more effectively than something basic like drawing a circle in GIMP. It would be nice if there was a simple Circle tool, but you’ll have to look to a program like Inkscape if you want things to be that neat and easy. 

Do you have a favorite method for drawing circles in GIMP that I’ve left out of this guide? Let me know in the comments and I’ll take a look!

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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