How to Make a Gradient in GIMP

Gradients are one of those graphic design elements that go in and out of fashion, but no matter where we are in the fashion cycle, they can be a useful tool for an image editor. Even if you don’t want to use them to bring back WordArt from 1998, gradients are useful for layer masks, custom shadows, backgrounds, and a lot more. 

The Fastest Way to Make a Gradient In GIMP

If you just need a quick refresher on GIMP gradients, I’ve got you covered in this ultra-fast 3-steps guide: 

  • Step 1: Switch to the Gradient tool using the keyboard shortcut G
  • Step 2: Click and drag in the main image window to define your gradient area
  • Step 3: Adjust the endpoints (if needed), then switch to any other tool to finalize the gradient

Congrats, you’ve just made a gradient in GIMP! It might not be the prettiest gradient in the world, but it’s there. If you want to learn how to customize the important design options and even create your own custom color gradients from scratch, then read on for more info!

The Detailed Guide to Making Gradients in GIMP

Perhaps due to its origins back in the days when Microsoft was amazing to everyone with its hideous gradients, GIMP has a surprising number of ways to customize gradients. I’m not sure how many of these options have actual uses, but let’s take a closer look at how they work. 

Step 1: The Gradient Tool

GIMP’s toolbox uses a system of ‘stacked’ or ‘nested’ icons to save space, and the Gradient tool is stacked under the Bucket Fill tool. Right-click or click and hold on the Bucket Fill tool icon to display the stacked list, and select Gradient.

The Gradient tool is stacked under the Bucket Fill tool in the toolbox

For faster tool selection, you can just hit the keyboard shortcut G. I’m a big fan of shortcuts, although it can take a while to memorize them all when you’re learning a new program. 

Step 2: Customizing Your Gradient

To start with, let’s take a look at how to set up a very simple gradient using the Tool Options panel. By default, the Gradient tool will be set to use whichever gradient you’ve used last – but if this is your first time using it, it will probably be sent to the Abstract 1 gradient.

You can display the list of preconfigured gradients by clicking the small gradient thumbnail, although the popup window is way too small and doesn’t let you really see what’s going on.

No matter what you do, you can’t expand the size of this display for some reason

I recommend that you click the ‘Open the gradient selection dialog’ button, highlighted in red above. This isn’t much better, but it’s a bit easier to see what’s going on. You can also open this panel using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + G (Command + G on a Mac).

The Gradient panel should appear in the dock at the right of the GIMP window, next to the Brushes panel. It’s not much better, but at least you can see the names of the gradients properly this way! (Yes, there is actually one called ‘Nauseating Headache’ – and it is that bad). 

The Gradients panel in GIMP 2.10

I just want to make a gentle gradient for the background behind Wilber, so I’m going to choose FG to Transparent, which uses the currently-selected foreground color and fades it out into transparency. 

Click to select any gradient you want to use, and the Tool Options panel will update to show the new color choices. 

To apply your gradient, make sure you have the correct layer selected in the Layers panel, then click and drag in the main image window to define the gradient area. Don’t worry if the placement isn’t perfect, since we can tweak it in the next step. 

GIMP provides helpful info and tooltips at the bottom of the image window

At the bottom of the GIMP window, you’ll see a small info bar (shown above) that displays the current length and angle of your gradient.

While you’re clicking and dragging to set your gradient endpoints, you can hold down the Ctrl key (or Command on a Mac) to constrain your angle to 15-degree increments, which is very useful when trying to make a perfectly straight gradient.

Linear gradients are only one of the options that GIMP provides, although I suspect that most of the options are more gimmicky than actually useful. Linear and radial gradients can be very helpful in photo editing, but you may not find much use for the others – but who knows!

You can experiment with all the different gradient options GIMP offers by clicking the Shape dropdown menu in the Tool Options panel. 

Step 3: Tweaking Your Gradient

For the moment, your gradient is still editable. You can click and drag each endpoint of the line to adjust the placement, or completely change the angle if you’d prefer. You can even change the colors by selecting a new gradient type in the Gradient panel or the Tool Options panel. 

Just make sure that you do not switch tools or press the Enter key, or your gradient may get finalized before you’re ready and you’ll have to start the whole process over again.

Perhaps I can make Wilber feel more at home with an eye-melting yet oddly fascinating late-90’s gradient style for his background? It sure doesn’t make me feel at home (some design trends deserve to be left behind), but it’s a great way to show off how ‘stops’ work in a multi-color gradient.

Wilber, I hope the nostalgia is worth it!

When I first added a gradient, it only had two colors, so the two endpoints were enough to define the color options. For multi-color gradients, GIMP adds small diamond icons along the gradient path to indicate where color changes occur, known as ‘stops’. 

Clicking each stop allows you to customize all the color options for that transition using the small overlay window in the upper right corner. 

You can also click and drag stops to reposition them or click anywhere along empty sections of the line to add new stops. 

Once you’ve played with all the stops and placements until you’re satisfied, it’s time to actually finalize the gradient! All you have to do is switch to another tool or press the Enter key, and GIMP will render the gradient and it will no longer be editable. 

If the Enter key doesn’t work for finalizing your gradient, press the Escape key first to clear the focus from the currently selected icon, then try again. 

I’m not sure why GIMP doesn’t just let you keep your gradients as editable objects, but hopefully, that’s another feature we can look forward to when GIMP 3 is finally released!

Making Complex Gradients Quickly

If you’ve already got an existing color palette in GIMP, you can quickly turn it into a gradient without having to re-create each color point in the Gradient Editor. 

Open the Palettes panel by opening the Windows menu, selecting the Dockable Dialogs submenu, and clicking Palettes. By default, it should appear as a tab in the dock at the right side of the screen, next to the Brushes panel. 

Right-click the palette you want to turn into a gradient, and select Palette to Gradient from the list.

Easily turn a palette into a gradient with just two clicks!

Your palette will instantly be converted into a gradient, and the Gradient tool will switch to it as the actively selected color style. 

A Final Word About Gradients

That covers the basics of how to make a gradient in GIMP, along with a few extra tips to help you out. 

Before I let you go off into the wild world of gradient design, however, it’s important to remember that sometimes, less is more. Just because you now know how to add gradients to everything doesn’t necessarily mean that you should add gradients to everything. 

I wasn’t joking earlier about there being a gradient named ‘Nauseating Headache’, and here it is in all its hideous wonder:

WHY, GIMP, WHY?!?

Let it be a cautionary tale for all of you aspiring designers! Happy editing 😉 

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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