How to Make a Silhouette in GIMP

Silhouettes can be a striking visual tool that sets a specific mood, but they are also useful graphic elements that can be used in lots of different projects, and they’re easy to make in GIMP. 

From the simple facial profile silhouettes that were popular as portraits in 18th-century Europe to full-body silhouettes of animals and objects, you can use these techniques to make any kind of silhouette that you want – it all depends on the quality of your source image and your patience with the tools. 

Of course, if you want to draw freehand without a source image, that’s fine too, but in that case, you probably don’t need this tutorial 😉

Here are two different ways you can make a silhouette in GIMP! 

Make a Quick Silhouette Using Selections

Note: the image used in this tutorial comes from Anne Worth on Unsplash

This method works best when your source image has a clear separation between the subject and the background, such as in the case of product photographs or a flying bird highlighted against the sky. It’s something of a “quick and dirty” solution, but it can still produce good results if the initial selection is clear enough. 

Switch to the Fuzzy Select tool using the Toolbox or the keyboard shortcut U, then click on the background of your image to select it. Depending on the background contents, you may need to adjust the Threshold setting to get a good selection around the edges of your subject.

Once the background is selected, invert your selection by opening the Select menu and clicking Invert. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + I (use Command + I if you’re on a Mac). For the sake of clarity, that’s the capital letter “i” as in “internet”.

Now you should have a selection around your subject, and it’s time to make a layer for the silhouette and fill it with black (or whatever color you want to use). 

Open the Layer menu and click New Layer. Give it a descriptive name in the popup window, and click OK

Next, use the Bucket Fill tool to fill your selection area with black pixels (or whatever color you wish). You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + , to fill the selection with your foreground color, or you can use Ctrl + . to fill the selection with your background color. Use the Command key instead of the Ctrl key if you’re using GIMP on a Mac. 

You’ve now got your silhouette! If you want to place it on a neutral background, you can create another new layer filled with a solid color and place it below the silhouette layer in the Layers panel.

How to Make a Silhouette Using Custom Paths

Note: the image used in this tutorial comes from Kimson Doan on Unsplash.

If you want to make a silhouette that you can easily tweak and adjust, or if you’re working from an image that doesn’t work well with automatic selections, you can use the Paths tool to make a silhouette in GIMP. 

Step 1: Prepare Your Layers

For this silhouette project, your document will need three layers: your source image layer, a layer for the silhouette, and a layer for the silhouette background. 

Start by opening the source image that you want to use as the basis for your silhouette. This is optional, of course, but it can be a big help when you’re learning to use all the tools. 

Next, open the Layer menu, and click New Layer. Name the first new layer Background Layer (or whatever you want, as long as it’s descriptive), and click OK.

Repeat the layer creation process, but name the second layer Silhouette Layer. 

To make sure that everything is organized properly, look at the Layers panel in the bottom right corner of the screen. You should see three entries in the list: your source image, then above that should be the Background Layer, and then on top of that should be the Silhouette Layer. 

If the order gets mixed up, don’t worry! You can re-arrange the layers by clicking and dragging the layer thumbnails. 

Step 2: Drawing Your Paths

Now it’s time to draw your silhouette! Select the Silhouette Layer in the Layers panel, and then switch to the Paths tool using the Toolbox or the keyboard shortcut B.

Choose a place to start your silhouette, and click once to place the first anchor point of your path. Move the cursor a short way along the outline of your subject, and click again to place a second anchor point. 

GIMP will draw a straight line between each point, but you can make it draw a curved line instead by dragging the cursor as you click to place a new point. Each line, curve, and anchor point can be edited and adjusted at any time, so don’t worry too much about placing them perfectly on the first try. 

Continue placing points around your subject until you’ve completely outlined it. To close the path and create a contained shape, hold down the Ctrl key (use Command on a Mac) and click the very first anchor point that you placed. 

Remember, you can adjust the placement of each point on your path at any point, and you can use the handles attached to each point to control the curves on either side of the point. 

If you hold down the Ctrl / Command key while moving a handle, you can adjust each line independently, or you can hold down the Shift key while moving a handle to align both sides and create a smooth curve. 

If you accidentally change tools and your path seems to disappear, don’t worry! It’s not really gone, it just got deselected. Open the Paths panel next to the Layers panel in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface, and select the path you were working on. It should be visible and editable again in the main document window. 

Step 3: Filling Your Silhouette

Once your silhouette path is complete, it’s time to fill it with your chosen color. Make sure that the Silhouette Layer is still selected in the Layers panel before you continue, or you’ll put your silhouette on the wrong layer. 

With the Paths tool still active, go to the Tool Options panel and click the Fill Path button.

GIMP will open a small dialog window with a couple of basic options. Select Solid color, and click Fill. GIMP will use your currently active foreground color to fill the path with pixels. 

Step 4: Fill in the Background

For the final step, you can choose to put your silhouette on a solid color background. You can make this any color you want, of course, but the simplest option is plain white for maximum contrast with a black silhouette. 

Perhaps I should have chosen a portrait with less dynamic hair, but it was a great photo, and I couldn’t resist

Make sure that you select the Background Layer in the Layers panel, or you’ll accidentally wipe out your silhouette!

You can use the Bucket Fill tool set to white to fill the background, or you can press Ctrl + , or Ctrl + . to fill the background with your currently selected foreground or background colors.

A Final Word

Congratulations, you’ve just learned how to make a silhouette in GIMP in two different ways! You can use these same techniques on just about anything that you want to make a silhouette of, so feel free to experiment.

The automatic method works best on images that have a clearly defined subject and background, but even if the automatic selection method doesn’t give you a good silhouette, your skills with the Paths tool will turn your silhouette project into a success.

Enjoy the drawing!

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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