How to Make Smoke in GIMP

Smoke patterns have fascinated humans since before we started using fires to cook.

Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, but that was long before Netflix, so we can assume they were watching something.

Fast forward to the days of modern digital imagery, and we still want to add realistic smoke effects to our artwork.

I’m going to assume that you’re here because you don’t want to draw your smoke effects by hand, and I don’t blame you – smoke can be very difficult to draw convincingly.

Fortunately, the computational power of GIMP and the kindness of strangers can help you make smoke in a couple of different ways without having to take the time to learn how to draw smoke by hand 😉 

Method 1: Make Smoke Using GIMP Filters (Sort of)

This is the only method I know of that uses GIMP’s built-in filters to create a smoke effect automatically, and if I’m being completely honest, it’s not always a great solution.

It’s intended to create fog, and it’s not particularly amazing at that either, but it can do a decent job of creating a smoky background atmosphere when placed overtop of an image.

If you want to create more concentrated smoke trails like you’d see coming off the end of a cigarette or a stick of incense, your best option is to use the custom brushes method described in the next section. 

Alternatively, you can combine the two methods, like the example in this post. 

This incense needs some smoke!

To test out the fog/smoke effect, open the Filters menu, select the Decor submenu, and click Fog

GIMP will open a small dialog window with some customization options, and you’ll definitely want to adjust the default color, which is an odd yellow color for some inexplicable reason.  

Set the color to white, light grey, or even a pale grayish-blue if you want to get fancy.

Click OK, and GIMP will render the layer of fog/smoke onto your image. GIMP uses a simple noise pattern that’s also used in other filters, so it doesn’t always produce a realistic result, but it’s worth a try. 

You can also undo the effect and apply it again with slightly different Turbulence and Opacity settings and get a different result. 

Now the incense looks like it’s in a smoky room, but it still needs some more defined and concentrated smoke trails coming off the burning tip of the incense, so let’s move on to the next method and combine the two. 

Method 2: Make Smoke in GIMP With Custom Brushes

This method takes a bit more time to set up before you can start using custom brushes, but it’s still a lot faster than drawing your own smoke by hand! If you can copy and paste files from one folder to another, then you know everything you need to install your own custom brushes

Step 1: Download Custom Brushes

If you’re not familiar with the idea of custom brushes, here’s how it works. Many of GIMP’s essential tools are brush-based, like the Paintbrush, Clone Tool, Smudge, and so on. 

These tools typically use a circular brush shape by default, but you can use customize these tools with any shape that you want. 

Many people have created custom brush shapes using smoke patterns that can be downloaded for free on the internet, and because GIMP can also use brush files that are intended for use with Photoshop, there are hundreds or possibly thousands of options available. 

Two excellent resources for GIMP brushes are Brusheezy and myPhotoshopBrushes – and yes, I very much enjoy using Photoshop resources with GIMP 😉 

Browse through the options and download a smoke brush pack that you like. You can download as many as you want, but installing too many brushes at once can make GIMP run very slowly, especially with large numbers of high-resolution brushes. 

Most smoke brushes have to be very high-resolution in order to create a smooth and realistic smoke effect, so don’t get too many! 

Download the compressed brush pack file and extract the contents into a new folder. If you want to use the same one that I chose, you can get it here.

As you can see from the modified date, this smoke brush pack has been around for a while!

Step 2: Install Your Smoke Brushes

The smoke-brushes.abr file needs to be placed in GIMP’s Brushes folder. Depending on your installation directory and your operating system, the Brushes folder can be in several different places, but there’s a quick trick to locate it.

On PC, open the Edit menu and click Preferences.

On a Mac, open the GIMP application menu and click Preferences

In the left pane of the Preferences window, locate the Folders entry and click the small + icon to expand it. 

Scroll down to select the Brushes folder, which should be the first entry in the list. This page displays all the locations that GIMP checks for brush files. 

Select the entry that contains your user name, and click the small file cabinet icon in the top right of the page to open a file browser window at that location automatically. 

In your file browser, copy the smoke-brushes.abr file from the original location and paste it into the Brushes folder that you just located. 

Switch back to GIMP, and locate the Brushes panel in the upper right corner of the interface. If it’s not visible, open the Windows menu, select Dockable Dialogs, and click Brushes. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + B (use Command + Shift + B on a Mac).

Open the panel menu using the small triangle icon, select Brushes Menu, and click Refresh Brushes

GIMP will re-check the Brushes folder for new brushes, and your smoke brushes should appear in the Brushes panel. 

The smoke brush pack is old, and GIMP might be sorting them by ‘date created’ instead of ‘date added,’ but they appeared in the middle of the list for me.

For whatever annoying reason, they may not appear at the top of the Brushes panel list, as you can see above.

Step 3: Time to Make Smoke

Before you start painting with smoke, create a new layer to hold your smoke trails using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N (use Command + Shift + N on a Mac). Give it a descriptive name and click OK.

Select your chosen smoke brush and switch to the Paintbrush tool using the Toolbox panel or the keyboard shortcut P. Set the foreground color to white, light grey, or any other smoke color you want, and move your cursor over your image. 

As you move it, you should be able to see a basic preview of your smoke brush shape to help you align the placement correctly. 

Once you’re satisfied with the positioning, click once on your image to “stamp” the smoke brush onto your image. 

Now it’s getting too smoky in here, I’m going to step outside for a second

It looks pretty good, right? The smoke might be a bit too thick in this example, but you can play around with the smoke color, opacity settings, angle,  and all the other brush parameters until you get the perfect look. 

There are also several other smoke brush options in this brush pack, and remember – there are plenty of brush packs just waiting to be explored!

A Final Word

That covers the best ways to make smoke in GIMP, and you learned how to download and install custom GIMP brushes along the way. You may want to skip GIMP’s fog/smoke effect since it doesn’t work in every situation, but that will depend on your creative vision and the needs of your project. 

Since it’s only digital and can’t hurt you, enjoy the smoke!

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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  • kenneth

    very very informative and educational … best of my thank you’s.