How to Outline Text in GIMP

If you were around for the earliest days of internet memes, you might remember that they often used a classic outlined text style. It made your text stand out clearly no matter what was going on in the rest of the image, and it was easy enough to use for online meme generator websites. 

The O RLY owl, dating back to 2003 (yes, the internet really existed then)

Of course, that’s not the only great use for outlined text. The process is pretty simple, and you can use it for all kinds of design work from watermarks to website headers. Here’s the quick and easy guide on how to outline text in GIMP in just a few simple steps:

  • Step 1: Create your text object with the Text tool.
  • Step 2: Hold Alt and click on your text layer’s icon in the Layers palette to select the text outlines.
  • Step 3: Open the Select menu and use the Grow tool to set the width of the outline.
  • Step 4: Create a new layer below your text layer, fill the expanded selection, and you’re done! 

If that was a bit too rushed for you, we’ll dig into each step a bit further below as we explore the different options you run into along the way and how you can use each one to create a different text outline in GIMP. 

Step 1: Create Your Text

Using the Text tool, add the text that you want to outline. GIMP’s text tools can be a bit finicky in my experience, so don’t feel bad if it takes you a few minutes and a bit of frustration to get things set up just right. Just breathe deeply and keep trying 😉 

Step 2: Create A Selection

Next, we need to select the text so that we can work around the edges of the letters. If you tried to do this by hand, it would take forever – and you probably would have pulled all your hair out long before you got close to finishing! It’s much easier to just let GIMP calculate it for you.

The GIMP Layers palette with my text layer highlighted

Your text has its own layer in the Layers palette at the bottom right of the GIMP interface (unless you’ve re-arranged the interface layout). Holding down the Alt key (Option on a Mac), click on the “A” icon for your text layer. Your text should now be outlined in the image window, shown below.

Good thing I didn’t try to do that by hand!

You can also right-click on the layer in the Layers palette and choose Alpha to Selection, which uses the layer’s transparency setting as a guide for creating the selection. Since text layers are transparent by default except for the actual letters themselves, we have a ready-made selection.

Now on to the outlining process!

Step 3: Adjust Your Outline

Now that you’ve got your text outlined with a selection marquee, you can start modifying it to get just the right outline shape. There are two main ways of dealing with this, depending on how precise you want your outlines to be.

The first method uses the Border tool that I mentioned in the quick and easy guide at the beginning of the post. Open the Select menu from the menu bar and choose Border. The Border Selection dialog box appears to let you customize the adjustments.

Border Selection works using your current selection edges as a center point, so a setting of 4 pixels (as shown above) would cover 2 pixels outside the edges of your letters and 2 pixels inside. Since we’re outlining text, I recommend setting the Border style to Hard to boost the clarity. 

The other method uses the Grow Selection tool, also found in the Select menu. This simply expands your text selection outwards by the set amount of pixels. 

Using the Border Selection method gives you a bit more flexibility, because there are times when you might want your outline to overlap your letterforms, but Grow Selection is a bit simpler for quick usage. There are also other ways to modify your selection’s edges to get different effects.

My previous selection, grown by 4 pixels using the Grow Selection tool

Step 4: Fill Your Outline On A New Layer

Once you’ve got your text outlined just the way you want, it’s time to fill it in with your outline of choice. We don’t want to paint over our text, though, so we need to create a new layer for our outline before we move on.

Open the Layer menu and choose New Layer. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N (Command + Shift + N on macOS) or click the New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette. The default settings for a new layer should be fine to use.

With your new layer selected in the Layers palette, you can use any drawing or brush tool to fill in your selection, but the Bucket Fill tool is the simplest. Select Bucket Fill from the tool palette or hit Shift + B to switch to it, and click anywhere inside your selection area.

Outlined text in GIMP, complete with feathered edges for that extra je ne sais quoi

If your text is covered over by your fill, don’t worry – you can easily rearrange the order of your layers in the Layers palette. Drag and drop to change their order, or use the small arrow buttons at the bottom of the palette. That’s why we used a separate layer in the first place!

New layers are created above whichever layer you’ve got selected in the Layers palette, so you can save time by selecting the layer below your text layer before creating a new one in order to have to appear in the correct spot right away. 

Extra Credit Outlines

While you followed along with the steps earlier, you may have noticed that there are a bunch of different options in the Select menu. Now that you know the basics, you can start experimenting to see what other cool effects you can create!

Feather allows you to soften the edges of your selection so that when you fill it with your brush or bucket, the edges get softly blurred automatically. Remove holes lets you fill in the gaps in your letters (technically they’re called counters) like in the P, O, R, and A in my example above.

You can probably also start to think of other ways to combine your selections to create some really cool effects. Anything that modifies your selection boundaries is fair game, just remember to always add your fill on a separate layer from the actual text object.

That’s all there is to outline text in GIMP, so it’s time to get back into GIMP and start creating text outlines!

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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  • Deb

    Thank you so much for this! You’re extremely good at explaining things. I have been helped many times by your tutorials.

  • Chris

    This is failing for me on step 2. It’s selecting the text box, not the letters.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Chris, that’s strange – I can’t seem to recreate the issue on my computer, so I’m not sure what to suggest. Is it possible that you have Show Layer Boundary enabled? You can check in the View menu. Unfortunately, the designers made the layer boundary outline look very close to a standard selection outline, so it can be confusing, especially when you’re not used to working with GIMP. You might also want to try switching away from the Text tool before using the technique. The Text tool is a bit chaotic at the best of times, so maybe try switching to the Move tool first.

      Hope that helps!

  • Bess

    Thanks so much! I have used Gimp for years and struggled to do this by hand.

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome, Bess! This should save a lot of time and frustration =)

  • Scott Morris

    Perfect – thank for the help!

    • Thomas Boldt

      Glad you found the site useful, Scott!

  • Dana Decker

    Thank you for that tutorial. I had a problem when adding a New Layer (post border) because the default (at least for me) for Fill With: was set to Background color, not Transparency. I don’t recall changing the Fill with:, but maybe I did in the past. Took a while to discover the problem b/c I spent time trying to select and subsequently fill with transparency (aka Delete), but it got messy and so I looked again at the dialogue box for New Layer and there it was, Fill with:, at the bottom.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Hi Dana, I’ve had similar problems a few times in the past when GIMP was being “helpful” and remembering previous settings. If you ever want to completely reset the interface so it goes back to what it was like when you first installed it, you can open up the Edit menu, select Preferences, and click Reset at the bottom of the Preferences window. This will permanently reset everything you’ve customized, though, so don’t use it lightly!

      Hope that helps!

  • Murdoch

    Thank you. I especially like that you give alternative ways of doing things. For example the Alt Click did not work for me
    also the pick border had the nasty result of also picking up a rectangle surrounding the text, but alpha to selection
    did the trick.
    The nasty side of gimp is that whatever worked last year will probably not work now as it is constantly
    being changed for no apparent reason.

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome, Murdoch! I find that in programs this complex, there are usually multiple ways of doing things, and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s good to know your options.
      I’m hoping that the upcoming GIMP 3 release will correct a lot of these weird issues that we all experience, but it might just introduce new ones, lol. Oh well – it’s still a great app overall!

  • Alex

    Thanks for the great tutorial!

    • Thomas Boldt

      You’re welcome, Alex!

  • sam

    Excellent instructions!

    • Thomas Boldt

      Thanks, Sam! Glad you found them helpful.

  • Abby-Helen Artfield

    Thank you for this tutorial. I especially like your straight forward instructions, also that you took the time to put it in writing. I copy and print them so I can fall back on the written tutorial when I need to.
    I also appreciate your honesty in giving your insight as to where Gimp has some snags. All art programs have a few faults but with your help there are ‘work a rounds’ Thank you.

    • Thomas Boldt

      Thanks, Abby-Helen! Glad you’re finding the tutorials useful. GIMP is great, but it does have some little quirks that can be confusing unless you know how to get around them.