How to Paint in GIMP

GIMP is an excellent photo editor, but that’s far from the only thing you can do with it. GIMP has a number of awesome brush-based tools, but the tools for digital painting are pretty incredible – especially if you’ve only ever thought about it as a photo editor. 

Rather than actually teach you how to paint – which I can’t do because I’m not a painter, despite watching all that Joy of Painting with Bob Ross – I’ll teach you which features of GIMP will give you the best set of painting tools available. It will be up to you to decide how to explore them with your own unique creative style! 

Wilber is always ready to get painting!

Explore All Your Paint Tools

If you’ve used GIMP at all, you’re probably familiar with the Paintbrush tool. It’s used for all kinds of work in GIMP, but it’s also not the only painting tool available. There are several other tools stacked in the same spot in the GIMP toolbox: Pencil, Airbrush, Ink, and as of version 2.10, MyPaint Brush.

The various painting brushes in GIMP 2.10

Pencil and Ink might be useful for doing outline work, and Airbrush replicates the real-world version quite well, but the MyPaint Brush is where GIMP’s best painting happens. 

If you use the Paintbrush tool to paint, you’ll notice quickly that the strokes don’t interact with each other at all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it prevents you from doing any kind of blending with the digital paint that’s in your image. 

Enter the MyPaint Brush! MyPaint is actually a separate painting app that made its painting system available for other developers to incorporate into their own apps, and the GIMP developers decided to include it in the latest release version, version 2.10.

The MyPaint brushes that come pre-installed with GIMP

This powered-up paintbrush comes with a huge number of preset tool types, and you can download a lot more free brushes from various places around the web (see the next section for tips). 

Certain specialized brushes offered by the MyPaint Brush allow interaction between strokes, so you can blend to your heart’s content.

Get Comfortable With Custom Brushes 

GIMP comes with a lot of custom brush shapes designed for use with any of its brush-based tools, but the default brush set can only take you so far. 

To really expand your horizons, you’ll need to get comfortable finding and installing custom brush shapes so that you can create entirely new strokes. 

I’ve put together a post about the best GIMP brushes, which also contains instructions on how to set them up and get them working using your brush folders. 

Finding the location of your custom brush folders is easy with my tutorial!

The MyPaint developers have also collected a series of brush packs that expand their own software, and each of these packs should work just fine with GIMP. 

It’s even possible to create your own custom brushes for GIMP, at least for the typical brush tools. 

Creating your own MyPaint brushes is a bit more complex than GIMP can handle, but you can install the MyPaint app to give it a try – although if you’re that committed, I’d recommend that you check out one of the alternative programs that are dedicated exclusively to digital painting, listed at the end of this post.

Use a Drawing Tablet

You might think you can paint digitally without buying a drawing tablet, but once you try using one, you won’t be able to go back. Painting while holding onto a mouse feels bizarre, even to me, and most (if not all) serious digital artists use a drawing tablet and stylus. 

Not only does it feel much more natural in the hand, but you can use the tablet’s pressure sensitivity options and other input dynamics to change the shape of your brushes as you paint. When you combine this with fancy custom brushes, you’ll be able to create some truly amazing natural-looking paint effects that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

The Paint Dynamics Editor panel in GIMP 2.10

Setting up your own custom brush dynamics allows you to completely customize the way your digital brush functions, all thanks to the extra input available from the tablet. GIMP’s Paint Dynamics Editor makes the customization process simple, and you can check out my full guide to using pressure sensitivity in GIMP and how the dynamics editor works.

Alternative Painting Apps

GIMP is a great program, but it’s not designed to be perfect for every type of digital art there is. Most of its tools and features are generalized for image editing, not just painting. However, there are programs that are dedicated specifically to digital painting:

  • Krita – a dedicated digital painting app that’s free and open-source just like GIMP (read my comparison of GIMP vs Krita here)
  • MyPaint – another free and open source painting app that provides the power behind GIMP’s MyPaint Brush system, which makes it worth a look!
  • Paint Tool SAI – a well-regarded paid painting app with a strong community (check out my comparison of Paint Tool SAI vs GIMP)
  • Corel Painter – one of the oldest and most-respected digital painting apps still in active development, but with an eye-watering price.

Get a taste for what digital painting can be like in GIMP, and then you’ll probably find yourself wanting to explore a program that’s designed with painting in mind.

Happy painting! 

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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