How to Trace in GIMP

Tracing over top of a source image is one of the best ways to learn a new drawing style, and you can use it for countless other projects as well. Thanks to GIMP’s layer-based editing system along with its excellent brush and selection tools, digital tracing is extremely easy to do.

A Quick Note About Live Trace

Some vector graphics editors have a feature known as ‘live trace’ or something similar which automatically traces a bitmap image to create an editable vector image of the same content. GIMP doesn’t offer that feature, so if that’s what you’re looking for, check out the free app Inkscape and its Trace Bitmap tool.

To get started tracing in GIMP, first, you’ll need to open up your source image – no surprises there!

Next, locate the Layers panel, usually located in the bottom right corner of the GIMP interface. If you can’t find it, it may have been closed accidentally. 

Bring it back by opening the Windows menu, selecting the Dockable Dialogs submenu, and clicking Layers, or you can use the shortcut Ctrl + L (use Command + L if you’re using GIMP on a Mac).

You’ll see that GIMP has one layer listed in the Layers panel, named using the source image’s filename. We’ll simply add a new layer filled with transparency and then draw onto the new transparent layer while it’s still overlaid on the source image. 

You can click the small new layer icon in the bottom left of the Layers panel, or you can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N (use Command + Shift + N on macOS). 

You can also use the same command in the Layer menu, but it’s a good idea to get comfortable working with the keyboard shortcuts. 

GIMP will open the Create A New Layer dialog box. It has a huge number of options, but we only need to deal with a few at the moment. Name your layer something descriptive, make sure the Mode: option is set to Normal, and set the Fill with: option to Transparency

If you check the Layers panel again, you’ll see there is a new entry in the list named Tracing (or whatever you named your layer). 

Click the thumbnail to make sure the new layer is selected, or you’ll end up tracing onto your source image! You’ll see a white outline around the image thumbnail of the currently selected layer. 

Last but definitely not least, it’s time to get tracing! GIMP has excellent brush-based tools with lots of customization options and presets, allowing you to recreate virtually any physical drawing or painting medium.

I recommend that you start out with the Paintbrush if you’ve never used GIMP to draw before, but you might also want to explore the MyPaint brush. 

MyPaint was incorporated into GIMP in version 2.10 and uses an open-source painting engine that’s much more sophisticated than GIMP’s paintbrushes. It’s not just for paint, though, as it has a number of presets for more traditional drawing and sketching media like pencils and charcoal. 

Select the brush you want to use, and get tracing! 

Tip: If you don’t want to draw by hand and you just want to trace an outline, you can try using a selection tool to outline your object, and then use the Stroke Selection command in the Edit menu to apply a stroke to your selection edges. 

Once you’re finished, all that remains is to hide the source image layer. If you’re not quite sure how your traced image looks, you can temporarily hide the source image layer by clicking the small eye-shaped icon next to the appropriate layer in the Layers panel.

The Hawk-FB-Version.jpg layer is currently hidden

(Some editors recommend deleting this layer, but I think that it’s always a good idea to keep as much image data as possible in your working file, so hang onto it!)

The icon will disappear and the source image will be hidden, replaced by the checkerboard pattern that GIMP uses to indicate transparent pixels – unless you traced over the whole canvas, of course! 

The traced hawk outline

If you’re happy with the results, you can add another new layer filled with white or whatever background color you wish, and place it between the tracing layer and your source image layer. 

You can get as detailed as you want, of course! Add as many different tracing layers as you’d like to help keep your drawing organized. 

That’s just about everything there is to know about how to trace an image in GIMP!

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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