How to Use Free Select Tool in GIMP

GIMP has a number of automatic selection tools, but sometimes, a tricky subject requires that you get your hands dirty and actually make a manual selection. 

The Free Select tool in GIMP may take longer than the automatic options, but you’ll get the best possible results – as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort! 

The Three-Step Guide to the Free Select Tool in GIMP

The basics of using the Free Select tool are very simple:

  • Step 1: Switch to the Free Select tool.
  • Step 2: Click and drag to draw out your selection boundaries.
  • Step 3: Return to the point of your first click to complete the selection.

You’ve just successfully used the Free Select tool in GIMP! But along the way, you probably noticed that there were some additional options – and even if you didn’t run into them, they’re very useful and deserve a closer look. Read on to master the ins and outs of the Free Select tool! 

The Detailed Guide to Using the Free Select Tool In GIMP

For a tool that seems so simple, the GIMP development team has packed in a lot of subtle features – far more than you’ll find in Photoshop’s similar Lasso Tool. As we go through the steps, I’ll highlight important tips and tricks you can use to get the most out of Free Select. 

Step 1: Finding Free Select 

GIMP’s toolbox uses a nested structure that stacks related tools in the same location to save space. To find the Free Select tool, click the lasso icon shown below or use the keyboard shortcut F

Finding the Free Select tool in GIMP 2.10

If the icon isn’t visible, you’ve probably used one of the other tools in the stack more recently, and it’s replaced the icon. 

Step 2: Making Your Selection

Once you’re ready with the Free Select tool, it’s time to get down to work. There are two main methods for using the Free Select tool: click and drag to draw the outline of your selection or click once to set your first point and then click again to draw a perfectly straight selection line (repeat as often necessary to complete your selection). 

Things get interesting when you realize that you can actually combine the two methods to create a mixture of organic and linear edges. 

This selection won’t help edit this image, but it shows a combination of organic and linear selection edges

As you start to create your selection, you’ll see that GIMP draws a thin white line around the edges of the selection area, complete with anchor points at the endpoints of each straight line segment. Unfortunately, there are no anchor points on hand-drawn sections, although this would be a nice touch.

To complete your selection and stop drawing edges, you’ll need to close the shape of your selection. You can use either of the methods from Step 2 to return to the point where you started drawing your selection, or you can simply double-click to have GIMP automatically draw a straight line to your original source point.

Step 3: Finalizing Your Selection

Once you’ve closed your selection area, GIMP will convert the initial selection outline to an animated dashed line, known as a selection marquee, to indicate that the selection has been made. But you’ll see that the selection outline you drew is still visible – and most importantly, that it’s still editable.

Editable anchor points are highlighted in yellow when your cursor hovers over them

Each time you clicked to create the endpoint of a line, GIMP placed an anchor point. If you’ve ever used the Paths tool in GIMP or used a vector program, the concept will be immediately familiar to you. 

You can move and drag the points around to adjust your selection, which is a cool feature, but you can also rotate and scale the organic hand-drawn sections of your selection, which I’ve never seen in another image editor.

If you want to move the selection as a whole, hold down the Alt key (use Option on a Mac) and you’ll see a small Move icon appear next to the Free Select tool icon. Click and drag to reposition the whole selection. 

The Shift and Ctrl keys also modify the effects of the Free Select tool, so let’s look at how they work next. 

Save Your Sanity When Using Free Select

When they’re just starting out, many new users will make the mistake of trying to create their entire selection in a single step, but this can quickly become frustrating. If you’ve ever had to restart a complex selection from scratch because you made an error, this tip will be a huge help. 

It’s much easier to use the Shift and Ctrl keys to create your selection piece by piece (use the Shift and Command keys if you’re using GIMP on a Mac). 

The Shift key will allow you to add a new area to your existing selection, and the Ctrl or Command key will allow you to subtract an area from your existing selection. 

If you watch closely in the Tool Options panel, you’ll see the Mode: icon switch between Add and Subtract modes as you press the shortcut keys, although I’ve noticed that GIMP isn’t always properly responsive and I haven’t been able to isolate the cause of the issue. 

Be sure that the mode icon changes when you press your chosen shortcut – sometimes, GIMP can get mixed up!

In addition to giving you more control (when it works properly), this also lets you use the Undo command to take a single small step back if you make a mistake, instead of starting the whole selection process over from the beginning. 

It’s important to note that using Shift and Ctrl/Command work differently while you’re in the middle of drawing a selection, and this tip only applies to new selections when you’ve already got a selection active. 

If you hold down Ctrl/Command while drawing a single selection, you’ll be able to lock the angle of your straight line segments to specific alignments. 

I think this quirk is partly why the Add/Subtract shortcuts don’t always work properly, so keep an eye on the Mode icon. If they’re not working properly, you can always just use the Mode icons directly, though this does have the unfortunate side effect of slowing down your workflow. 

You can refine a linear selection with an organic one using the Add or Subtract modes/shortcuts, or use any additional shape you want

It can be very time-consuming to create entire complex selections using just the Free Select tool, but it also allows you to create the most accurate masks. If you start with one of the automatic tools like Fuzzy Select to create a base selection and then refine it with the Free Select tool, you can get the best of both worlds – just don’t forget about the Shift and Ctrl/Command keys. 

That’s just about everything there is to know about using the Free Select tool in GIMP. Have fun making your selections!

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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