How to Use Intelligent Scissors in GIMP

GIMP has a number of selection tools available, and one of the most misunderstood options is the Intelligent Scissors tool – and it’s misunderstood with good reason.

In theory, this tool should dramatically speed up the selection process by intelligently placing your selection boundary along the edges of the object you want to select in your image. 

In practice, however, this doesn’t always work out properly, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t figured out how to use the intelligent scissors in GIMP successfully. 

A bit of a strange beginning to this post, isn’t it? Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with this tool. 

Scissors or Intelligent Scissors?

This tool is one of the few in GIMP that has a different name depending on where you activate it. If you look in the Toolbox panel, you’ll find the Scissors Select tool nested in with the Free Select tool and the Foreground Select tool. 

But if you open the Tools menu and select the Selection Tools submenu, you’ll see that the tool is referred to as Intelligent Scissors instead. 

Despite this difference, the two different names refer to the same tool.

What is the Use of Intelligent Scissors?

Before we dive into how to actually use them, there’s a much larger point that has to be made. 

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the Intelligent Scissors tool, and I don’t find it particularly intelligent – only frustrating. As long as the object you want to select is clearly separated from the background, you should be able to get decent results, but I find that there is still a frustrating lack of consistency in how the tool applies its boundaries. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way, however. This passage from the official GIMP documentation really sums it up:

“If you are lucky, the path that the tool finds will correspond to the contour you are trying to select. Unfortunately, there seem to be some problems with the edge-following logic for this tool, with the result that the selections it creates tend to be pretty crude in a lot of cases.”

If you’re going to take the time to place points carefully and precisely, you’re almost better off using the Paths tool to create a selection. It might take a bit longer, but you’ll get a much more precise result with significantly less frustration! 

Do you still want to learn how to use Intelligent Scissors in GIMP? Here’s a step-by-step tutorial – just keep in mind that this tool is clearly in an unfinished state, and your results may vary.  

Step 1: Creating Your Selection Using Intelligent Scissors

The process of using the Scissors tool should be quite simple because the tool is supposed to be intelligent enough that it can do most of the work for you. 

To get started, switch to the Scissors Select tool using the Toolbox, although you may have to right-click on the Free Select tool to locate it since the two tools are nested together in the Toolbox. 

When displaying the toolbox icons for nested tools, GIMP will display the last-used tool icon, which can be a bit confusing until you learn which tools are nested in which locations. 

You can also activate the Scissors Select tool using the keyboard shortcut I (for clarity, that’s a letter “i” as in “intelligent”).

Before starting to use the tool, go to the Tool Options panel and enable the Interactive Boundary option, which allows GIMP to display the actual position of your Scissors Select boundary for a more intuitive selection process. I don’t know why this option isn’t enabled by default!

Choose any point on your object’s boundary and click to set the first point of your selection area. 

To set the second point, click once again on another spot further along your object edge, and the Scissors Select tool will “intelligently” position the boundary line along the edge of your object between the two points. 

You can also click and drag to set each point, which will display a preview of the boundary line placement that the tool thinks is correct. 

I wouldn’t call this boundary placement “intelligent” in any sense of the word…

If you disagree with the tool’s “intelligent” placement, you can hold down the Shift key to force placement. However, you won’t be able to control every aspect of the line, which I find quite frustrating!

Try to keep the spacing between the two points fairly small. Areas of greater detail will sometimes need additional points, but sometimes the tool simply does not cooperate. 

To remove the most recent point you placed, hit the Backspace key. To cancel your entire selection, hit the Escape key. 

Step 2: Polishing Your Selection

As you placed points around the object you want to select, you probably noticed that you and the Scissors Select tool don’t always agree on where points and boundary lines should be placed. 

Fortunately, you can reposition your existing points at any time, as well as add or remove points along the boundary. 

Pay close attention to the mouse cursor as you move it over the boundary line and anchor points: 

  • When you hover over an existing anchor point, a small Move cursor will appear, indicating that you can reposition the point. 
  • When you hover over a boundary line segment, a small ‘+’ icon will appear, indicating that you can add a new anchor point in that location. 
  • To remove an anchor point, hold down the Ctrl key (use the Command key on a Mac), and you’ll see a small ‘-’ sign appear, indicating that you can click to remove the point. 

Step 3: Applying Your Scissors Selection

The final stage is converting the intelligent scissors boundary into an actual selection. 

After this point, you will no longer be able to add, remove, or modify the anchor points the way you did in the previous step, although you can still use other selection tools (or additional scissor selections) to add, subtract, or combine with your existing selection. 

Fortunately, the process is quite simple: just press the Enter key. 

GIMP will convert your intelligent scissors boundary into the standard selection marquee boundary, and your selection will be active!

If your scissors boundary doesn’t convert into a selection boundary, then it’s time to go back and make sure that your scissors boundary is a completely closed shape. 

A Final Word

That covers everything you need to know about how to use intelligent scissors in GIMP! While it’s not as intelligent as some of the more advanced tools available in other modern image editing apps, the scissors tool can still speed up the process of creating a selection in some situations. 

That being said, you’re still probably better off using a different selection method. 

Happy selecting! 


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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  • DW Coop-Allred

    Thanks Thomas for your candid explanation.