How to Use Patterns in GIMP

If you’ve ever tried creating a consistent pattern by hand in an image editor you know how tedious it can be. Fortunately for all of us designers, GIMP has a great pattern-making feature that can simplify the whole process by automatically tiling a small image for you. 

You can use one of the preset patterns that come installed as standard with GIMP (although they’re all a bit random and weird), you can add new patterns from across the web, and you can even create your own. 

4 Quick Methods To Use Patterns In GIMP

Here’s a quick overview of the four main ways you can use a pattern in GIMP:

  • Method 1: Use the Bucket Fill tool set to Pattern Fill.
  • Method 2: Use the Clone Stamp tool with the Source option set to Pattern.
  • Method 3: Create a path with the Paths tool and use the Stroke Path option set to Pattern.
  • Method 4: Create a selection and use the Stroke Selection option set to Pattern.

A Detailed Guide to Using Patterns in GIMP

If you haven’t spent some time exploring the GIMP interface, you might not have spotted the Patterns panel yet. By default, it’s located in the upper right corner of the interface, in a tab next to the Brushes and Fonts panels.

The Patterns panel, showing all the default patterns that come with GIMP

If it’s not visible there, you can bring it back by using the shortcut Control + Shift + P (use Command + Shift + P if you’re using GIMP on a Mac). You can also open the Windows menu, select the Dockable Dialogs submenu, and choose Patterns from the list. 

You’ll see a thumbnail list of GIMP’s pre-installed patterns, although I’m not sure how much use you will get from them. They seem to be chosen fairly randomly, but there are a couple of cool ones that you might actually want to incorporate into a design. 

If nothing else, they’re great inspiration for what you can make yourself! Let’s take a closer look at the four most common ways to use patterns in GIMP. 

Method 1: Using The Bucket Fill Tool

One of the simplest and yet most flexible methods to use a pattern in GIMP is the Bucket Fill tool. Usually used for filling layers and selections with solid colors, the Fill Type can also be set to Pattern fill, as shown below. 

The Tool Options panel showing the Bucket Fill settings, complete with pattern thumbnails

Switch to the Bucket Fill tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut Shift + B, and look at the Tool Options panel. Select your pattern, and then click anywhere in the main image window to fill the currently selected layer with your pattern.

I am not a big fan of Wilber’s new pattern-filled background, but we can modify it a bit

Depending on the pattern you’re using this can be visually overwhelming at first (I’m looking at you, ‘Warning!’ pattern – my eyes still hurt from looking at you too much), but there are a couple of options you can use to modify how the pattern is applied.

The Mode setting allows you to adjust the blending mode that’s applied to the pattern, although you’ll have to experiment with these options because there are far too many to cover in this tutorial. 

The Difference mode can be fun, and the Overlay mode is often useful if you’re looking for a place to start.

Alternatively, you can also edit the Opacity setting to modify how visible your pattern fill appears or even combine this with a mode setting to create a huge range of effects. 

Using Overlay mode and an Opacity setting of 50 keeps the existing background color but still adds some texture from the pattern

If you don’t want to bother switching to the Bucket Fill tool, you can also drag any of the pattern thumbnails directly onto your image, and it will fill the currently selected layer. You can also drag and drop a pattern to fill a selection, as long as you drop the thumbnail within the selection area. 

However, this method doesn’t let you add any kind of customization such as opacity or blend modes, so it’s not always as effective as using the Bucket Fill tool. 

Method 2: Painting Patterns With The Clone Stamp Tool

If you don’t want to fill a selection or layer with your pattern, you can try painting it on using the Clone Stamp tool. I’m not exactly sure why this feature is part of the Clone Stamp tool instead of the Paintbrush tool, but I’m sure the developers had a good reason for it (even if it’s not obvious to us).

To get started, switch to the Clone Stamp tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut C.

In the Tool Options panel, set the Source option to Pattern, and then select your pattern of choice. 

When using the Clone Stamp tool for pattern painting, you don’t need to set a source point, so you can just begin painting on your image the way you would with any of GIMP’s brush-based tools. 

Method 3: Patterns On A Path

If you don’t want to paint out your patterns by hand, you can use the Paths tool to design any shapes you want and then apply your chosen pattern to the path. 

Switch to the Paths tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut B. Click in the main image window to set anchor points until you’re happy with the shape of your path.

You can use the Stroke Path button to add a pattern to your path

In the Tool Options panel, click the Stroke Path button, and GIMP will open the Stroke Path dialog. Select Pattern, and customize the rest of your settings as desired. 

For whatever reason, GIMP doesn’t allow you to select your specific pattern in the Stroke Path dialog the way it does in the Bucket Fill and Clone Stamp methods, so it will use the pattern that is currently selected in the Patterns panel. 

Click the Stroke button, and your chosen settings will be applied to your path.

Method 4: Patterns On A Selection

Last but not least, you can apply a pattern to the edges of a selection if you don’t want to use the Paths tool. This method works almost identically to the previous one, with only a couple of key differences.

Make your selection using one of GIMP’s many selection tools, and then open the Edit menu and choose Stroke Selection. GIMP will display the Stroke Selection dialog box, which is virtually identical to the Stroke Path dialog in all but name. 

This method also relies on the currently selected pattern in the Patterns panel, so be sure you’ve got the right one ready before you continue. 

Click the Stroke button, and your chosen settings will be applied to the edges of your selection area.

Adding New Patterns

Note: Before downloading any files from potentially untrustworthy websites, make sure that your anti-malware software is up-to-date. Most sites hosting GIMP patterns should be safe, but you can never be too careful when it comes to your digital security. 

If you’re not satisfied with GIMP’s built-in patterns – and who could blame you –  it’s also possible to download new GIMP patterns from a number of different websites. 

These are usually created by other GIMP users to share freely in the same open-source spirit as GIMP itself, although there isn’t an official repository of user-made patterns available. 

The DeviantArt community has a large number of GIMP users who create brushes and patterns which are often free for download, so it’s a good place to start although there are plenty of smaller sites as well. 

Once you’ve downloaded a .PAT file, you simply need to place it into your GIMP Patterns folder and it will be ready to use. Here’s how to find it:

Open the Edit menu, and select Preferences (Mac users will find the Preferences entry in the GIMP application menu instead). 

In the Preferences window, scroll through the list in the left pane until you find the Folders entry. Click the small + icon to expand the list, and select Patterns. GIMP will display all the folders that it checks for pattern files, but only one is marked as Writable – that’s the one you need.

Select it from the list, and click the Show location in file manager button in the upper right corner.

I think it’s supposed to be a filing cabinet, although it’s a bit obscure at first

Your file manager will open to display the Patterns folder, and you just need to place your .PAT file there. You can sort it into one of the existing subfolders if you want to keep things organized, but you don’t have to. 

Once it’s in the right folder, click the Refresh Patterns button at the bottom of the Patterns panel, and your new pattern should appear in the thumbnail list. 

Creating Your Own Patterns

Creating your own patterns can be simple or extremely complex, depending on the final result that you’re looking for. The simplest kind of repeating pattern has a single image that is tiled across the background, while more complex patterns 

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure why all of GIMP’s default patterns are so low-resolution, but my guess is that it’s because you can’t control the size of the pattern while you’re applying it.

If you create a pattern image that’s 128 x 128 pixels, GIMP simply plugs it directly into your image in a repeating grid of 128 pixels. If you created one that was 1024×1024, the repeating grid would be 1024 pixels instead. 

The very first entry in the pattern thumbnail list shows the contents of your clipboard

The fastest way to create your own pattern is to use the handy Clipboard Image feature. While you were exploring the list of patterns in the Patterns panel, you may have noticed that the very first entry in the list has the description Clipboard Image. 

This is because it does exactly that: any image data that you copy into the clipboard is instantly available as a pattern. 

You can create a file, design your pattern, and export it as a .PAT file into your GIMP Patterns folder, but it’s not always worth these extra steps unless you’re going to be using the pattern regularly.

If there’s enough interest, I’ll put together a full tutorial on how to make your own custom patterns in GIMP, because it really deserves a whole tutorial of its own. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see one. 

Until then, we’ve now covered just about everything you need to know about how to use patterns in GIMP, so get out there and create some cool effects!

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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