How to Turn a Photo into a Cartoon in GIMP

If there’s one thing that digital artists and software developers have in common, it’s a love of filters. These tools can alter the look of a photo dramatically with just a few clicks, and they’re a great way for new image editors to explore the world of digital imagery and editing software. Not only that, they’re just fun to mess around with it! 

There are a few tools available for GIMP that can turn a photo into a cartoon, although “cartoon” is a pretty broad term that covers a lot of different styles and overall visual approaches.

Let’s take a closer look at what you can do with photos and cartoons in GIMP!

1. Using GIMP’s Cartoon Filter

GIMP has a built-in filter named Cartoon that sort of creates a cartoonish effect from your photos automatically. Kind of. A bit. You’ll see what I mean. 

Load up the photo you want to turn into a cartoon in GIMP, then open the Filter menu, select the Artistic submenu, and click Cartoon

GIMP will open a small dialog window with some basic options that allow you to customize the effect. 

Unfortunately, while this is the easiest way to turn a photo into a cartoon in GIMP, the result doesn’t really look very “cartoonish” to me. It’s definitely more like a cartoon than the original photo, but it mostly just looks a bit dirty to me. 

If you really turn the settings down, you can get a slightly better result, but it’s still not exactly great.

2. Cartoonify Your Photos in GIMP Using a Plugin 

GIMP has a lot of impressive features, but you can also expand its capabilities by installing small pieces of third-party software known as plugins. There are a great many plugins available for free around the web, so you should be careful to only install your plugins from a source you trust.

This method requires a bit more work than using the built-in Cartoon filter, but you’ll also get a lot more options and better results – and it’s not really very hard to install the plugin, I promise! It even comes with its own installation program, so you won’t have to mess around with the Plugins folder at all 😉 

The free and open-source G’MIC plugin package has a number of plugins that can be used to create a cartoon effect, and there are literally hundreds of additional effects you can apply to your images. Many of them are more like cool toys than seriously useful tools, but they’re still a lot of fun to experiment with. 

G’MIC, or GREYC’s Magic for Image Computing, is one of the oldest plugin packages that are still available and under active development, so you should be able to trust it – plus, I’ve tested the software myself without any issues, as have thousands of others.

It’s only available for Windows and Linux, but several users have worked towards creating an unofficial version for macOS, and G’MIC is kind enough to provide the latest links on their official website. 

I like the G’MIC mascot – sorry, Wilber! 

Run the installation program to install the plugin package, then open GIMP. GIMP only processes and loads plugins during the startup/launch phase, so if you already had GIMP open while you installed the plugin, you’ll have to close it and restart it to activate G’MIC. 

Open the photo you want to turn into a cartoon, and then open the Filters menu. If the plugin loaded properly, you should see a new entry labeled G’MIC-Qt at the bottom of the list. 

Click on the new entry to launch it. 

G’MIC opens its own dialog window that allows you to explore the different effects, as well as see a preview of the results before you apply them to your image. 

One of my favorite features is the ability to output the results of your adjustments on a new layer, which preserves your original image content in case you need to go back to it later. 

The Input layers setting lets you choose which layer should be used for the effects, and the Output mode allows you to decide where the adjusted image will be placed. This option is available for almost all filters, so don’t forget about it. It’s not quite as good as non-destructive editing, but it’s a step in the right direction! 

There are several filters available in G’MIC that can turn a photo into a cartoon, so you should experiment with the different options to see which one works best with your photo.

Keep in mind that the results you get will depend a lot upon the photo that you’re using. A photo with a clearly defined subject and a simple background will get much better results than a busy, complex image with many areas of color. 

I started out my screenshots using this picture of my cat Juniper, but her white paws against the white radiator didn’t make for good contrast with many of the filters. Here’s the other image that I’ve used, just so that you know what the original looks like:

Here’s a quick list of some of the filters that are worth exploring for this project:

Artistic > Cartoon

This works in a very similar manner to GIMP’s Cartoon filter, except that this version gives you a lot more control over the output. It will require some tweaking and experimenting to find a version that doesn’t look totally silly, so you may want to use my settings from the screenshot below as a base to work from. 

That being said, it’s also still not the best option available in G’MIC, in my opinion. 

Artistic > Comicbook

This filter comes a lot closer to creating a cartoonish look, but it has a confusingly massive set of options that can make a huge difference in how the finished version looks. 

Here’s how the default settings look with the goldfinch combat image:

I think this is my favorite method by far. It creates a cartoonish image that’s still nicely detailed and a bit textured without going over the top. Of course, it might not work this well for every image, but it’s a great place to start. 

Artistic > Lineart

This is one of the filters that work best with a clear subject, but even then, it still sometimes misses the edges of the object, as you can see in the wingtip in the screenshot below. 

Patterns > Stencil

I’m not sure if this one should really count as a cartoon, but it can create an interesting line-art effect when used with the right settings. 

Patterns > Halftone

If you’re used to old comics and other printed cartoons, you might recognize the half-tone dot texture that is often associated with them. 

Alternative Options to Cartoonify a Photo

If you don’t want to take the automatic route, you can also draw your own cartoon overtop of your photo with the Paths tool, using the photo as a stencil and guide for your drawing. This is undoubtedly the best option, but it will take the most amount of work – and you probably shouldn’t do it in GIMP. 

If you followed the exact same process in Inkscape using the Pen tool, you’d do no extra work, you wouldn’t have to learn any new tools, and at the end of the process, you’d have an editable vector image. In GIMP, you’d just wind up with a bunch of paths that you could fill with pixels using the Bucket Fill tool. 

A Final Word

Hopefully, this post has taught you how to turn a photo into a cartoon in GIMP with just a few clicks! There are several great automatic options, but if you want to create the best-quality result with the ultimate in customization, drawing over the top of your photo in a vector graphics app is the best possible choice. 

I don’t blame you if you’d prefer to stick with the automatic methods since I know how you feel – there’s a very good reason that I became a photographer instead of an illustrator 😉 

Happy cartooning!

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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