How to plan and handle a large painting project in GIMP
Posted 03 February 2008 - 05:08 PM
---How to plan and handle a large painting project in GIMP---
Creating a full-colour painting in GIMP involves a lot of work and
takes some experience, both with the program, but also with planning
the project in general.
Some have asked me about the practical details around creating a large
image in GIMP - that is, how to plan it, set up layers and in which
order I do things like colouring, shadows and compositioning. This
tutorial aims to give an insight into these things.
Disclaimer: There are an infinite amount of ways to go about
this. This tutorial will of course only show the way I personally go
about a large piece. Consider it inspiration and a look into my work
process if you like, but remember that there is no "right" way to do
This is the image we will create in this tutorial:
This is a massive tutorial and you shouldn't expect to work through it
in one sitting. Maybe you might want to look on it less as a
"tutorial" and more of a "step by step inspiration". It is
summarizing about 18 hours of work with this image. I don't expect you to copy my
results, but rather I hope that you can learn from seeing my work process and
apply it to your own images in the future.
Before attempting a large image like this, it's critical to know GIMP
well. I won't go into the details of the various paint tools in this
tutorial. I will assume you know the basics of using the airbrush at
low opacity, applying smudge and to sketch on the computer, as well as all
the other normal operations needed.
I have many earlier tutorials covering these topics which should help you set
up. I recommend you check these out and do them or at least make sure
the techniques they show are familiar to you.
You need dynamic brushes set up (This is useful also if you use
GIMP2.4 with brush scaling). You should also know basic airbrushing
for most subtle artwork you want to do. Brushes/Airbrushing tutorial
You must know smudging and colour
application. as well as how to use the airbrush fully. The simple
training in drawing your hand will help to fine-tune this.Advanced Airbrushing tutorial
Sketching in black&white is also important. I will use a slightly
different technique to sketch in this tutorial than in the sketching
tut, but it's nevertheless useful to learn how to draw people. Sketching tutorial
For backgrounds, several of the techniques in the City tutorial are
re-used.Draw a sci-fi city
It's important to know how to draw people. This tutorial tries to
teach drawing faces: Portrait painting
For final compositioning, there are several standard tricks to apply
interesting lighting to an image. Adding a fantasy mood tutorial
All relevant art-making tutorials of mine can be found here.
The main tools used are the Paintbrush, Airbrush and the Smudge
tool. They should all have a low opacity set. Use 50-60% opacity for the
Paintbrush and Airbrush, and 30% opacity for the Smudge tool. Lower the
Smudge opacity if your colour-blends are too strong.
Another useful tool is the Clone tool and its sibling, the
Perspective clone tool. These should also be used with around
50% opacity. I will explain them more where they are used.
There is of course no way to tell you how to get inspiration and ideas
for a large image. In my case it's usually part of some story or scene
I have come up with for some other project, like a roleplaying game or
In this case I found an old pencil drawing I did ten-twelve years ago,
showing a woman on the edge of a cliff, with soldiers standing behind
her, looking worried. I didn't go with exactly that scene, but that
was where I got the inspiration from, anyway.
- It should be two people discussing war strategy
- The warlord, a female, should discuss something with her general.
- They should stand under a white tree with leaves raining down on
them, a serene contrast to the war-affairs they are discussing.
- They should stand on some sort of hill or cliff.
- Below the cliff should be an army (this I scratched later)
- They should be pointing towards something in the distance, a road or
a city or similar.
My GIMP setup. The image is an A4 at 300 DPI (2480x3508). The resolution is needed for
possible future printing.
I usually leave the white Background layer be, and add a new
transparent layer on top of it for the sketch.
For convenience, put the sketch of the background on a separate layer
from the foreground figures, so they can easily be moved around over
This sketch is done with the paintbrush (at low opacity) and a simple
round brush (the dynamically resizeable one created in the Airbrushing
tutorial above). This brush is used for 99% of the image, no more fancy brushes
I aimed for a slightly crouched "samurai-style" pose for the warlord,
but as shall be seen later, even the best of sketches don't always
catches the errors. Her left arm would eventually come out too short,
and this I didn't notice until much later. A word of warning, check
your anatomy as carefully as you can at this stage, it's much easier
to change before more work is done.
I added the General next to the Warlord. I put him on his own layer, but
in retrospect there is really no point in doing that. One shouldn't add new
layers unless parts of their content overlap. In the case of the
general they don't overlap anywhere, so they could well have been on
the same layer.
This was first version of his hand, supposed to
make him look like he was thinking about something the warlord was
The layer structure at this point. All layers are at normal mode with
At this point, work at a full zoom-out, so the full canvas is
seen all the time. Don't be tempted to zoom in and work on
details. The idea with a sketch is to keep it simple enough for you to
change. Don't add more detail than you feel you could easily throw
away and redo. It doesn't matter that the image looks sloppy and
crappy when zooming in - noone will see the sketch but yourself anyway!
Next version of the general, with arms folded. At this point I
uploaded this to GIMPtalk, for feedback, and got many good ideas as
well as some well-needed critique on the general's hands.
This is a useful lesson: don't be afraid to ask people's
opinions. It's easy to go blind for errors when working on an image
for long enough, some fresh feedback is always good.
An advantage of this style of sketching is the possibility to test out
lighting conditions at an early stage. Add a layer above your sketch
and set its mode to "soft light". You can add more layers if you want
to compare experiments, like I did.
Using the new light experiment layer, I tried adding light and
shadow. This is a test for a low sun, with long shadows.
The sun up on the top right; overcast diffuse sky.
After feedback from GIMPtalk, I adjusted the hand of the warlord a
final time, having him hold a map instead.
Some more light experiments with the "final" sketch. Eventually I went
with the light coming from the top left of the image, that is, not as
extreme shadows as the one tested here. These light experiment layers
can be thrown away or at least hidden in the future, they are just an
easy way to play and experiment for yourself.
Hide the foreground figure layers. We will now concentrate on
colouring the background.
Here you see the layers that should be visible. Create a new layer
"Colour background" with Normal mode. Lower the opacity of the layer
where your background sketch is, so you can still make out everything
while making it less obtrusive to the colouring process. You will
never draw directly on the sketch layer; this should be hidden or
deleted when you have copied all you need to the colour layer.
Work with the paintbrush and airbrush to add washed-out colours, laying out the basic forms
only. Try to add some "unexpected" colours in there (like my
purple). Especially in nature scenes, adding contrasting colours tends
to liven the image, even if they might not show much in the end.
At this stage I was still not sure about how the distant hills should
really look, so I just hinted at them.
Having established the rough colour layout, it's time to add some more
details up close.
Since I knew more work had to be done with the distant background
later, I decided to put the cliff-top (and the tree) on a separate
layer ("Colour, cliff"), to make it easier to add things "behind" it later.
I wanted a water-covered cliff-shelf. Water reflects
the sky above it, hence I started making "puddles" (that probably could
be confused with exposed rock as well, looking at them now ...)
Only the paintbrush was used for this. Note how rough the structure
of the strokes are.
Gradually working with smaller and smaller brushes blends the "puddles"
into the surrounding terrain. Try to not use smudge for ground
structure; this will create too smooth a look. Using the paintbrush at
low opacity will add texture and unevenness automatically.
Some more detail of the tree.
I wanted the tree to look very special, with white pines. So I began
by using a splatter brush (a brush just made of several small dots) to
make the "leaves" of the tree.
Next I extended these by selecting the tree and doing a Motion Blur on
them (Filters->Blur->Motion blur in GIMP2.4.x).
Using the basic structure created by the motion blur as a base, I then
fine-tuned the tree's branches, making them into whispy pine needles.
(This step is not really needed, but it's a useful technique to know.)
Now for some GIMP magic. We want to increase the detail of the ground
and tree, and to do this we'll apply a texture. Above are a stone and
a tree texture. These are images that I took myself with my cell phone ...
Use File->Open as layer to open these textures as separate
layers. You can even hide these layers if you want, they are only
there to be sources for the clone tool.
Create a new layer above your Colour layer. Set it mode "Grain merge"
and name it something like "Colour,Texture".
Under GIMP2.4, you have access to the Perspective Clone tool. Set it to 30% opacity or less.
Using the handles, adjust the perspective clone tool to apply its
magic in the same plane as the stone shelf.
Select the layer with e.g. the stone texture and Ctrl-click in it (it
needs not be visible). When you have done that, select your "Colour,
texture" layer again, size up your brus and start applying stone
texture to your image. The perspective clone tool will make it look
like the texture becomes smaller as it moves further away from you.
Experiment with the clone tool under various opacities to get a subtle
effect. The idea is to make the surface look complex and detailed
without it actually looking like a photograph being applied. This is
where the low opacity comes in. Also, don't be afraid to sample
different parts of the source layer (Ctrl-click in a different place
in that layer) and paint over what you previously did on the "Colour,
The tree trunk was treated in the same way, except only using the normal
Clone tool since there's not much perspective on it.
Tweaking the opacity of the entire "Colour, texture" layer will
further help to make the texture fit subtly into your image.
At this point I felt ready to try making the distant background. So I
turned off the "Colour, cliff layer" and returned to the "Colour,
background" layer (the texture layer is active in the above image, I
turned that off too later).
I used a large brush and a combination of paintbrush and airbrush to
start laying out the structure of the background.
The first idea I had was of making a rather "bare" mountainside. Using
the paintbrush I added thin lines to build "structure" along the
ridges. Eventually I decided this looked way too uninteresting
Instead I set out to create a forest slope. I did that on a separate
layer "Colour, vegetation". Using some
reference pictures for a spruce forest, I sat down and painted away. This is mostly a lot
of hard brushwork combined with some re-usage of repeating tree-shapes here and there.
An hour later, this is the result. A nice sprawling forest. Note that
I don't bother much about the colour consistency at this point; that
will be handled at the post-processing stage later.
Right. Time to get the characters in there. Move the sketch layer(s) for
the characters to a point where the background colours are not
blocking them and check that their positions look ok towards the
background. Next you can hide the backgrounds.
Create a new layer "Colour, Figures". Here you will create the colored
I prefer working with characters on a flat dark background, so I
created a makeshift gray layer underneath my character sketches
(brighter gray than the sketches, naturally). This grey slab was
Lay out a palette on the grey slab. Pick a few light, mid-tone and
dark colours and blend in some "weird" colours too, like green and
purple for adding "life".
Make sure your Colour picker tool has "Sample merged"
checked. This means that you can Ctrl-click and pick up the colour you
see, regardless of which layer it's on. This way you can use the
palette effectively. Only use the colours laid out in the palette for
the character, blending will handle the rest.
Using the sketch layer as a guide, starting blocking in the major
colour areas of the character. In this case, the warlord has a very
detailed armour, so I spent some time on giving each piece a
separable shade of colour using the opacity of the airbrush (don't pick
any other colours than those in your on-canvas palette, remember).
The first version of her hair was brown, that later changed.
Making fabric fall realistically is a matter of training. For silky
materials, the airbrush and smudge tools come into their own. I might
make a separate tutorial on how to draw fabric at some point, but something
like this is not that hard. Once again, the low opacity of the airbrush and smudge
is the key; just remember where the fabric is falling from and
be careful to make your brush strokes only in one direction all the
Back to the face and portrait drawing 101 (see the portrait painting tutorial). Start by laying out the
rough structure of the face, gradually increasing the level of
I decided on a rather elaborate haircut at this
point. Note how there are actually green and purple tones in her skin; it's only
a hint, but it adds liveliness to a pale complexion.
As with all anatomical drawings, it's critical to flip the orientation
of the image now and then to catch irregularities.
I also added more hair structure.
As can be seen here, her arm is too short. This rather clear
anatomical flaw unfortunately escaped my attention until much later. It's very easy to go "blind" when working on an image, even flipping and zooming in and out cannot completely remove this problem.
Still working on the flipped image, I started with the general. I
wanted him to have a very different colour scheme from the warlord,
but just as many details.
The General's face should look grim and experienced.
Flipping the image back, we now have the characters in place. They are
both kinda basic-looking still, but what is going to change that is
how they fit into the environment, and for that we need to actually
put them back into that environment.
Hide/Delete the gray background layer. It was only there to help us,
there is no need for it anymore.
Re-adding the background we see the disadvantage to making the
characters on a gray slab instead of on the background: Here and there
the background shines through.
Create a new temporary layer under the "Colour, figures" layer
and carefully use gray colour to block in the area under the
characters, to make sure nothing shines through. (Note: this could
have been done more cleverly, but it's very fast so I didn't bother).
Merge this temporary layer with the "Colour, figures" layer when you
Basic colouring is now finished.
Light & Shadow
Now it's time to start really integrating all the elements of the
image. This means that they should start affecting each other, things
should start casting shadows, be lit up etc.
Create a new layer named "Shadow", with mode "Multiply", above the
Since I already earlier established that light was to come from the
upper left, I start applying shadows using a dark colour and the
airbrush set to 20% opacity. With this setup it's very easy to add
depth and detail using shadowing. By making some parts of her armour
slightly differently shadowed, I tried to enhance the realism.
The entire image should have shadows added this way.
Create yet another layer above the shadow layer. This one should be
normal-mode and called "Light". Still with the airbrush, alternate
between the "Shadow" and "Light" layers to add highlights and shadows
to the image. Try not to use pure whites or pure blacks at this stage;
they tend to make the image look unrealistic.
I took the chance of using a flowery pattern and applied it to her
dress using the Clone tool with mode "pattern". Some smudging
is needed to create the illusion of depth, despite the pattern is just
a flat thing. I used a new "Texture" layer for this; set to mode "Grain merge".
After having gone over the entire image with shadows and light, this
is what we have.
To establish global light in the image (sunlight), I wanted a white
gradient to sweep the image from the top left. This was done on a new
layer "Global light", where I put a simple FG->Alpha gradient.
Here you can see the current layer structure at this point. As can be
seen, most layers are just minor adjustments like textures and light effects. Most
real "painting" was done on only three layers, for the cliff, the
background and the characters. We have a lot of unnecessary layers
here, we will soon merge as many as we can get away with.
The image is mostly done, as far as content is concerned. We will now
add the final touches.
At this point I used a File->Save a copy to save the current state of
the image named (in my case) Warlord_allLayers.xcf. It's good to have all the
layers available somewhere should they ever be needed later.
Then I went on and purged my layer list as much as I could; merging as
many layers as possible and deleting everything no longer needed
(including all sketch layers). Not only does this make it easier to
keep track of things when post-processing starts, but it also makes
the image much, much smaller which can be good if you have a shortage
of memory. You could have done this earlier as well if you were sure of your additions at the time.
To establish the final mood of the image, the Colour Curves tool
is very important. Experimenting with the colour balance of the image
will make the image's "mood" come out very differently. This part
alone can take a lot of time but it's also a lot of fun, because of how
easy it is to change things completely.
The good part with having the background, cliff and characters on different layers
is that you can do this experimenting for each part individually,
creating very interesting effects.
Eventually I opted for a slightly more "dramatic" composition than the
Deciding that I wanted an even more glum tone I made a "glass plate"
layer (there are a few more layers in the above image, they are added below).
A "glass plate" is what I call a layer whose only function is to add a
colour to the things below it. Set the layer to mode "Hue". I gave it
a brownish colour, something that I felt fit well with the war theme
of the image. Then it's just a matter of changing the opacity of the
glass plate layer until the effect is what you want.
On a new layer "Misc Effects" I made a few selections to represent sun
rays sifting through the branches of the tree.
Filling those selections with linear gradients is a good way to make
beams of light.
The image is almost done at this point.
Final tweaks and fixes
The first version of the image.
Time to save. Always save using File->Save a copy, it's much
easier to keep track of the file names that way (since you will always
have your .xcf image remaining on-screen).
I always save three .jpg versions of the original .xcf, in different sizes. I use
Image->Scale image to rescale it.
First is a
small version, 707x1000 pixels for direct use on a web forum like
GIMPtalk (where it cannot be too big or it will stretch the page).
Second is a slightly bigger, 848x1200 pixels. This is for DeviantArt.
Third is a direct jpg export of the original image size, without any
rescaling, 2480x3508 pixels large. This is for printing on DA and elsewhere.
At this point the image was put up on the web, to get feedback on it. This is an integral part of creating the image - don't consider your image finished yet!
In the comments on the web, many things where pointed out, among them
that the arm was wrong. So I went back to the "Colour, figures" layer
and fixed it. Of course, all shadows, lights and so on must also be
changed in the same way.
The final image. Click above for the DA original. You can also see and comment on it .
here on GIMPtalk.
If you read this far, congrats, you are done! Hope this was of use to
you and gave you some inspiration to how to go about making your own
images. If you have any questions or think some things are unclear,
don't be afraid to ask and I'll update this.
Posted 20 February 2008 - 10:37 PM
Posted 09 April 2008 - 08:31 PM
It's an interesting variation to the technique of smudging. Thanks for pointing it out. I would guess you'd need a rather low opacity setting for good results nevertheless.
Posted 20 July 2008 - 11:44 AM
I've started to paint with GIMP lately and it's hard to figure out everything on my own. I really appreciate! This gave a lot of ideas and will give a shitload more of them. :)
If I manage finish the painting project inspired by this tutorial, I will dedicate it for you <3
Posted 06 August 2008 - 04:13 PM
Unfortunately, I have little or no drawing ability. Thanks to GIMP, I now can make a straight line. :mrgreen: