Monday, February 1, 2010

GIMP Learn-Along -- Goals and Getting Started

It's the first of February, and today begins the first learn-along on Two Red Threads. This month, we're exploring The Gimp, a free software alternative to Photoshop for photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. If you'd like to learn along, you can download it here.

For The Record
This is not a tutorial -- it's a learn-along. In other words, we're going to study this and try to figure things out and hope we can help each other along the way. I've already been stumped a couple of times. But I'm pretty confident that if we keep at it, the things that stump us now will make more sense soon.

I'm running Gimp 2.6.8 on Windows XP. Your version and operating system are probably different, and that may effect where and how things work on your end. So let's assume that we may find different ways to achieve the same results, as long as we keep trying. You know my mantra: Whatever works.

Before starting to play with this, I thought about what I wanted to be able to do with Gimp (your mileage may vary). Frankly, I don't intend to do all of my image manipulation on the computer. I don't expect Gimp to replace what I can do with fabric paint and markers, working directly onto images printed on inkjet fabric. I still plan to crop with scissors and mix and remix image elements with raw edge applique. I like those processes, and I like the results. But Gimp's "artistic filters" are pretty seductive...

One of my main goals is to be able to use the software more confidently when I need to improve images I've shot for workshop handouts. I'm inspired by how Robin Atkins uses Photoshop in this post to edit a photo of a beading sample. Keep in mind that juried shows or magazines may not accept digitally manipulated images.

What are your goals for this learn-along? Give that some thought, and at the end of this post I'll ask you to hit the comment button and share.

Getting Started
I'm working through the online user manual for Gimp and am through Part 1. Getting Started. I got a little lost and weirded out a couple of times in the first three chapters, and I think it's because I still don't have a sense of the big picture yet (paths? what paths?). It's a little like reading Moby Dick: My eyes passed over some of it with little comprehension or interest, but I think I'm grasping the key concepts well enough to fake it (if not well enough to captain a ship).

It gets more fun when you reach Chapter 4. GIMPlite Quickies. This I could do. I learned to scale an image, got a little lost in Chapter 4.3, but felt good about cropping (love those handles), flipping and rotating.

My  favorite part was Chapter 4.6 Changing the Mode. Changing the mode to grayscale is a great way to see the values of the colors, even if you don't intend to work in grayscale. But what was really fun was changing the mode to Indexed and using the Custom Palette. I chose Caramel, a 256 color preset, for my I Scream doodle. The process for this was
Image>Mode>Indexed>Use Custom Palette>Caramel.
Chapter 5. How to Draw Straight Lines helped me become more familiar with the tools. I just drew on the same image instead of a "blank drawable." I must admit I had no success when I tried the first examples in Chapter 5.2 -- "use color from a gradient" and "set the clone tool." I could set the clone tool to a spot on the image, but never found presets like the Maple Leaves pattern. I was able to
But I'm not getting the smudge tool at all.

I learned to use the rectangle select tool in Chapter 5.2 and could fill it with the clone tool, selecting a color from the image. Burn and Dodge have escaped me so far.

As I said before, I have faith that what escapes me now will make more sense with continued study.

Words Of Advice
The "Undo" keyboard shortcut in Gimp is Control+Z. It's much faster than finding the command in the menu.

As you work through Part 1 of the user manual (or any other time, for that matter), work with a copy of an image and preserve the original in a separate location. That way, if your alterations don't suit you, you can start over.

When saving images in Gimp, the default format is Gimp XCF, which supports transparency and multiple layers so you can continue working on them. But you'll also want to Save As to other formats like JPG, the compressed format usually used for images you plan to email or post online. This format loses data with use, so for other uses, you'll want to Save As to a non-compressed format. I've been using Windows BMP for years. Here's a peek ahead to Part 2. Chapter 6 -- Getting Images Out of Gimp to help you Save As. This might help, too:
  1. File>Save As>
  2. Look in the lower left corner of the dialog box and click +Select File Type (by extension). (If you don't see it, resize the dialog box or move it to show the lower left corner of that window.)
  3. Select JPG or BMP or whatever you choose.
  4. Follow whatever advice Gimp offers, which may include Image>Flatten Image.
And once again I'll say it: I'm pretty confident that the parts I find confusing will sort themselves out if I keep working at it. It reminds me of one of my first jobs, where I asked, "Why am I doing this?" The answer went something like, "Because I said so and because this system works, but it's hard to see until you get through the whole process and you may not understand until we do this again next year so in the meantime, because I said so."

Posting Samples
I've set up a Flickr group called Fiber Artists Explore The Gimp for images from this learn-along. You'll need a Yahoo ID to post, but it's free and it's easy and we'd all really, really like to see what you do as you work through this learn-along.

Finally, I want to remind you that it's good to have some specific goals in mind when teaching yourself something that may be fairly challenging and/or well outside your current comfort level. Measure success by how well you meet those goals, and don't get lost in how much you don't know or compare your achievements to, say, your friend the graphic artist or your 9-year-old. To keep it real, I hope you'll hit the comment button below this post and share your goals with the rest of us who are learning along with you.

Next time: How To Become A Gimp Wizard.


  1. Hi Donna
    Sorry to be late - usual juggling act.
    My current goals with gimp are enhancement of photos to record my work, and general familiarity to enable me to work with a weaving book ("The Woven Pixel") which assumes use of Photoshop. I need to know enough to guess that when the book talks about abc in Photoshop then I should try it with xzy in Gimp.
    One breakthrough piece of understanding for me has been that actions work on the current layer and/or selection. If you're not getting the results you expect it could be because you have a current selection and you're trying to work somewhere else.

  2. Thanks for sharing your goals, Judy. I'm with you -- more fluency in Photoshop lexicon would help me, as well. Thanks for the tip on layers.


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