Site map


GIMP Layers Tutorial


If you've ended up here, I assume you are a novice with the GIMP and image manipulation programs generally. Everyone has to start somewhere, so why not here smile

I found that when I was learning to use GIMP, with no previous image manipulation experience, the eureka moment was when I understood what layers were and how one could have an effect on another. Once I'd grasped that, the rest just fell into place through experimentation. I hope the following tutorial does the same for you.

This tutorial has been updated for use with GIMP 2.6.

The basics

Having opened the GIMP for the first time you were probably presented with a few boxes (dialogues), of which you recognised maybe one or two (if any!). Do not despair and don't give up, just follow these instructions. Close all the boxes except for the main GIMP toolbox and the active image window.

main gimp toolbar

Next open the Layers Dialogue, which can be found in the active image as follows

Windows » Dockable Dialogs » Layers
opening the layer dialogue

Arrange the main GIMP toolbox and the Layers Dialogue so that they are to one side of the screen, which gives you most of the desktop for your active image window.

A four layer example

The example below on the left shows an image comprising four layers. The image on the right shows the Layers Dialogue with all the layers that make up the image.

all four layers select green layer 3

The second set of images show the same layers, with layer 3 brought up to the foreground. This is achieved by selecting layer 3 (the green layer) in the Layers Dialogue and then clicking the Up button to bring the layer to the top of the stack.

new position of green layer move green layer to top


The layers have had some opacity added to them to make the example easier to understand, don't worry about what this is or how to do it yet, it's explained later.

Layers tutorial

Creating layers

The first thing I'll show you is an image that has two layers. If you want to create one to experiment with as this progresses follow these instructions. In the active image go to

File » New

This creates a new blank image.

create a new image

Adjust the image to a reasonable size (200×200px) and click OK.

adjust the size of the new image

Duplicating the layer

You now have a 200×200px white image (white, assuming you opted for the default background colour). If you now look at the Layers Dialogue you will see this image is called Background.

the created image

Now go to the Duplicate Layer button in the Layers Dialogue and click for a duplicated layer, this will be Background copy.

duplicate the layer the duplicated layer

Choosing a layer colour

With the Background copy layer selected (highlighted) in the Layers Dialogue, go to the GIMP toolbox and double click on the Foreground Color button, which will open the Change Foreground Color tool.

In the HTML notation box type in FF0000 (this is the hexidecimal code for red) and then click OK.

select colour for Background copy layer type in red colour

Adding colour to the layers

In the active image window go to

Edit » Fill with FG Color

This will fill the Background copy layer with red.

In the Layers Dialogue click on the Background layer to select it.

fill with FG Color red select the Background layer

Repeat the above process with the Background layer, making this layer blue or hexidecimal code 0000FF.

type in blue colour

And then fill the Background layer with blue.

fill with FG Color blue

Ok that's the work over, the rest of this tutorial will just involve tweaking the two layers you have hopefully just created.

Layer order

When you look at the Layers Dialogue you can see the red & blue layers. The red layer is at the top of the stack, so that is the one that shows up in the image.

both layers in the layers dialogue red layer on top

It goes up, it goes down

With the blue layer selected in the Layers Dialogue click the Up arrow. You will now see that the blue layer is at the top of the stack and consequently the image is blue.

move Background layer up blue layer on top

Clicking the Down arrow in the Layers Dialogue will, as I'm sure you have gathered, move the blue layer back to the bottom of the stack.

move Background layer down

Ok, all very interesting, but not very useful eh? Well you should now have a clear idea of what a layer actually is. And you will need to know that to start using the GIMP.


Ok, it's back to your art classes at school now. If you mix red and blue what colour do you get? And you all answered purple I'm sure smile

So with our red & blue layers this is very easy to do. Select the top layer in the Layers Dialogue, for this exercise it doesn't matter if the top layer is the red or the blue.

select top layer

Now adjust the Opacity slider in the Layers Dialogue, until it is at 50%. As you will see the image has now turned purple. So now you have used one layer to have an effect on the overall image.

adjust opacity to 50% the new purple image

Opacity is not transparency! Opacity is in fact the polar opposite, it achieves the same thing though. Initially your layer will have 100% opacity. If you slide the Opacity down to 0% the layer would be 100% transparent. Glad we've got that sorted smile

Saving layers in GIMP

If you want to build up an image, each time you create a new layer, give it a name and save the file in GIMP's native format, which is .xcf. This will save all the layers and allow you to manipulate the layers at a later date.

Multiple layers

An image can be composed of a few or many layers depending on the complexity of the finished image.

Something more complex such as our logo requires more layers. The actual merged image is comprised of four layers, the text, the gold & the white backgrounds and the outer oval.

4 layers in layer dialogue tankedup logo

And even more layers

Of course to get the logo to the state above requires a good deal of image manipulation, which in turn involves a few more layers, which are then discarded once they have performed their task on the image.

For instance the bump mapped outer oval and golden background require Gaussian blurred layers to bump map them with. The inner oval that is made up from the golden oval and bump map was duplicated from a datum image. In total there were nine layers created for one image!

9 layers in layer dialogue

Bump mapping and gradients

There are some indepth tutorials on creating bump maps, gradients and other tasks with GIMP, which you can access from the menu at the top of the page.

Get to grips with layers first and then try them out. Experiment and enjoy.

Download GIMP Graphics by GIMP