thedeadparrot (thedeadparrot) wrote,

Basic Gimp Icon Tutorial (Part 1)

So, I kind of love the Gimp. I know it has its flaws (boy, does it), and I know that it can be hard to love, but it is free (as in speech) and free (as in beer), and it is improving constantly. Plus, it works wonderfully in Linux, which is my operating system of choice.

The purpose of this tutorial to show a complete newb how to use the basic features of the Gimp to make an icon using some of the common techniques that a lot of icon makers use. If you're somewhat familiar with the Gimp already, this might be really boring, though some of the things I use later might be useful. The official Gimp tutorial is also quite good, so I will refer to it as much as possible.

For this tutorial we will be making this simple icon:

We'll be adding fancier stuff to it in a later tutorial, but that's going to involve some more advanced techniques. This particular tutorial will cover installation, cropping, resizing, layers, basic coloring/sharpening, text, and file types.


First up, getting the damn program, because that's at least half the battle. The Gimp is multi-platform, so this means if you have a computer with a functioning operating system bought in the last 5-8 years, you can probably run it.

For Linux:

Pretty much every Linux distribution ever has a Gimp package for it, so try to use whatever package management system you may have. The downloads page should give some basic instructions for the major distros.

For Windows:

The downloads page should link to installer, which should be straightforward enough. Let me know if it isn't.

For Macs:

Macs are a weird case, because you need to install other software to make it work, which is sucky, but true. I think these directions are probably the best I've found, but having never owned a Mac, I cannot say how complete it is.

Basic Interface

When you first open the Gimp, three separate windows should come up, one labeled "Toolbox" with bunch of icons in it, one labeled "Channels, Paths, Layers," and one that's labeled "GNU Image Manipulation Program." There's a lot of stuff here, but you don't have to worry too much about a lot of it

For windows users, I would highly recommend keeping everything else minimized while working in the Gimp, because otherwise the windows can get obnoxious. It's handled slightly better on OS X and Linux (Gnome, anyway), and it's a little hard to get used to. I really like the multiple windows, but YMMV.

For more info on the basic windows, check out the Main Windows page in the official tutorial.

Opening an Image

This is fairly standard File > Open stuff that most of you have seen before in other programs. When you open your first image, it should then take over the center window.

For this tutorial, I'm using an image of this BAMF:

Do not fuck with him.


First thing I usually do when making an icon is crop and resize so I can get an idea of exactly what I'm working with, later. In order to do this, we use the crop tool.

Underneath the tool box, you should be able to see the Tool Options pane, which changes with whichever tool is selected. One thing I like to do for cropping with icons is to check the Fixed: option, select "Aspect ratio" from the dropdown menu and type 1:1 in the associated text box. This will give us nice, square crop boxes so we don't have to worry about that later.

The crop box can be resized and moved around however you like (and if you accidentally crop too early, Ctrl-Z will undo), which is a big plus in my book. To resize, let your cursor hover near a corner and then click and drag it in and out. To move, move the cursor to the middle of the crop box and click and drag. To cancel the current crop, click outside the image, but inside the image window.

Anyway, here's what it looks like:

Minus the red arrows, of course. The circles will show up in other screenshots as well to draw attention to certain things that might have relevance to the instructions.

Once you know you like it, you can either press Enter or click once in the middle of the crop box, and the image will be cropped.


Resizing is very easy. In the image menubar, click Image > Scale Image. Set the Width to 100 pixels. The height should change with it. You can find more documentation for this in this quick tutorial and in this tool documentation if you are stuck. (Note that the tutorial's screenshot is out of date, but the documentation's isn't.)


Usually resizing means you need to do a tiny bit of sharpening, just because everything is now a bit more smushed together. I like using the Unsharp Mask filter, personally. It can be found in the menubar under Filters > Enhance > Unsharp Mask. The defaults are pretty good, so you don't need to mess with the values for that.


Layers are awesome. Layers are how icons are made pretty. Layers make everything better.

Okay, let's look at the Layers dialog in the "Channels, Paths, Layers" window and specifically the Layers dialog. At the bottom, there is an array of buttons. The icons are not the most helpful, but hovering over each one will explain what it is.

So first, we can use layers to do some of the initial coloring of an icon.

Click the "duplicate layer" icon. It's the one that looks like two pictures on top of one another. Alternately, you can click Layer > Duplicate Layer in the menubar. This should give you another layer in the layers dialog called "Background copy." Above that, you should see a dropdown labeled "Mode." Select "screen" from the dropdown. This will lighten the image, as most screenshots end up being too dark to work with nicely.

Yay, the image is lighter! Duplicate this top layer again, and set the mode to "Overlay." Now the image has some nice contrasts, yay! Overlay is sort of my swiss army knife of layer modes, as we will see later, it tends to slightly merge the colors together nicely.

Okay, so this is the basic groundwork I do for most of my icons. From here on out, it's all about playing with things until they work.

Color Futzing Using Layers

This stuff is highly subjective, so just keep messing with things. Anyway, for this particular icon, I wanted to add a layer that softened some of the reds and blues.

Single-Color Layers

First, add a new blank layer. You do this by clicking the left-most icon in the Layers dialog or selecting Layer > New Layer. I like mine transparent, which should be the default setting anyway. To fill in this layer, select a color from the color picker on the left. The top box represents the foreground color, so you should use that one.

Anyway, I picked a nice bright yellow to balance out the blue and the red, and then I used the Bucket Fill tool to color in the entire layer with it. The image should now look like this:

Set the mode on this new layer to "Overlay." Ooh, now it's a lot less blue!

Note in the screenshot that I totally did everything in the wrong order, so there's an extra layer there. We'll get to that one in a minute, but first I'd like to point out that there's no eye next to that layer. This means the layer is not visible, so we do not see how it affects the image. This is very useful when you're trying new things and you don't want to delete or undo layers.

If you don't like the layer you've added, you can use the bucket fill tool again with different colors or you can press the "Delete Layer" button on the far right or click Layer > Delete Layer in the menubar and then start again.

Gradient Layers

Now for something a little more complicated! Add a new layer.

Then select two different colors for the foreground and background colors from the color picker in the toolbox. For this icon, I used a soft yellow and a soft green.

Use the Blend tool on the blank layer. This tool require you to click two points, which will then represent the eventual gradient. This part is definitely all about playing around with things, so have fun with it. You can keep reusing the Blend tool on the same layer if you want to experiment.

This was my final gradient:

Set the mode on this layer to "Hard Light." Hard Light tends to be one of those layer modes I tend to abuse as well. The colors tend to be stronger and more present when using it.

Ta-da! It looks more like the final product!

Even though we've only been using a few layer modes for this tutorial, it's definitely worth it to play around with different ones and see what they do. Experimentation will definitely give you a feel for what works and what doesn't.


We can add text using the Text tool, surprisingly enough. When you click on the image with the Text tool, a pop up comes up and space is highlighted on the image. Type whatever you want into the text box, and it will appear on the image according to the text tool options in the toolbox.

Play around with things like size and color, and always make sure the text bounding box on the image is big enough to hold the text. Note that the 'italic,' 'bold,' etc. versions of particular fonts are all considered different fonts in the font selection window. You should also note that text gets its own layer, which is very useful, as you will see.

For the text of this icon I wrote "PRIMED" in all caps using the font Free Sans Bold Oblique, because sometimes I like to think I'm funny.

One last thing about using the text tool: never uncheck 'Antialiasing' unless you know what you're doing. Seriously, just don't.

Moving Things Around

Using the the Move tool is both a blessing and a curse. I would recommend using "Move the active layer" as the default behavior, just so you don't lose your sanity dealing with it otherwise. Just remember to select the layer you want to move in the Layers dialog before using it.

I moved the text layer up so that it's in that nice white space over his shoulder.

Final Touches

The final touch is to move the text layer down below the gradient layer so that the gradient layer affects the text layer, too. You can just drag and drop layers in the Layers dialog.

Whee, we have a final icon! Now we just need to save it. I usually use File > Save As so I don't overwrite the original image. I also do this so I can save this project as a .xcf file. These files preserve the layers and all that good information of the image so if you want to come back to it later, you can.

I called mine "primed.xcf." Gimp will save your image by whatever file extension you give it.

Now, if you want an uploadable copy, you can use File > Save a Copy. I usually save as .png files. When you put "primed.png" as the name, it will tell you you need to export the file before it can be saved. The defaults should be fine for both that dialog and the "Save as PNG" dialog that comes after it, so you can just click through.

And now you have an icon:


Okay, that's all for now, but in the next installment, I will cover some more advanced stuff like layer opacity, layer masks, and textures, so that we can make this BAMF look even more badass. Here's a teaser.

Anyway, If you have any problems with this particular tutorial, let me know and I will try to make the instructions clearer. Feel free to link this around if you like.

Happy icon making! :D

More Resources

Here's some more places with Gimp icon tutorials:
- gimp_users
- tag on good_tutorial
- tag on icon_tutorial

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Tags: gimp-tastic, graphics in the hizzouse, tutorials
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