How to Use Lay­ers in GIMP


GIMP is one of the free and advanced photo manipulation tools that'll let you play with layers. While that is stupendous, using GIMP may seem a bit challenging. However, once you get hold of it, everything will be easy after some practice.

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Even though GIMP is less powerful than Photoshop, it is one of its best alternatives for using layers. Consider layers as stacks of images where you can work on each layer individually. That gives you the freedom to manipulate your images in several ways.

You can create a new layer from an existing image, add a transparent layer, link layers, and do so much more. But how does one use them in GIMP on a Windows PC or Mac?

You are at the right place as we will dive deep into the basics of layers feature available on GIMP. Before we start, make sure you have the latest version of GIMP on your system.

Add a New Layer

The canvas of GIMP starts with one main layer. That is, any image you open in GIMP is considered a base layer. So you can add new layers to an existing image or start from a blank layer.

To add a new layer, right-click on the layer panel and select New layer from the menu. Alternatively, click on the new layer button at the bottom of the layer panel. Similarly, you can add multiple layers.

Tip: Use the shortcut Shift + Ctrl + N to create a new layer on Windows. On macOS, press Shift + Command + N.
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When adding a layer to an existing image, the layer size will be the same as that of the image. However, if you are creating a new image, you will have to set the size. The layer size can be changed in both the cases under Height and Width setting.

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Fill Layer With

One of the essential properties of a layer is the ‘Fill With’ option. When you are adding a new layer, you will be asked to choose the color you want to fill in the layer. You get five options: foreground, background, white, transparency, and pattern.

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Choosing the foreground and background will add the respective colors present in the color dialog. White, as is obvious, will fill it with white color and pattern adds the selected pattern. Using the transparency mode adds a transparent layer quite useful for creating PNG files.

Rename Layers

Layers are named as layer 1, layer 2, and so on by default. If you are working with multiple layers, giving them a proper name comes handy. There are some ways you can rename them. First, you can do it in the New Layer window itself while creating a layer.

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Secondly, once the layer is created, double-click on the layer name. The text will become editable. Now you can add a new name.

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Select a Layer

To start working on a particular layer, simply click on it once in the layer panel. The selected or the active layer will have a grey box around it.

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Change Order of Layers

The layering of orders is crucial while working on them. So the basic rule is that the top layer will be visible. Meaning, the layers or the portion of the layer below a layer will not show. You have to adjust them in a way that each part of a layer is visible.

For instance, in the below image, the top layer has dandelion, and only certain portions of the sunset layer are visible. If I move the dandelion layer below sunset, then the entire sunset layer will become visible as shown in the second image.

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To reorder layers, click and drag the layer to its new position in the layer panel. Alternatively, use the up and down arrows present in the layer panel to change the position of the selected layer.

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Delete Layer

To delete a layer, right-click on it and select Delete Layer from the menu. Alternatively, select the layer and click on the delete icon in the layer panel. You can even drag the layer to the delete icon to remove it.

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Clear Layer

Sometimes, deleting an entire layer isn’t required for you can retain the transparency of the layer and clear other content present in it. To do so, select the layer, go to Edit in the top bar, and choose Clear.

Tip: Press the Delete key on your keyboard to clear the layer.
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Show or Hide Layers

When you have multiple layers in GIMP, deleting or clearing a layer seems a harsh step as it removes the main content of the layer. To avoid that, you can simply hide a layer if you don’t need it.

To do so, click on the eye icon present on the left side of the layer name in the layer panel. To make it visible, click on the blank area where the eye icon is supposed to be.

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As you can see in the image above, even though the top layer is the sunset layer, we can see dandelion and the layer below that. That’s because I hid the sunset layer (no eye icon before that).

Add an Image to Current File

Many times, we want to add an image from our computer onto the current image. If you use the Open image option in GIMP, the image will open as a new file. To superimpose an image or to import an image to a layer, you need to open it as a layer.

For that, go to File and click on Open as Layers.

Tip: Use the shortcut Ctrl + Alt + O (on Windows) and Command + Option + O (on macOS) to open a file as a layer.
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Add Alpha Channel

Alpha channels are important for creating transparency. When you add an image as a layer in GIMP, typically there will be no alpha channel. So if you erase the portion of an image, you won’t be able to see the transparent background or the layer beneath it (if available).

To view the transparent background or the layer beneath it, you need to add an alpha channel. Layers without an alpha channel appear in bold. So you can quickly identify such layers.

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To add an alpha channel, right-click on the layer and hit Add Alpha Channel.

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Resize a Layer

You can resize a layer by scaling it. There are two ways to scale a layer. You can either manually input the size of your layer or use your mouse to change the size.

In the first case, right-click the layer and click on Scale Layer. The Scale Layer dialog box will open. Enter the required dimensions.

Note: Keep the chain icon locked to change the other dimension automatically.
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For the second method, first, select the layer and then click on the scale tool present in the toolbar. Once the tool is enabled, use your mouse to change the size of the layer. You can use the shortcut Shift + S to activate the Scale tool.

Note: To scale equally, keep the Shift key pressed on your keyboard while resizing with your mouse.
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Crop a Layer

You can crop a layer in two ways: using the automatic crop and manual selection.

If you have an image with an extra transparent background around it, you can use the first method to crop it. In this method, you don’t have to select anything as GIMP will do everything for you. All you need to do is press a button. For that, select the layer and then go to Image > Crop to Content.

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However, if you want to crop manually, you need to use the crop tool present in the toolbar. Click the crop icon, select the area that you want to crop, and hit the Enter key to crop.

Tip: Use the shortcut Shift + C to activate crop the tool.
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Duplicate Layer

To save your original layer from getting damaged while trying something new in GIMP, you can duplicate a layer. By doing so, the original layer will remain intact and you can modify the new layer as you want.

To duplicate a layer, right-click on the layer in the layer panel and select Duplicate Layer from the menu. Alternatively, select the layer and click on the duplicate layer icon in the layer panel or drag the layer towards the duplicate layer icon. The duplicate layer is named as copy layer.

Tip: Use shortcut Shift + Ctrl + D to duplicate a layer on Windows. On macOS, press Shift + Command + D.
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Link Layers

Many times, while working in GIMP, you would want to move or rotate multiple layers. Typically, you would do it one by one. However, you don’t need to do that as GIMP allows you to link them so that you can work on them as a single image. You can move, rotate, flip, and resize layers using the link feature.

To link layers, hit the space present before the name of the layers that you want to link. A chain icon will appear indicating that the layers are linked. Perform a transformation action after they have been linked. To unlink them, click on the chain icon.

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Group Layers

Grouping various layers lets you link them in an organized manner. That is, you can use it to organize layers and perform actions such as rotate, move, etc. on all the layers present in a group.

To create a layer group, right-click on any layer and select Create Layer Group from the menu. You can also use the create layer group icon in the layer panel. Once you do so, a layer with a folder icon will be created.

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To add layers to it, just drag the layers into it. To remove a layer from a group, drag it outside of the group. You can have a layer group inside another layer group. The dotted line indicates the hierarchy of the layers. Click on the minus sign to close the group. You can hide or show all layers at once by using the eye icon next to the layer group.

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Create a Layer from an Image

You can cut-out any portion of an image into a separate layer. By doing so, you will be able to modify and take action on that particular area without altering the original image.

To do so, follow these steps:

Step 1: Select the area that you want to have as a layer. You can use the path tool (press B to activate it) to select it.

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Step 2: Use the Ctrl + C command to copy the selection. Then paste it using Ctrl + V command. It will show up as a floating layer in the layer panel.

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Step 3: Right-click on the floating layer and select To New Layer from the menu.

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Congratulations! Your selected portion is now available as a new layer. If you hide the bottom layer, you will see the new layer.

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Peel the Layer

Undoubtedly, layers are awesome. You can edit an image in several different ways using layers. They give you a superpower in terms of editing. You can use them for selective coloring, mockups, changing background, and many other things.

Next up: Want to create fancy images with see-through text? Check our tutorial on how to do it in GIMP.

The above article may contain affiliate links which help support Guiding Tech. However, it does not affect our editorial integrity. The content remains unbiased and authentic.

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Written By


Mehvish is a computer engineer by profession. Her love for Android and gadgets made her develop the first Android app for Kashmir. Known as Dial Kashmir, she won the prestigious Nari Shakti award from the President of India for the same. She has been writing about technology for many years and her favorite verticals include how-to guides, explainers, tips and tricks for Android, iOS/iPadOS, Windows, and web apps.