Turn a drawing into a GIMP layer.

Disclaimer: I don’t know how other people do these things, or what the accepted “right” way of doing them is. I bodge stuff, and this is how I bodge turning a paper drawing into a layer in the GIMP. I haven’t taken any classes or read any tutorials, I’ve just been faffing with it for the past 15 or 16 years. I own a scanner, but because most people don’t, I worked off of photos for the purposes of this tutorial. The principles are entirely the same, but you’ll find the quality is higher on scanned versions, provided you scan at a high enough dpi.

Additional disclaimer: my hands have been pretty shonky lately with the shaking and the jerking, so this particular drawing is extra-lumpy. All the more reason to draw your own! I’m also restricted by maximum file size, so if you want to use my drawing, you might struggle a bit with the resolution.

First of all, here are the things I use:

  • The GIMP is a powerful, open-source image manipulation programme. Furthermore, versions exist for *nix-based systems, Windows and OS X. You can download it here for free.
  • A decent sketchpad is always good, and they don’t have to cost the earth or be super-fancy. I use Derwent, but whatever you like will do nicely. I do recommend white or light-coloured paper, as the contrast with the ink will help to separate the colours later on.
  • I use cheap pencils and rubbers, because they always seem to find their way to my house, and Uni-ball sets of 5 ink pens (in a variety of sizes) and also Uni-ball white pens for when I need to make corrections.
  • To colour in (and very occasionally to draw) I use a Wacom graphics tablet. I’m sure the expensive versions have bells and whistles I can only dream of, but for a £50 tablet it absolutely does the job. If you’re going to use it, I do recommend immediately disabling the buttons on the stylus, because you’re going to press them constantly and it’s going to drive you round the bend in surprisingly short order.

These brands and things work for me, but you can figure out what works for you. I have no particular reason for my preferences other than habit, although I do have one set of pens I paid about twice as much for which is the bane of my existence.

These are the tools I’ll pull out when I want to draw. The pencil will be rubbed out once I’ve laid down the basic lines in pen, so use it lightly so you won’t struggle to remove it later.

Now before we start, let’s get situated (very briefly) with the GIMP.

If you have no toolbox, you can get one in Windows > Toolbox. Or simply press Ctrl+B. The tool options and layers dialogues can be found in Windows > Dockable Dialogs. To dock them onto your toolbox, click on the tab that identifies the individual dialog and drag it into the toolbox.

All right, let’s get some drawing done.

Step one is laying down a pencil sketch, so you know roughly where your pen will go.

Once I’ve put down the basic lines, I erase the pencil. I always do this before I colour in anything I plan to turn black, because of one bad experience (said experience may have been down to the pens and paper involved, but once bitten, twice shy). Don’t forget to make sure the ink is completely dry before you start. You can fix any smears in the GIMP later, but it’s always easier to avoid trouble than to fix it.

Now that the linework is done, I still want to add some bits. Whether or not you do is up to personal preference. I’m going to take a brief detour here to talk about fixing mistakes, and converting your linework into a layer in the GIMP, because it will be easier to show the former on a smaller image, and I forgot to document those steps using the narwhal.

Here’s a heart with an obvious flaw I want to correct. I’m not going to be able to correct it in a way that’s invisible on paper, but I can correct it in a way that will be invisible once I’m done turning the drawing into a linework layer.

The white pens I use are gel pens, so I dot the gel ink on over the mistake. Make sure you wait as long as it takes for the ink to dry – then wait a little longer. The last thing you want is to cover the nib of one of your pens in white gloop, trust me.

I’ve drawn a corrected line across the little lump of dried ink. Time to turn this heart into a layer I can colour in on the GIMP!

Posterising the image will reduce the colours, effectively making it possible for you to select only the black of your linework.

I’ve dialled it down to two, and now have a perfectly black and white image.

Now I can use the Select by Colour tool to select only the black. I simply click on any black area within the image, and all the black will be selected. I can then cut it, or alternatively invert the selection and cut the background. Either way, I suddenly have a layer containing my black linework and nothing else, with the grey chequered areas showing transparency.

Excellent. Next, I’ll want to add a layer underneath this one, which will be my layer for colouring. Ctrl+shift+N will bring up the new layer dialogue. Naming your layers will make it immeasurably much easier to keep track.

Now I can colour on the bottom layer and the linework will always remain on top. If I changed the order and placed the colour layer on top (drag and drop), the linework would wind up underneath.

It’s easy enough to use the eraser tool to clean up where you do colour outside the lines, so don’t get too stressed. Now that we’re working digitally, it’s a lot easier to deal with mistakes than it was when we were working on paper.

See? Simple. Right, now go back to your photo of your drawing, and posterise it as above.

Here is my narwhal, linework only, with all the shading and foofaraw I like. Remember, in the GIMP a transparent section will have lighter and darker grey chequered patterns; if you find it difficult to see your lines properly, simply add a layer at the very bottom called “background” and colour it a uniform white with the fill tool.

I like to colour everything in very bold, simple colours at first, so it’s easier to select separate regions using the Select by Colour tool. After that, it’s simply a matter of selecting and colouring, without any worries about colouring outside the lines – after all, you sorted that out in the initial colouring stage.

Play with as many effects as you like, while you colour in your drawing. As you draw and colour more and more, you’ll soon get used to the filters and the tools, and you’ll be able to work faster and faster. I like working digitally, because my hands occasionally spasm or jerk, and they can easily ruin an entire drawing. Ctrl+Z (undo) is really helpful in mitigating such issues, but I still prefer to draw my linework by hand.

So that’s my (hopefully simple) guide to how I turn my paper drawings into linework layers in the GIMP. I hope this helps some people, as the GIMP can be a bit intimidating at first. Just press all the buttons and see what they do, what’s the worst that can happen?

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