Making Signs with The GIMP
Having already volunteered to make pretty signs for our big event, I had to learn how to do so on my computer--fast. Enter The GIMP.
by Heather Mead
A couple of months ago, I joined the organizing committee for the Moisture Festival, a series of comedie/varieté shows held each spring in Seattle, Washington. When I joined, the committee was working madly to get everything together for a few holiday benefit/fundraising shows. Everybody was diving in and taking on duties left and right. As with most theater groups, we were short on time and funds, but we made up for it with creativity and dedication.
One of the duties I volunteered for was creating the signage we'd need for two weekends' worth of shows. I left the meeting with a list of a dozen signs to create--Restrooms, Reserved Seating, Box Office, Ticket Prices, Green Room and so on--and a CD-ROM containing photos from the previous year's shows that could be used on this year's signs.
When I signed up for the task, it seemed easy enough. On the car ride home, however, I realized I had never done anything like this before. I've never considered myself to be any sort of visual artist, and I wasn't sure where to start. Soon, though, I remembered The GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program. Linux Journal authors and readers have been singing its praises for years as an easy-to-use and flexible program for creating and editing all sorts of images.
So, here's my story of learning how to use The GIMP to create signs that--if I say so myself--turned out pretty great. Although I talk specifically about creating signs, the general steps can be used as a starting point for creating and editing any sort of image or photo you want. Once you figure out a few basic guidelines, you can do all sorts of things with The GIMP.
Getting Started with The GIMP
My home computer runs SuSE, and it came with The GIMP installed. I found it on the K Menu under Graphics -> Image Editing -> Gimp. I also downloaded version 2.2.9--the newest available at that time--on my laptop, a Dell machine that runs Windows XP. To be honest, I created about half of the total images on each machine. Other than a few differences in the way some of the options are accessed, I didn't notice any major differences between the two versions. So if your Linux distribution comes with an older version of The GIMP--and pretty much every distro comes with some version--don't feel as though you need to go install the newest version to get The GIMP's full benefits.
When you start The GIMP, you are presented with two menus, as shown in Figure 1. The GIMP menu is the main one you will use as you work with your image. It presents icons that you can click on in order to create circles or boxes, rotate the image, choose and change fonts, add and change colors and much more. The second menu is the Layers dialog. We'll talk about this menu more later in the article.
At this point, you have two options: you can open an existing image file with The GIMP or you can start with a blank slate. To import an existing image, go to The GIMP menu, click File on the toolbar and then select Open. From the screen that pops up, shown in Figure 2, you can maneuver to the directory in which your image resides and select it. The image then opens in a separate GIMP window.
To start with a blank slate, click New on the File drop-down menu. A secondary menu pops up, see Figure 3, in which you can select the diameters of your new image file. You can select the diameters in pixels or inches. Once that's selected, a window opens with your blank work area, as seen in Figure 4.
In general, it's best to plan ahead a little and decide what you're going to do with the image and then size it accordingly. For example, I knew my signs were going to be printed, and 11" x 17" seemed to be a good print size for them. If you're doing something for the Web, though, you might want to measure in pixels rather than inches.
Working with Images
One of the most important things to know about creating images with The GIMP is every element of the image should be placed in its own layer. For example, if your image is going to have a background color, a photo and three horizontal lines of text, the image should have five layers--one for the background color, one for the photo and one for each line of text. Layers are transparent, so if you have a blue background on one layer, you can put yellow text in the next layer and still see the blue behind it.
Creating a layer for each element makes it much, much easier to change things later on. If, for instance, you decide to swap out the photo, you can select the photo layer, cut the image and paste in a new one--all without affecting the background design or the text. This may not sound like a big deal right now, but believe me, you'll be grateful later on for designing your image in this way.
When you created the new file or opened an existing one in The GIMP, what popped up is the first layer of your image. It is listed on the Layers, dialog as Background. If you want to rename it, double-click on the word Background and enter the new name (see Figure 5). To create a new layer, select the Layer menu on the toolbar of your image file (see Figure 6) and click New Layer.
Once you open The GIMP and see all the menus and items on the toolbars, you might be overwhelmed and not understand what half of the stuff is--for example, what exactly is script-fu? It can be especially overwhelming if you haven't used PhotoShop or some other image manipulation program. But don't panic; you can do a whole lot with a little. To demonstrate and help you get through the basics, I turn now to the example of the signs I created.
I wanted a file that would be 11" in height and 17" in width and that would have five layers. So, I started with a New file, set the size in inches and clicked OK. The first layer became my Background. I wanted the background to be yellow, so I went to The GIMP menu and clicked the paint can icon, as seen in Figure 7. When you click one of these tool icons, your mouse cursor takes on that icon. Here, for instance, my mouse point became a paint can.
I then clicked the button with two rectangles, just below the icon list. It brought up a color gradient window from which I could select the exact shade of red I wanted. I then went to the background layer and single-clicked; a second or two later, the entire layer was red.
Now I wanted to bring in a photo from a past event. To do that, I went back to The GIMP menu and clicked Open. From the window that opened, I maneuvered to the directory in which the photo I wanted was stored, located it and clicked OK. The photo file then opened in a separate window. I went to the Edit menu on the toolbar of the photo and did a simple cut and paste to bring the photo into my sign. The photo didn't paste exactly where I wanted it, so I clicked on the weather vane icon, which allowed me to move the photo to the perfect spot.
Now it's important to remember that you need to be in the correct layer when you want to manipulate a particular part of your image. If, for example, after I add several more layers, I decide to move the photo a bit to the left, I have to be in the photo layer to do so. If not, I start moving the element that's in the currently-selected layer. And here's where I really started to appreciate having every element in its own layer. If I hadn't, when I wanted to move the photo a bit to the left or right, everything in the layer would have moved in accordance.
To help you stay organized and know what element is in which layer, make sure the Layers dialog window is always open. If it didn't open automatically when you started The GIMP, or if it went away, you can find it on the image's toolbar under Dialog -> Layers (see Figure 8). That way, you can click back and forth between layers with ease.
To add text to the image, create a new layer, go back to The GIMP menu and click the T icon--T for text. When you click it, the bottom of the window changes to a dialog from which you can choose a font, a font size, font color and so on (see Figure 9). When you've made your selections, move the mouse pointer to the place in the image you want the text to appear and single click. An input box opens where you can type in your desired text, as shown in Figure 10. Repeat these steps as many times as necessary until all the text is entered.
Editing and Revising
Once the basic design is complete, you can spend hours if not days playing with the various tools to come up with ever-more elaborate versions. By the end of my sign-making experience, I had created designs with diagonal text and smudged-edge photos. I learned that the eye dropper icon lets you go into a photo to pick up a certain color and then drag that color to other elements and layers. For example, I picked up a pretty goldenrod color from the stage curtain in one of the photos I cut and pasted and used it for the sign's background color.
When you're working on the details, it's handy to zoom into the image and see things on a larger scale. On the image's View menu, take a look at the Zoom sub-menu; you can select ratios from 1:1 up to 16:1 and down to 1:16. You also can choose to zoom in and zoom out for more detailed work, which is great if you decide to draw freehand.
My best tip is to feel free in exploring all of The GIMP's many options. Do a practice session and get a feel for creating layers and for using The GIMP icons to play with colors, fonts and finishing tools. I played around a bit and made some big mistakes--forgetting that I had clicked the eraser icon, I accidentally took off one of the performer's arms. But I never did anything that couldn't be fixed. Undo on the Edit menu (Ctrl + Z for short) is a lifesaver.
Saving and Printing
Once you have a design you like, it's time to save it. Select Save as from the image's File menu. Maneuver to the directory in which you want to save the file, and enter a name for it. Finally, you need to decide the format in which you want to save your file (see Figure 11). If you're going to put your image up on a Web site or on-line photo album, you might want to use TIFF, PNG or JPEG format. If you want to print it out, though, PostScript or bitmap is probably your best bet.
Because I needed to print these signs, I saved my images as PostScript files. I wanted good quality color prints, so I knew a trip to Kinko's was in my future. I burned the files to a CD-ROM and took that into the local Kinko's. Their computers don't have The GIMP installed, but I was able to open all of my files in PhotoShop without any problems, because the images were basic PostScript files at that point.
So far, sign-making has been my only foray into using The GIMP. As a non-artist and a novice user of this kind of application, I have to say The GIMP is not only easy to use and figure out, it's also fun. I admit there still is a lot I don't know how to do with The GIMP, and I'm sure sign-making isn't the task everyone uses The GIMP to accomplish. But if you do want to play around with images and photos and maybe make a sign or two, give The GIMP a shot. You'll probably find short cuts and better methods for doing some of the tasks I mention here, and that's part of the fun of learning a new tool.