Painting images with GIMP

GIMP is a powerful tool for creating images – that right, but why? At first, the most interesting aspect of GIMP is, that the software is able to replace traditional painting workflow. Let us focus on the result of fine art. Usually a painter is trying to create a realistic painting, for example of a person or from a landscape. Sure, it also possible to paint non-realistic, which is called abstract painting, but most pictures are created with a realistic goal. How usually the workflow look like until an artist has created such a painting is not well researched. According to the artists itself, they need around 3 weeks until the oil painting is ready, and what they are doing the in the meantime is unclear. They are not talking about painting, they only say, that painting is an art which has to be learned in an art school.

And now comes GIMP into the game. GIMP doesn’t reinvent painting itself, but GIMP is able to make the workflow more transparent. Explaining how a realistic oil painting is created in GIMP is easy. At first, a photo of the face has to be opened. Then a second layer is created with the aim to draw the contour lines of the picture with the selection tool. Such a selection is then colored and after additional steps it will be transformed into the oil painting. The overall process is not magic, but it is repetitive task which can be mastered by everyone how is familiar with the gimp software.

The most important feature of the software, that it is possible to combine photography with painting. On layer 1 a 1024×768 pixel photography can be loaded, while on layer 2 the oil painting is created from scratch. It is not a simple filter like the image magick software, but the process is individual. The surprising fact is, that the result will look very similar to a classical oil painting.


The optimal resolution in digital painting

Many users of GIMP and Photoshop are unsure about the correct image resolution. They heard something about 300 dpi, but it is unclear what does that mean in an all-digital workflow. The question occurs everytime the artist is pressing the new button in his prefered image manipulation software. Here he has to enter in the dialog a pixel resolution for example 600×400. What is the correct value? A rule of thumb is, that the resolution can never be high enough. If digital painting wants to be competitive with paintings of Van Gogh and other there is a huge amount of resolution needed. The paintings of the early impressionist were around 2meter by 1.4 meter and to realizing a high quality can only be done with pixels.

On the other hand there are some constraints which can be bypassed by the users. I want to a give a small example, and have tried out in the gimp dialogue a pixelresolution of 20000×14000 which makes sense for an artwork. But it seems, that this was a bit too much. Not because of the quality, but because can’t handle it. It will take a lot of time until the empty image was created and a look into the properties says, that the image takes 2.7 GB size in memory. Sure, if we are exporting the image as an jpeg to the harddrive it takes only 10 MB, which is not very much for a file transferred over the internet, but for editing the file in image manipulation software it has to be handled as RAW data, that means as uncompressed 2.7 GB. The problem is, that in mainstream computing the RAM is a limiting factor, that means from an artist perspective the resolution of 20kx14k is great, but it is not a practical choice for daily usage.

Let us try out a smaller resolution, perhaps 4000×2850. This image size needs only 180 MB in main memory and GIMP can handle the data without major concerns. The exported jpeg file is moderate in the filesize too and takes only 500 kb, perhaps a bit more. So from my perspective, the image should have not more then 4000 pixels in width. Sure, it would be nice to take more, but not with todays computing hardware. It is the upper limit of what can be handled by current operating systems and hardware today. It is equal to 11 million pixels.

Sure, many artist will say, that they need more resolution. If they want to fill an image which is 2 meter wide, the 4000 pixels will result into a poor resolution of 50 dpi (50 pixels * 79 inch = 3950 pixels). That means, the quality is way below the standard of 300 dpi and is perhaps inferior to a classical painting technique without using a computer. But the problem is, that todays computing power is limited. It is not possible to edit a picture in raw format which has 1 billion pixels, because this will blow up the 4 GB of RAM.

GIMP and the revolution in painting

Since around the year 2010 there was a huge revolution going on in the domain of art. It started with two well programs: Photoshop and GIMP. Both are well known for it’s ability to manipulate photos, and before the year 2010 there were used even by experts only for that reason. That means, the standard workflow was, that somebody has made a digital picture and used an image manipulation program to edit the pixels a bit. But, after a while the users have recognized that it is possible to paint also with the software. Even without a trackpad but with a normal mouse, remarkable effects can be realized.

An objective look into the capabilities of GIMP shows us, that the software is superior to classical painting. That means, if an artist is usually painting with oil colors or acryl in reality he can switch his workflow into an all digital one. He will not missing anything. The funny thing is, that every style is possible: from realistic painting, abstract painting or simply copy an image which is already there just for fun. Somebody have tried to compare digital art with normal art. Such a comparison will fail, digital art is a here to stay and will replace on the long term any other technique. There main advantage are the costs. If an artist takes 3 weeks until his oil painting is ready he gets the same result with GIMP in 3 days. And if he usually spends lots of US-dollar for painting equipment he get the same for free, if he is using GIMP.

Around the year 2010 the typical usecase in digital art was dominated by computer games. That means, GIMP and other software were used to draw the characters in real time roleplaying games. That is the reason why 90% of all digital images have something to do with fantasy. But, it is possible to use the same technology for different topics, for example for abstract paintings, for oil paintings and even for portrait painting.

What we can monitor right now, that digital art is critized heavily by the established artist. They simply ignore it, or they finding lots of reason to not using it. It is the same pattern like Open Access is critized. In most cases, the artist are simply saying that they don’t like it, that it is evil and will destroy everything. And they are right. The majority of images created with software has a low quality, was created by amateurs and has from an artist perspective no value. It is some kind of mass product and exactly this will destroy classical painting. If one technology (digital art) replaces technology from the past (classical painting with physical brush) this is called revolution. And we are recognizing it right now.

Let us describe what classical art is. Usually the picture is large-scale (2 meter by 1 meter), was painted with oil colors and is showing a realistic scene with people. Such a setting is what can be called the core of an art school. Other technique like abstract painting, smaller images and so on are only an addon. In the now most of the pictures were created handcrafted without computer support. But, from a technology point of view it is possible to create in gimp also a 2mx1m picture, in oil colors which shows a realistic scene. It is not very often, but it is possible. The main difference are the lower costs, that means, it takes less time and needs less money to create such a picture with GIMP. I would guess at least by the factor 10. The bottleneck in digital painting is the printing on a real paper. Today, large inkjet printers can be used, but they have a lower quality then a handmade oil painting. To overcome the problems a robotic-oil printing device makes sense. Here is the idea that a jpeg image is used as input, and a robotarm is brushing the colors on the sheet.

Digital oil painting

Let us observe a typical youtube tutorial with the title “Digital oil painting timelapse”. What is interesting is, that the overall workflow is transparent. That means, the artist gives a hint, that he took exactly 59 minutes to complete the work from scratch to the last brushstroke. And the audience can see exactly what the artist has done, so it is possible to do the same. That means to use the same colors, the same brushes and the same software. And that is perhaps the most important difference to classical non-digital painting. Here is everything a secret. The audience is not allowed to observe the artist, the artist is working in secrecy and gives no hint how long does it take and at the end the audience gets only the picture, but not a tutoriall how to become a painter for themself. Some people are argue, that these is equal to real art, but it is the art how it was done in the past. The new form can be called Open Art, it contains of more information for the audience, is entirely digital and produces the same or better quality.

Another remarkable feature of digital art is, that it can be used as an addition to a traditional workflow. In the first 60 minutes the artist is creating with gimp a digital image on the screen. On layer 1 he is drawing the outline with a pencil and on layer 2 he is filling the gaps with colors. Then he prints out both layers and paints the image on a real sheet of paper with oil colors. That means, he is not using an inkjet printer and not a robotic printer, but paints themself with real colors. The advantage is the separation between creating the art on the screen (that means to think about the pencil drawing and the colors) and the mechanical apply of the colors at the canvas. Such a semi-automatic workflow will take longer then 60 minutes, but is not so time consuming as a traditional artwork.

DIgital art is able to automate only parts of the workflow, for example it is possible to scan in a pencil drawing, print out a concept draw or print out only the pencil drawing and filling the colors by hand. The fastest and most efficient is an all-digital one. That means, the artist is opening gimp, clicks on the buttons and saves the file in the XCF-format. With such an optimized workflow it is possible for a single artist to create in one year hundreds of oil paintings. From smaller one up to huge paintings in the size of 10 meter x 7 meter.

The reason why this revolution takes place only after the year 2010 has to do with technical limitations. To save a huge painting on a harddrive many megabytes are necessary. Otherweise the resolution is not good enough. Perhaps a small example, on the Amiga 500 computer the first paitings were created in an all digital workflow. Special painting software was available and some artists have played with the tools. But, the quality was not very high. Because 500 kb of RAM are not enough to store a realistic artwork.

Reducing costs in painting

What have Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and Andy Warhol in common? It is not there painting style, because this was very different. They have in common that they were all artist. That means, they devoted their lifetime into painting images. But how many hours invested they are in detail? Did they paint 3 hours every day, or 14 hours? We doesn’t know, because they have mostly worked in secrecy or if not, they didn’t have published their invested worktime. I do not think that we can discuss which painting style is better. Somebody love abstract painting, other prefer realistic painting. But about one topic we can debate: how many costs are produced while painting an image. It is possible to determine for every painting how many hours the artist has invested, and how much money he spend for his oil-colors. The number one priority in art is to hold the own costs low. If the duration which is needed to paint a single image is low, it is possible for one artist to paint much more of them.

It is not a question between high-quality and low quality work, between sketching an image and painting it with oil colors. The question is about the relationship between the invested time and the result. If we are taking a look back in the art history it is obvious that topics like concept art were developed with the aim to reduce the costs. If an artwork is not physical there but it is only a computerfile, it is possible to create such artwork in less amount of time. If somebody only has modeled the sculpture on a piece of paper but not realized it physical, he will be ready in only 1 hours and not in 1 year.

What most artist today, who are not using computers in their workflow are doing is wasting there own time. They are painting hundred of hours in the studio and they didn’t even know, that they can get the same result in photoshop in under an hour. I think, what the art community needs is not a debate about composition or colors, but about the comparison between physical brushed and virtual one. In which cases is a software like GIMP the better choice over a real Dachshund brush?

It is in theory possible to get a detailed productivity statistics of every artist. How many paintings were created by artist #1, #2 and #3? But in reality it is very hard to find detailed numbers. And yes, it is sign of excellence if somebody is more productive. Because this reveals how optimal his own workflow is. 100% of all paintings were created by humans. That means, no matter in which style they work, they had to invested a quantity of work into his product. Reducing that time is the future in art!


Pablo PIcasso has created in his lifetime about 50000 paintings. Piet Mondriaan has created only 1850 art works. Is 50000 very much? Picasso lifespan was around 92 years. If he started to paint in the age of 20, he had 26280 days for creating something. According to the numbers, he has painted two images per day on every day. About Picasso is known, that his workflow was classical, that means with real brushed and real colors. With GIMP his productivity would much greater. I would guess, that it is possible to increase the output by the factor of 10.

Some professional painters have uploaded not only youtube-tutorials in which they are explaining how to use GIMP right, but they are also give an insight view how long it takes to complete a single oil painting. It is around 1 hours per image. That means, if somebody is active, he can produce on one day 12 images and more. If he reduces the quality and draws only sketches but not the complete oil painting he can easiy produce 100 images per day. That means, it is possible to outperform Pablo Picasso by the numbers and produce more then 50000 images in a lifespan of a single artist.

Everybody can paint

Woman looks backwards

Art is difficult to master, right? Art is not for everybody, true? Understanding art has to do with understanding art education. It is correct, that art education will not result into a success to everybody. In such a case the education failed, not the student. Let us take a look into the art of teaching art. What is done usually at the university is to paint an image from imagination. That means, the teacher provides colors and a sheet of paper and the students should paint something. Sometimes the teacher give a clear advice, like “now everybody is painting a tree”. And it is up to the students to fulfill the task. Some classmates are really good in it, and they are painting like professional, while others are sitting in front of an empty sheet, playing around with the paintbox and doesn’t know how to start exactly. Perhaps, they force themself to start with the first stroke and it looks weird. So they give up and accept the situation, that they become everything but not an artist.

There is hope. Painting is easier then cooking rice. It can be done with a recipe, and I can explain how. Step 1 is to start the gimp software which is preinstalled in any Linux operating systems. Step 2 is to open an existing painting, created by somebody other. Step 3 is to create a new layer ontop of the image. Step 4 is to paint of the new layer the contour of the original image. Step 5 is to activate the brush tool and filling the gap with colors. Step 6 is to export the own layer into the JPEG format, print it out and upload it to the internet.

I have followed this instruction and the result can be seen here on top of the posting. The painting is called “Woman looks backwards” and was entirely created with gimp. The time for completion was under 30 minutes and most of the time was spend for reading at google how to create a layer in gimp, because this feature is a bit tricky to handle.

Making art with Linux

Painting a picture is surprisingly simple. Even if someone never has done so before. The first what we need is Gimp, which can be installed in the Fedora operating system with a simple … everybody knows what the DNF package manager can do, and as far as i know, gimp is even preinstalled, so it is not a big deal. But how exactly comes the image into gimp? That is a bit tricky, because painting something only with imagination is difficult. Expert painters are using a template, which means to google a painting which is already in the internet, for example with the search term “painting woman”. And now comes the magic trick: we are simply copying the image. Not with copy&paste and not with the wget command to download the original JPEG file. Both techniques are a not allowed because of legal reason, but what we can do is to trace the painting. That means, left on the screen we have the original photo and right we have the Gimp window. Now we are selecting the pencil tool to draw the outline of the image. It is enough to copy the structure a bit noisy. After the sketch is ready, we are taking the gimp-airbrush tool for making some colors into the picture.

So what’s next? It is only a question of time how accurate the copy is. If we are not very motivated and paint the image in under 5 minutes, we get only the quality which was shown here as an example on top of this posting. If we are painting more carefully and using more colors the result will be much better. What I want to explain is, that painting without a template is not possible. Painting means, to trace a given line which is already there. The only aspect in which painting schools are different is the trace technique. In our example we used a digital image as a template, but it is also possible to trace a picture direct from reality, that is what most painters have done before the invention of photography. And if someone has create many of these image, he is perhaps in the situation that he can trace an image without the original template, only from his imagination. He is closing his eyes and thinks about a photography seen a long time ago and paint this out of his memory.