Tutorial: How to Remove Image Backgrounds With GIMP

Posted February 1, 2014 by Sophia

Bookwyrming Thoughts Tutorial

     GIMP is probably one of the best image editing softwares out there next to Photoshop, and possibly confusing. I’ll admit I’m still confused even though I played around with it for quite awhile. Just less confused than when I first started. *phew*
     A few weeks ago, Kimba from the Caffeinated Book Reviewer asked if I could write a post on how to remove backgrounds from images in GIMP. There are a few options, and the ones that I know of either results in a long time waste or paying just to upgrade Serif (the free version is good enough for me, and I’m not sure how their background removing thing works).
     The long way is simply adding an alpha channel, use an eraser and make it really big before making it smaller as you get closer and closer to the edge. Think of it as just learning how to do long division back in the elementary days. I think I did a pretty terrible job for awhile at first. :p
     The other way however, is different. It’s originally found over at NZ Photo Info, but I made some adjustments since they work better than the ones used in their tutorial after a few experimentations of my own. I’m bad at explaining, so I’ll be using more images than usual to help out.


  • GIMP – it’s free :3
  • A photo – preferably one whose colors contrast the background’s, but that’s optional. You’ll end up with similar results either way.
  • Time and patience

     For this tutorial, we’ll be using this avatar which I made on Azalea’s Dolls (well, I was bored, and I was thinking of summer, and coconuts seemed fit, okay?).

     Using the Free Select Tool (In Toolbox, 3rd icon in 1st row), roughly draw around the image you want to keep from the background. Do NOT release the mouse or you’ll have to start all over again. If you do, it’ll turn it into a straight line, which isn’t exactly helpful unless you’re planning to cut something cleanly in half. It should look as though there are ants marching around the photo.


     It does not have to be perfect. In fact, I purposely keep away from the image I want to keep so I don’t accidentally cut anything vital off. Like an arm or leg, for instance.


     Once the virtual ants are marching around – think of them as protectors if you must – you can either use the shortcut SHIFT + Q or go into the bottom left corner for the quickmask option, causing the background to be covered completely in red.
     The tutorial on NZ Photo Info suggests to use pencil at 15px – I use 20px, sometimes more than that – to get closer to the image. For me, it makes the result a bit fuzzy at the edges and using a paintbrush works out smoother for me. It doesn’t matter which one you choose to use – JUST DON’T USE THE ERASER. The only time you might want to use the eraser is if you make a mistake, or you can simply press CTRL + Z to undo it.
  • Depending on the contrasting of your image and it’s background, you might want to zoom the image. I usually use something around 200-400%. The greater the contrast, like the image being used in this tutorial, the smaller you’ll need to zoom.
  • You might want to pause every few strokes. In case you make a mistake with the next one, you don’t have to undo a lot, especially if you’re the type that prefers to use CTRL+Z.
  • You’ll also want to make the brush/pencil size smaller as you get closer and closer to the edges.

     When you’ve colored in everything you want to remove, click on Quick Mask again, or simply press SHIFT+Q. The ants should be marching once more, this time near the edges of the image.

     Copy the image (CTRL+C) and then repaste as a new image (SHIFT+CTRL+V). Keep the original image open, but you’re welcome to minimize it.
     In the layers tab, right-click the layer – this is only the original. Repasting it as a new image causes the layer to be named “Pasted Layer” – and select Alpha to Selection. Once again, the ants are marching. You’ll then need to shrink the image by 1-2px, invert the image (CTRL+I), and feather the image by 1-2px. To finish it off clear the image by going into “Select” and then “Clear” and finally Select, None or simply SHIFT+CTRL+A. And of course, the export button. 😉

     Less time consuming, isn’t it? :3

Sophia is a socially awkward Communications major who has a GIF for nearly everything and is frequently in a Hogwarts House Crisis. More of her bookish reviews can be found at The Arts STL.

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