The Quick Start Guide to the GIMP, Part 1

This first of a four-part series introduces us to the GIMP, a Linux power tool for the graphics artist. Mr. Hammel used the GIMP to design this month's cover.

It has been a long time coming, but the wait is over: Linux has its first real end-user power tool. It's not for administrators. It's not for network hacks. It's not another developers tool. It's for artists. It's for media managers and graphics nuts. It's for fun. It's for real. It's the GIMP.

This article is the first of a four part series on the GIMP. This first part is a general introduction to the application including some definitions and system requirements. Future articles will cover basic functionality, an exploration of the Image Window including the use of layers and a detailed walk-through of the Toolbox.

What is the GIMP?

The GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program, a tool for manipulating graphics images that borrows its look and feel from the popular Macintosh and Windows program from Adobe called Photoshop. It is used for all varieties of image processing, photo retouching and image composition. Built-in features, such as scripting, make it very easy to create logos for web pages and magazine cover art, and the Plug-In API provides a convenient mechanism for extending the very rich standard feature set. Support for a large number of input and output file formats is provided, including support for reading Photoshop files which is under development at the time of this writing.

It is nearly impossible to discuss certain features of the GIMP without first introducing others, but one must begin somewhere. I will attempt to limit confusion by mentioning features before they are discussed. Also, it will be impossible to go into complete detail of all aspects of the GIMP even in four articles. Layers, in particular, will be difficult to discuss at length without compromising discussion of other aspects of the application. Perhaps, if there is enough interest, I can expand this series into a full sized published text. In the meantime, these articles will provide an introductory view of this wonderful new tool.

Getting the GIMP

The first thing you want is the program itself. Binary versions of the latest release packaged in an RPM format will most likely be available from Red Hat, although at the time of this writing none of the latest developers releases were available in binary. The GIMP's web site will also have binaries available for some platforms, including Linux. Of course, the GIMP is also distributed with full source code as well. The source distribution can be retrieved from There are two files needed to build and install from the source: gimp-1.0.tar.gz and gimp-data-1.0.tar.gz. The former is the real source code and the latter is the standard set of brushes, palette and so forth that comes with the default source distribution. Note that the actual version and release numbers might be different, so just look for the latest releases on the FTP site. At the time of this writing the actual release number was 0.99.10.

Building from source should be a straightforward process:

  1. Unpack the archives

  2. Run ./configure

  3. Run ./make

  4. Run ./make install

This process is required for both the source code and the data files archives. If you intend to install in the default locations under /usr/local, you need to be the root user to do the last step. If you wish to install in some other location, you can instead type:

 ./configure --prefix=/

There are a number of options available via the configure program. Check the INSTALL file first, and if you can't find what you need there try running:

 ./configure --help
Also, as always, help is available from the GIMP Developer and GIMP user mailing lists (see the section at the end of this article for Resources on the Net).

Starting and Stopping the GIMP

Once the GIMP has been installed you're ready to start experimenting. Starting the program is simple: type gimp. If your system does not support the MIT-SHM extension (see below), you can type:

gimp --no-xshm

When the GIMP starts, it first reads a configuration file located in the .gimp directory located in the user's $HOME directory. This directory is where user-configurable options, user-specific plug-ins, palettes, brushes and so forth are kept. A similar set of directories are kept in the system directories (by default under /usr/local/share and /usr/local/lib).

If the GIMP does not find the .gimp directory in the users $HOME directory, it will create and populate it for them. Since this process can potentially take longer than just a few moments, a window is displayed explaining what the program is doing. The user need not do anything during this time. When the initialization of the .gimp directory has completed, the program opens the main window, and the user can begin work. Future invocations of the application will not include the creation of the .gimp directory unless that directory is removed for some reason between GIMP sessions.

The configuration file, gimprc, contains the specifications for the directory in which the GIMP is to find all of its files. In this way a user can, if desired, use a locally installed version of the GIMP instead of the one installed in the system directories. The gimprc file also defines the default settings for many of the features for the application. Such items as the speed at which the “marching ants” (the moving dashed line that denotes a selected region of an image) move, the number of colors to use, the GIMP colormap option and the Gamma correction setting are defined in the gimprc file. This file is well commented so you shouldn't have too much trouble understanding what the various configurable parameters affect. You should probably take a look at this file at least once before starting the GIMP, although it may not be absolutely necessary for you to become familiar with it, especially if you are using a high-end system with a high-end graphics adapter.

The GIMP uses its own temporary and swap files for saving runtime data. Most temporary files get removed at the end of a GIMP session, however some of these files may remain after exiting. It is recommended that the temporary directory be a directory that is specific to the individual user. This directory should not be one that is cleaned up by the system automatically. The swap file is a file that can get very large due to the use of the tile-based memory scheme that the GIMP uses. Because of this it is recommended that the swap file directory be /tmp or some other directory on a file system with plenty of disk space. Defaults for both the temporary files directory and the swap file directory exist in the gimprc file. You should verify that these are appropriate for your use before doing any heavy, image-processing work.

One of the settings in the gimprc file that you might consider changing is the one that allows the GIMP to use its own colormap. If you have a system with 1MB of video memory (not system memory—there is a difference) and you wish to run in a high-resolution mode such as 800x600 or 1024x768, you may only be able to run with a maximum of 256 colors. In this case the GIMP (and many other applications, such as Netscape) will quickly run out of colors. In some cases, with smart applications, you'll get what's known as “color flashing”--where the color of windows and the background changes depending on which window currently holds the focus for keyboard and mouse input. Although a bit annoying, color flashing is the result of a little trick provided in X Windows applications to help guarantee they have enough colors. They do this by installing their own colormap. The GIMP allows you to do this in the gimprc file. However, this option is not turned on by default. If you have a low-end video system and run using an 8-bit (256 color) display, you'll want to uncomment this option in the gimprc file before starting the GIMP. If the color flashing that occurs is bothersome, there is another option for setting the color cube. Changing the values here, however, is a little trickier and should probably only be done if you understand what “dithering colors” means.



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Re: The Quick Start Guide to the GIMP, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

The gimp is allright for beginners in the imaging industry, but what is lacks is real power. Compare it to Macromedia's Fireworks for example. See the difference? If The Gimp could be as easy to use and have as many features as Fireworks does, i wouldn't even use Windows anymore. I think the developer should put this to thought. Powerful Powerful program, but lacking the cool tools like the motion trails, bevel boss', shadows, glows, rounded edged rectanges, smart polygon, and so so so much more!

Wat r u on about mate, ive

Anonymous's picture

Wat r u on about mate? ive got both fireworks and gimp, used em both and I like many others believe gimp is far more powerfull, how much real art is made with fireworks??

You obviously havn't used GIM

Greg's picture

You obviously havn't used GIMP for along time.
GIMP has all the features you mentioned. Some of them work better than the same sort of features in Photoshop and also there are some features that Photoshop hasn't got GIMP is a full featured Graphics tool in its own right. You need to use it regularly to apreciate the possibilities and where it is heading.
It is a stand alone High powered Graphics tool in its own right.