In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to paint graphics on a face using GIMP – a free photo editing and manipulation software very similar to Photoshop. This is a pretty simple technique – which makes this tutorial great for beginners – but the final product is very impressive!

I’ll be using a couple of images that I downloaded for free on Pixabay. You can download the image of the man here, and the image of the American flag here if you want to follow along.

Step 1: Open Your Images Into GIMP

After you’ve downloaded your images, open them into GIMP by going to File>Open. An “Open Image” dialogue box will appear (shown in the photo above), where you can search for your image file on your computer. Once you have located the image, click “Open” to open it into GIMP. Repeat this step until all of your image are opened into GIMP.

Step 2: Make Your Main Image Black and White

Duplicate and Rename Your Main Layer

Now that I have my images open in GIMP, I’ll navigate over to the main image of the man (if you are using Single Window Mode, use the tabs at the top of your canvas – denoted by the green arrow in the image above). In your layers panel, click on the main image layer (you can double click on the layer name and change the name of the layer to “Man”), then click the “duplicate” icon to duplicate this layer (blue arrow). Click on your duplicate layer, and double click on the name. Rename this layer “Man BW” (red arrow).

Next, with your Man BW layer still selected, go to Colors>Hue Saturation.

Desaturate Your Duplicated Layer

Decrease the Saturation using the slider all the way to -100. This will make your image black and white.

Using the Levels with Split View GIMP Tutorial

Then, with the Man BW layer still selected, go to Colors>Levels to adjust the levels of your image. The goal here is to provide a bit more contrast between the light and dark areas of your image. Drag the far left black triangle below the histogram (denoted by the green arrow above) to the right and the far right white triangle to the left to adjust your image’s levels until your image shows a bit more contrast. If you are using GIMP 2.9.8, you can check the “Split View” box (red arrow) to split your image down the middle to see a before (left side) and after (right side) comparison. Click OK to apply your levels adjustments.

Step 3: Add a Layer Mask

Right click on your Man BW layer and click “Add Layer Mask.”

Initialize Layer Mask to Option

Under “Initialize Layer Mask to:” select “Black (Full Transparency),” then click OK to apply the mask. You should now see the color version of your photo as the black layer mask essentially hides the top layer, showing the original “Man” layer below.

Paint on Your Layer Mask

What we want to do now is “paint in” the face of our man so that only his face is black and white. We’ll do this by grabbing the brush tool from the toolbox (denoted by the green arrow above), changing the foreground color to white by clicking on the foreground color and choosing white (red arrow), and changing the brush to a softer brush (I have mine set to a brush with Hardness 050 – purple arrow). You can increase the size of your brush using the side slider in the Tool Options (pink arrow), or by using the left and right bracket keys (“[” or “]”) on your keyboard. Paint over the subject’s entire face, stopping at the hair line and chin line. Make sure you are painting on the layer mask by click on the mask (blue arrow) versus painting on the main layer.

Step 4: Bring Your Graphic Onto the Canvas

Navigate over to the image of your flag (or whatever graphic you are using) and go to Edit>Copy.

Navigate back to your main image, click off of the layer mask (you can click on the “Man” layer just to get off of the layer mask – denoted by the green arrow above) and go to Edit>Paste to past the flag over your subject.

Floating Selection Layer GIMP Paint Graphics on Face

This will create a floating selection layer (denoted by the green arrow above). Click on that floating layer and click on the “Create a new layer” icon (red arrow) to add the flag image to its own layer.

Now that the flag is on its own layer, move it to the top of the layers panel by clicking and dragging the layer as demonstrated in the photo above. I will double click on the name of our graphic layer and change it to “Graphic.”

Step 5: Rotate and Scale Your Graphic

Use the Rotate Tool to Rotate Your Graphic GIMP Tutorial

Grab your rotate tool from your Toolbox (or hit shift+r on your keyboard), and click on the flag to bring up the “rotate” dialogue box. Change the angle to 90 degrees (denoted by the green arrow), then click “Rotate” (red arrow). Your flag should now be facing down, which will allow us to more easily cover the subject’s entire face. If your graphic doesn’t need to be rotated, you can skip this step.

Use the Scale Tool to Scale Your Graphic Layer

Grab the scale tool (green arrow), then click and drag your graphic, ensuring the chain icon is locked in the Scale dialogue box to have it scale proportionately. As you scale the graphic, it will start to drift off the center of your subject’s face. You can release your scale tool, then click the four boxes in the middle of your graphic and realign your graphic so that it sits directly over your subject’s face. Click Scale to apply the scale.

Decrease the Opacity of the Graphic Layer GIMP

With the Graphic layer still selected, use the opacity slider to decrease the opacity of this layer (green arrow). You just want to decrease the opacity enough to where you can see the subject’s face below the layer, which will help us in future steps.

Step 6: Apply the “Whirl and Pinch” Filter

With your Graphic layer selected, go to Layer>Layer to Image Size. This will make the boundary of your graphic layer the same size as the boundary of your main canvas.

Whirl and Pinch Filter GIMP Paint Graphics on a Face

Next, go to Filters>Distorts>Whirl and Pinch. If you are using a previous version of GIMP (before GIMP 2.9), go to Tools>GEGL Operation and choose Whirl and Pinch from the dropdown list of operations. This filter will apply a bulge to our graphic, which will help it appear as if it is bulging around our subject’s face.

Adjust the Whirl and Pinch Filter

I’ll adjust my settings (see the settings above) until the graphic appears to match the contours of the face (mainly the cheek bones, forehead, and chin).

Scale the Flag After Using the Whirl and Pinch Filter

Grab the scale tool again and scale the image a bit to ensure it still fits on the subject’s face after applying the Whirl and Pinch. You can again use the four squares in the middle to realign the graphic so that it is centered on your subject’s face. Click “Scale” once it is the size you want it at and in the position you want it in.

Step 7: Paint the Graphic Out of the Eyes and Eyebrows

Hide the Graphic layer (blue arrow) and click on the Man BW layer mask (red arrow). Grab the zoom tool from your Toolbox (green arrow) and click on your canvas to zoom in on the subject’s eyes and eyebrows.

Paint Away Eyebrows and Eyes on the Layer Mask

Grab your paint brush tool, then change the foreground color to black. Paint black on the layer mask over the eyebrows and eyes so that they are no longer black and white (the color layer below should show through). This will ensure our graphic doesn’t show up over the eyebrows and eyes, which will ruin our “painted face” effect since face paint doesn’t usually go on someone’s eyes. Grab your zoom tool again from the toolbox or by hitting z on your keyboard and hold ctrl while you click to zoom back out.

Add Mask to Selection to Main Image Layer

Now, right click on your layer mask and go to “Mask to Selection.” This will create a selection area around your layer mask.

Add a Layer Mask to Your Graphic Layer GIMP Tutorial

Right click on your graphic layer and go to “Add Layer Mask.”

Initialize Layer Mask to Selection

Under “Initialize Layer Mask to:” choose “Selection.” This will create a layer mask from your selection area, which is in the shape of your subject’s face (minus the eyes and eyebrows).

Unhide your Graphic layer, and your graphic should now show up in the shape of your subject’s face (though it’ll look a little rough right now). Go to Select>None to deselect your selection.

Step 8: Use the Displace Filter

Use the Filters Map Displace Filter in GIMP

Go to Filters>Map>Displace to apply the Displace Filter (it doesn’t matter what layer you are on because you will choose aux inputs in a second). This effect is going to add a bit of a “jittery” look to our graphic, which will make the graphic look a bit more imperfect, thus making it look more like paint. This also makes the graphic “displaced” or shifted in certain areas, like wherever there is a curve on the face.

Choose Aux Inputs from Displace Filter Settings

For the “Aux Input,” click on the square with the question mark (and GIMP’s Wilbur mascot) to select a layer for the first aux input (denoted by the green arrow in the image above, which has the graphic layer image there instead of the image I just described). Select your graphic under the “Layers” section for the Aux Input (blue arrow).

For the “Aux2 Input,” choose the main “Man” layer.

Set the Horizontal and Vertical displacement to 5, and check the “Center Displacement” box. Click OK to apply the Displacement.

Step 9: Apply a Blur to the Graphic’s Layer Mask

Click on the layer mask for your Graphic layer, then go to Filters>Blur>Gaussian Blur.

Apply Gaussian Blur to Your Graphic Layer Mask

Set the blur to about 3 for both the X and Y values, then click OK.

Apply Gaussian Blur to Graphics Layer

Click on the Graphic layer now (directly to the left of your layer mask in the layers panel) and apply the Gaussian Blur again by going to Filters>Blur>Gaussian Blur (you can decrease the blur of the X and Y values to 2 for this layer). Click OK to apply the blur.

Step 10: Bring it All Together by Adding Layer Modes

Duplicate the Main Layer GIMP Graphics on Face Tutorial

Click on the “Man” layer and click the “Duplicate layer” icon (blue arrow). Move this new layer to the top of the layers panel.

Change the Layer Mode to Grain Merge

With this duplicated layer still selected, change the Mode of the layer (denoted by the green arrow in the image above) to “Grain Merge” (blue arrow).

Change the Graphic Layer Mode to Burn GIMP Tutorial

Next, duplicate the Graphic layer, and change the mode (green arrow in the image above) of this duplicated layer – which will be called Graphic copy – to “Burn” (blue arrow). Decrease the opacity of this layer to somewhere between 30 and 35 (if it isn’t already) using the opacity slider. If the effect doesn’t work, make sure you are on the layer itself and not the layer mask before applying the new layer mode.

Change Graphic Layer Mode to Grain Merge, Reduce Opacity

Click on the original Graphic layer (denoted by the green arrow in the image above) and change the mode to “Grain Merge” (blue arrow). Bring the opacity of this layer (red arrow) up to somewhere between 60 and 70 (I brought mine up to 65).

If you want to bring the graphic up closer to the hairline of your subject, or want to adjust any part of the layer masks, you can grab your paint brush tool and choose white as your foreground color (to paint colors in) or the black color (to remove colors) and paint around the parts of the graphic you want to adjust. Just make sure you paint on both graphic layer masks for your effects to take place.

GIMP Tutorial Paint Graphics on a Face Final

That’s it for this tutorial! If you enjoyed it, check out our Tutorials page for more GIMP video and text tutorials, or visit our GIMP YouTube channel!