How to create a pencil drawing effect with a photo in GIMP 2.8

GIMP 2.8 has a neat way of turning any high-quality photo into a realistic pencil drawing. In this GIMP tutorial, we’ll dive into the easiest method to create that effect.

Photo to pencil drawing in GIMP 2.8

This is the photo-to-drawing effect we’ll be creating in this GIMP tutorial.

What is a pencil drawing effect?

First of all, let’s make sure we understand exactly what we’re seeking to accomplish in this tutorial. You might have heard of terms like pencil sketch, or even the phrase “photo to pencil drawing”. These refer to a very interesting style of artwork, which basically consists of making a photograph look like a hand-drawn design that was crafted using a pencil.

The more the sketch looks convincing—that is, as if it was really drawn by the human hand of an artist—the more impressive the effect is. This GIMP tutorial shows you how you can turn a colorful image into a black-and-white pencil drawing with just a few clicks.

Getting started

Your GIMP version may not really matter, but I always recommended that you update your software as a way of avoiding bugs and ensuring that you’re benefiting from any added improvement.

Using the latest GIMP version

Whether you are new to GIMP or you have an older version installed, simply head over to the Downloads page of the official GIMP website and download the latest version available. Even if you have the software installed on your computer, it is still safe to run the installation without deleting any of the existing program’s files.

Once you are done with the installation, open the application. The user interface should look like this:

GIMP 2.8.22 user interface (UI)

Your screen resolution may affect the size of buttons and icons on your interface.

Note: For this tutorial, I’m using GIMP 2.8.22.

Picking a photo to work with

Now it’s time to select the photo we’ll be turning into a pencil drawing. Copyright matters, obviously, so let’s find a free high-quality image from Pixabay, the platform that offers images released under Creative Commons CC0.

The following brown pelican image appears among the results returned for the query “wildlife” on the Pixabay website. I am choosing the 1920×1361px version of that photo to have enough details to work with.

License free photo with high resolution for subsequent use in GIMP.

Selecting a photo with high resolution is recommended for best results.

Note: You can use any license-free image you want, but using the same photo makes it easier to follow the steps below.

Now that you’ve found your image, go ahead and save it, then drag and drop it into GIMP. You can also load the image into the software by clicking on File > Open or by using the CTRL + O shortcut on Windows.

Creating the pencil drawing effect

Your image is loaded in GIMP and you’re finally ready to go. To begin, we need to duplicate the active layer, which is the bird’s image layer here.

To do that, look on the right side of your screen. You should see your Layers column with the active layer highlighted, then six icons at the bottom, each of which lets you make a specific change to the layer. Hover over them and find the one that says, “Create a duplicate of the layer and add it to the image.”

Click it twice to have three layers in total. Your original layer will shift downward, and your newly duplicated layers will have “copy” and “copy #1” appended to their name. Click on the layer at the top, the one with “copy #1”, to activate it.

Duplicated layers in GIMP.

Duplicated layers in GIMP can be easily identified through their names.

Now locate the Colors items on GIMP’s menu bar, click on it to drop it down and select the Hue-Saturation tool. In the popup window, under Adjust Selected Color, slide left the Saturation knob to a value of -100. You can also input that value manually if you want, but leave the other values intact as we won’t directly need them in this tutorial.

If your Preview box is checked in the tool, you should notice your photo turning black and white. Click OK to proceed. Back to the Layers column on the right, locate the Mode drop-down at the top that has the value Normal and set it to Saturation mode instead.

Setting a layer to Saturation mode

After using the Hue-Saturation tool and setting your layer mode to Saturation, your image should look grayish like this.

Next, select your second layer—that is the one with just “copy” appended to its name—and set its layer mode to Dodge. The lightning in your photo may increase drastically in the process, but it’s perfectly normal and we still have some steps left.

Setting a layer mode to Dodge in GIMP.

Your image brightness should increase visibly after setting your second layer’s mode to Dodge.

Now go back to the main Colors menu and select Invert. At this stage, your image should turn completely white, just as if there was no content to show on an empty canvas. This is exactly the moment when amazement starts to build up, as the next step is what will make you actually see the pencil drawing effect.

Go to the Filters menu and click on Blur, then select Gaussian Blur. This tool requires you to experiment with the values under Blur Radius to determine how accentuated you like your drawing lines. Many designers recommend a starting point with 15 as both the Horizontal and Vertical value; however, this value should increase or decrease depending on the size and resolution of the image you are working with.

Using the GIMP's Gaussian Blur tool to create a pencil drawing effect.

Feel free to experiment with different values under Blur Radius in GIMP’s Gaussian Blur tool.

For this GIMP tutorial, let’s set the values to 30 pixels and leave the Blur Method set to the RLE option. Press OK, and your pencil drawing effect should show.

Photo after using the Gaussian Blur tool in GIMP.

This is what the Gaussian Blur tool gives us. Not bad, I think.

Enhancing the pencil drawing effect in GIMP 2.8

If you’re satisfied with your result, you can consider your mission accomplished and jump directly to the Exporting section of this tutorial. Nonetheless, in order for your artwork to look really convincing, there are few more tips you can apply.

Using Levels to touch up your image

In the Layers column, click on the third (bottom) layer to select it—that is the original layer, the one without “copy” in its name. Now, in the main Colors menu, select Levels.

Under Input Levels, you will see what looks like an area chart, with three spaced triangles that you can slide beneath it. The position of each triangle corresponds to the value in the spin box right below it. The first one refers to the black point, the middle one is for gamma correction and the last one on the right is for the white point.

Using GIMP's Levels tool

Again, feel free to experiment with different Input and Output values in GIMP’s Levels tool.

The default values are 0, 1.00 and 255, respectively. Feel free to play around with these values to understand how they work; but to stay on the same path, let’s agree to modify the values to 10, 1.04, 245. For the Output Levels, change the value pairs from 0, 255 to 10, 245.

Using Curves for a more realistic touch

The pencil drawing effect is almost nailed now, but we can still make one last tweak to mimic the work of a talented artist. One way we can accomplish that is by adding more details to the drawing and eliminating some of the white areas. After all, artists who love their work never get tired of representing their vivid imagination, do they?

That’s where GIMP’s powerful Curves tool comes in…

Go to the Colors menu one more time and select Curves. In the Curves tool, leave the Curve type to Smooth and move the dot in the middle of the curve to a value around x: 128, y:110. These x and y coordinates should darken the drawing a bit and increase the level of detail to give the image a professional look.

Using GIMP's Curves tool to manipulate the photo's colors

As you move the dot in GIMP’s Curves tool, the x and y values should change to indicate your position.

Note: As you move the dot, the x and y coordinates will change dynamically to indicate your position.
Now, click OK and admire your work.

Exporting your image

Your drawing effect has been correctly applied, and it’s time to export your work as a shareable PNG file. First, go to File > Save As to save your work as an XCF image that you can re-edit in GIMP at a later time; you never know when you will need to modify anything.

Finally, go to File > Export, or press CTRL + E on Windows to select the folder in which you want to export your PNG file. Accept the default settings and click the Export button.

Photo turned into pencil drawing in GIMP.

Our pencil drawing effect on the pelican photo is now done and exported.

And that’s it!

There you have it, a stunning brown pelican image turned into a work of art, all by taking advantage of GIMP’s robust features. The pencil drawing effect is just one of many GIMP effects that can be created using the tools under Colors and Filters.

So, go on and switch the values next time you work on a pencil drawing on your own. This will help you understand design better and become more familiar with GIMP’s boundless options and effects.