Monday, March 3, 2014

Learning GIMP

I anticipated doing a blog post all day yesterday, but much of the afternoon it was storming.  When it storms, my Internet connection bounces.  When my Internet connection bounces, I growl a lot.  When I growl a lot, I write blog posts that most of you won't wish to read.

So anyway, while the Internet connection bounced, I managed to accomplish a non-Internet-based task that I'd been dreading.  It ended up being fairly quick and painless, even.  Specifically, I was able to redo the paperback cover art for Cataclysm.

That probably doesn't sound like much, right?  But lemme 'splain.  Back when I was doing the Cataclysm artwork initially, I was a complete tyro at GIMP.  I managed an ebook cover image for the novel, and then a paperback cover image, and those were both good enough for a while.  Eventually I got tired of ebook cover, though, and I redid it with some fancy lettering work.

I didn't, however, redo the paperback cover.  The reason for the, um, "oversight," was that I'd used just a part of the Ares image (which I got permission to use from the wonderful artist Tom Gehrke, I must remind!) for the ebook, while the paperback had used the entire image, and I didn't at the time know how to go from one to the other seamlessly.

I didn't, to be honest, want to suffer through trying.

See, GIMP has a learning curve.  Everybody I've spoken with says GIMP has a learning curve, in fact.  It's a wonderfully free, and wonderfully powerful, software application, but it takes a bit to figure out.

Still, I use it exclusively, now.  I've sat through classes on Photoshop, and it has a learning curve, also.  A learning curve, I should add, that comes with a fairly hefty price tag.  Other graphics software packages have greater or lesser costs on the price tags, and higher or lower learning curves at the same time, but the fact is that every application out there takes a while to learn, and none of them has quite the spectacularly low price point of GIMP.

Thus, I use GIMP.

So last night in one of my Internet-accessible moments I trumpeted on Facebook that I felt like I was finally over the worst part of the learning curve.  Somebody asked me how I did it, and I agreed to share it with you.

My first secret: practice.  There's no substitute for focused doodling on the software you wish to learn to use.  I'm not talking about just playing around with it, either.  You have to try to do what you want to do with it, and you have to be willing to take notes while you fail spectacularly.

(I call that spectacular failure "practice" to make it look a little less ugly)

For example, while I was trying to get the letter effect I finally achieved for the Prophecy cover, I failed spectacularly dozens of times.  You should see the scribbles on the notes pages I kept.  I followed the instructions I'd written over, and over--each time, going through an entire page of notes and adding most of an entire new one.   It sounds like a tremendous waste of time, saying it like that, but in reality that was the time that I learned the most about what I was trying to do.  By repeating the same steps and varying the results by a matter of one or two pixels or shades, I managed to see very clearly what the instructions I'd written down were doing.  I was able to figure it out.

Second secret, then: knowing what to practice.  There are a ton of tutorials out there on on the interwebs of knowledge for using GIMP.  Generally, when I'm looking for something specific, I'll just search Google for it: "GIMP perspective tool" or "GIMP color curves."  After watching a few videos, I practice as described above.

Problem is, you have to start somewhere, right?  It's not like most people downloading GIMP the first time even know what a color curve is.  That's where basic tutorials come in.  There are some on the GIMP site (, and on the GIMP FAQ page ( though, to be honest, I haven't spent much time there because there's so much other stuff out there.

Backing up a bit--GIMP is an open source graphics manipulator.  That means a lot of things, most too wordy to go into here.  For the newbie learning GIMP, though, it means that there is an entire community out there both developing new snippets (plug-ins) of code to do stuff with, and also creating good (more or less, anyway) teaching videos to help us figure the application out.

Videos like what? I'm sure you're asking.  You are, right?

Here are some of the sites I've been to: - the best one I've found.  I keep going back and learning more every chance I get.  Some of the tutorials he has listed are now unavailable, but what is there is first-rate. - For all of the text effect geeks like me, is a yummy tutorial - another one for text effect geeks.  I swear, some day I'll find a use for that "super-glowy" one.  It's super easy, too, which is a bonus, and he uses different tools than some of the other tutorial creators. - Love the rifts look. - and then there's the joy of going directly to Youtube and searching.  This is a generic search for GIMP; for specific topics you can get more wordy in the Search box. - How to cut out a person in GIMP (and thus change backgrounds!).  And--Will Smith on grass.

Now, let me say a word or two about the last one, just 'cause.  Dude doesn't have the best voice for making videos, true, but then again, you get what you pay for, right?  Also, Dude doesn't do it perfectly, but to his credit he points that out himself and tells you how to fix it (or you can just take more time in selecting and thus do it perfectly).  You'll find that's a fairly common thing in free tutorials, in fact.  Dude also leaves out a step that other videos suggest: blurring the edges for more visual continuity (that's why you should watch more than one video on a topic, if possible).

Most important, though: Dude violates copyright law, if he then uses this as an author is going to by smacking it onto a book cover.  Again, he says it himself in the commentary, and he's not planning to use it commercially, so no harm and no foul by him, but all along the way we authors have to make sure to use, even in bits and pieces, only the images, fonts, and backgrounds that we have the rights to use in a commercial work. 

Hope all this helps!


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