Simple Shadow Text in GIMP

I’ve always designed my own book covers. I’m a terrible illustrator, but pretty decent at layout and text effects. Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there who make great images and I can do some manipulation on them to put together a halfway decent looking cover.

Not everyone can do this, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who look at what I’ve designed and call it crap. That’s fine, I’ve done the same about other book covers out there, too. Graphic design is a pretty personal thing in that what I find attractive may or may not resonate with anyone else. Design goes through trends, some of which are excellent and tend to stick around, others are abysmal and tend to vanish. Ideally, a design should appeal to the maximum amount of people possible, but if you think you’re going to please everyone, you’re fooling yourself.

Anyway, I’ve picked up a few tricks here and there over the years and they seem like good things to share. Ostensibly, this blog is about writing and books, so this is a bit outside the norm, but it’s not too far off base. The first of these tricks is doing some simple text shadowing in GIMP. Ideally, I prefer to work with Inkscape for all my text work because it’s much easier and more flexible once you wrap your head around it, but a lot of people like to work exclusively in GIMP, Photoshop, or other bitmap editors so this post will focus on GIMP. Photoshop and most other bitmap editors work basically the same way. The next post will do the same thing with Inkscape.

The first thing to get used to is the idea of using layers. See, images consist of individual pixels (picture elements, in case you’re playing Trivial Pursuit) and once you place a bunch of pixels in with another bunch of pixels it’s a real bear to separate them. Think about the amount of effort it takes to pull the bourbon out of your soda after you’ve poured them together. Actually, screw that. Just drink the bourbon and soda; it’s a hell of a lot easier.

Anyway, the way bitmap editors work is by selecting pixels based on certain criteria, usually color. In an image with millions of colors, selecting just the ones you want gets to be a dicey proposition. That’s why layers make things so much easier. Drink your bourbon and soda, we’re about to through the looking glass.

Take any image and it can consist of multiple layers. Those layers can be any color you want, including no color at all. When you look at the image with a whole mess of transparent layers, it looks like a single image. The image below is the final product of this tutorial. It looks like one simple image, but it’s actually comprised of three layers that can all be individually manipulated.

7 The Shadow Knows
Click to embiggen.

By using layers, you free yourself from the Herculean chore of selecting individual pixels. Everything is neatly laid out and separated from the other elements so you can tweak one part of the picture without impacting any other part. In GIMP, you create layers by using the Layers dialog and clicking the button for either new layer or copy layer (just hover the cursor over the buttons, it’ll let you know what they do). Photoshop and other tools work similarly. If your bitmap editor doesn’t support layers, ditch it and use something else. It may take some time to learn how to use the software, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. GIMP, by the way, is free.

Step one. Make some text.

This varies from editor to editor, but it usually centers on finding the Text tool and typing. Look for something that looks like an A or a T. Click somewhere on the blank canvas and type something. Working with text in a bitmap editor is still a PITA compared to working with text in a vector program, so you want to make sure you get things as good as possible before you commit everything. In this example, I’ve set the font to League Spartan at 72pt. Use whatever font and size you want.

1 Text
We’re about to find out what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

The final step (not shown here) was to set the text color to red. Once I’ve got my text done, I get this:

2 Red Yo
Red shadows? Sounds like the Commies are back. If they ever left.

Step two. Layer that sucker up.

If you look in the top right hand part of the image above you’ll see the layers dialog with two objects in it: A T with SHADOWY and a grid with Background. Those are layers. You can edit the text layer if you want to. Select the text layer by clicking on it, selecting the text tool from the toolbox, and double clicking on the text.

I’m going to make a new layer by copying the SHADOWY layer. To do that, look for the copy layer button. In GIMP it’s at the bottom of the layer dialog (top left of the picture, above the brushes dialog), and looks like a couple of squares, one on top of the others.

The reason for creating a new layer is so I can work with the copied layer without impacting the text layer. Copying the layer creates an exact duplicate of the selected layer that I can do horrible things to.

3 Layers
SHADOWY #1 is the new layer and a not-so-subtle reminder that SHADOWY is number 1

The visible order of the layers is the same as the order in the layers dialog. The topmost layer is at the top of the list.

Now, like I said before, bitmap editors work by selecting pixels. Because we made a duplicate layer and made the text all red, this is pretty trivial. Click the eyeball next to the SHADOWY #1 layer to hide it, and click on the SHADOWY layer to select it. We’ll put the SHADOWY #1 layer a bit. Hiding it makes it easier to work with the other layers.

Step three. Use the layers wisely.

With the second layer (SHADOWY) selected, go to Edit->Select by color-> and click on the red text. BAM! The text is selected. From here you can do whatever you want to just the text and it’ll be our little secret. Just to make things more fun, we’re going to modify the selection like the mad scientists we are. Go back to Edit and select grow. This grows the selection by a number of pixels. I chose 5 because reasons. Then, since shadows don’t look as good with a hard edge, I went back to Edit and selected Feather. This feathers the selection so it’s not a smooth line.

4 mod select
Selectamundo. Really hard to see when it’s this small. Click to embiggen or middle click to open in a new tab.

Then, because a shadow shouldn’t be red, I went back to Edit and selected Fill with Foreground color. This made the text black, thicker, and slightly feathered at the edges. Finally, go to Edit, select Deselect All. Yes, I know I just told you to select deselect. Let’s blur this out a bit more. Make sure the right layer is selected and go to Filters->Blur-Gaussian Blur. Blur it as much as you want until you get something blurlicious.

5 BLURRY
Blurtacular. Also, note the layer order has been switched in the Layers dialog. I did that to mess with your head.

Step four. Meet Mr. Opacity

The last thing we’re gonna do with the shadow is lighten it up a bit by playing with the opacity. Each layer can have a different opacity from the rest of them. You can change the opacity by using the Opacity slider. Opacity, by the way, is a measure of how well you can see through something. Something you can’t see through is considered opaque. The cat sitting in between you and your monitor is 100% opaque.

6 Opacity
I can see right through your shadowy heart.

Step five. Final steps.

Now, turn the top layer back on, make sure you’ve got the correct layer selected, and use the move tool to adjust the position of the shadow. The move tool usually looks like four arrows. You can reposition a layer without moving the other layers. This is a good thing.

The final step is the select the background and make it white. Edit->Fill with Background color will work for that. When it’s all done, you should wind up with something like this.

7 The Shadow Knows
Woohoo!

If you’re working on your book cover and want to do some text work, use your layers. You can have as many as you want. I think so anyway, I’ve never actually tested that theory. Create one layer for your background image and then as many layers as necessary for your text.

Bam! Layer magic and text awesomeness.

Anyone got any other good tips?

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3 thoughts on “Simple Shadow Text in GIMP

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