How To Use {Blending} Modes in GIMP {the Complete Guide}

layer mode guide

The Mode tool in GIMP is the equivalent to Blending Modes in Photoshop. You’ll hear the Mode tool being called Mode, Layer Mode, or Blending Modes interchangeably. I like to refer to them as Creative Modes due to their artistic powers in helping you achieve your creative vision.

Whatever you call them, you’ll discover the purpose of the Mode tool in GIMP, how to use them, and more throughout this article.

If you’re ready… let’s do it!

Oh, and just so you know, this article is part of a series on layers! Here are the other layer guides…

Table of Contents

What are {Blending} Modes?

In essence, a Mode is a tool that allows you to manipulate one layer to blend together with the layer below. Modes are coded with a specific algorithm to provide a particular result.

The artistic result is based on the Mode you choose and how it interacts with the colors, contrast, etc., of a layer.

Note: I’m an artist and not a mathematician. I have no idea how the algorithm works, nor do I care to know. 

I’m more interested in how my layers look after applying a Mode.

How Blending Modes Work In GIMP

I’ll now demonstrate how Modes work in GIMP. Refer to the images as I describe what happens.

The Blend Color layer consists of a solid color and hides the layer below (Base Color). The current Blend Mode is set to Normal. 

normal blend mode

The active layer is the Blend Layer.

Normal Mode

This Mode reveals the layer for what it is… a solid color. It’s, well, Normal. When you change the Layer Mode from Normal to anything else, something magical happens.

I activated the Color Mode for the layer, and now we can see the image layer below. 

Not only that, it blended the solid color layer (Blend) with the layer below (Base) to provide an “artistic” (sepia tone) result. 

How cool is that?

blend color result

The active layers Blend Mode was changed to Color Mode.  The end result shows how the two layers “blended” together. The image layer (below the Blend Layer) is known as the Base Color.

Pro Tip:

Blend Color (top layer) plus Base Color (bottom layer) = a new result. The new result may or may not give you the desired effect, though. That’s why there are 38 to choose from. Decide for yourself if you like one Mode vs. another.

How Modes are Organized In GIMP

groups of blend modes

With 38 Modes to choose from, it can be overwhelming at first. Luckily, the developers for GIMP have organized similar Modes into 7 groups

Even though there are multiple options per group, they each affect a layer similarly based on the group. Even so, each has its own algorithm that affects the layer differently vs. others.

For the remainder of this article, we’ll explore each Mode group and the individual Modes in that group. Images have been provided to show how each affects the layers.

How Each Blending Mode Interacts With a Layer

Let’s dive into the Mode groups to better understand how each group interacts with a layer different from the others. Each named group gives you a clue to how it will interact with a layer, except for the last two, which are advanced Mode types.

The image to the left consists of three solid colored circles. The Blend Mode for each is set to Normal.

multiply mode

In this image, I changed the Mode to Multiply for the red circle, and it disappeared.

screen mode

For this one, I changed the background to white and set the Mode for the red circle to Screen. This causes the red circle to disappear.

Note: Still find Blending Modes confusing? Would you like a more in-depth overview of how they work?

If so, you may want to check out my GIMP Made Easy online class, where I go into more detail on how Modes work (includes class files to follow along).

If you refer to the “7 grouped modes” image (above), you can see that the Multiply Mode is in the Darken group and Screen is in the Lighten group. 

Therefore, a mode in the Darken group will, yep, make that layer darker and vice versa for the Lighten group.

The Contrast group interacts with… yep, the contrast of a layer and Invert, inverts the layers’ colors.

Next, we’ll explore each group with a grayscale overlaid on a photo to see how each Mode group interacts and blends with the layer below it.

Normal
Mode
Group

Once upon a time, in GIMP 2.8, there were only 2 Modes in this group; Normal + Dissolve. I’m not sure the other four are “normal.” 

I have a feeling the developers couldn’t decide on a group for them and lumped them into this first group.

We covered Normal previously, so let’s go over the others…

Dissolve

Dissolve creates an effect that makes the layer look like it’s dissolving. You’ll need to lower the Opacity to see it.

Color Erase + Erase

Both of these “erase” colors of the Blend Color (top) layer. Color Erase isn’t as strong as Erase, which removes (or cancels) all the colors. Personally, I use these more with graphics vs. images.

Try it out for yourself…

Merge + Split

Both of these interact with the transparency of both the Blend Color and Base Color layers. Without transparency in both layers, you won’t see the benefit of using them.

Lighten
Mode
Group

In general, this group will make the layer below lighter with varying degrees of contrast. However, when it comes to pure black, it’s neutral. In other words, for this group, solid black (in the Blend Color) will not interact with the Base Color.

This group consists of 5 different Modes…

Lighten Only

Luma Luminance Lighten Only

Screen

Dodge

Addition

Darken
Mode
Group

This group is the opposite of Lighten. Instead of black being neutral, white is. Here are the 5 Modes that make up this group…

Darken Only

Luma/Luminance

Multiply

Burn

Linear Burn

Contrast
Mode
Group

For the Contrast group, 50% grey is neutral. In general, these modes will increase or decrease contrast based on the pixel values of the image.

Of the 7 Contrast Modes, I tend to use mostly Overlay & Soft Light. Of the bunch, those two work best with images. At least based on my preference.

Overlay

Soft Light

Hard Light

Vivid Light

Pin Light

Linear Light

Hard Mix

Inversion
Mode
Group

For this group, the colors will be inverted or canceled out. Again, I don’t have much use for these Modes for images.

Difference

Exclusion

Subtract

Grain Extract

Grain Merge

Divide

HSV + LCH
Compontent Modes

Both the HSV & LCH Modes are very similar to each other. They both affect the colors of the Blend layer.

HSV hue

HSV Hue

HSV saturation

HSV Saturation

HSL color

HSL Color

HSV value

HSV Value

LCH hue

LCh Hue

LCH Chroma

LCh Chroma

LCH Color

LCh Color

LCH Lightness

LCh Lightness

luminance

Luminance

Advanced Blending Mode Options

Guess what? You’re not limited to the creative result provided by the Blending Modes alone. You can use other tools in GIMP to customize the Blend Mode result to tweak your edit.

For example, maybe you like the result of a Mode you’ve chosen, but it’s too intense. Tone it down by lowering the Opacity!

Or maybe the blending of the two layers is what you wanted, but the skin tones are out of whack. Use a Layer Mask to remove or tone it down!

Now What?

Like this article? If so, please share!

bio photo

Hello! My name is Chris Parker and I run this place. But, more importantly, what’s in it for you? Well, my passion is to help you achieve your creative vision.

With 30 years experience I believe I can help you do just that. So, if you’re ready… let’s do it!

 

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