How to view reference images in GIMP

How to view reference images in GIMP

Showing reference images for painting is a somewhat common feature request by GIMP users. While a specifically designed solution surely wouldn't come amiss, there a simple way to work around this. Here is how you can do it with pretty much any version of GIMP from at least the past 10+ years.

Viewing reference images

Let's take the default setup of GIMP (2.8 or 2.9 at your preference) with single-window mode enabled. Create an image where you will be painting, and then open an image that will be your reference.

Default GIMP windows layout

Use Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Navigation to open the Navigation window:

Open the Navigation window

By default, it will be added to the sidebar:

Navigation window opened

Now grab its header and drag it outside the sidebar:

Drag navigation dialog out

Once it's not docked anymore, it has a new option in its own menu: Show Image Selection (it's been there since the time when dinosaurs ruled the world). Enable this option by clicking the triangle button (top right corner, below the Auto button) to open window's menu.

Enable Show Image Selection

Now you have a drop-down list of currently opened images and an Auto button. The button is enabled by default so that the Navigation window would follow currently opened image. Click it to disable autofollowing of images, then choose your reference image in the drop-down list.

Select image reference

Then you can resize the Navigation to your liking and start painting. If the Navigation window doesn't stay on top (depends on operating system and window managers), one way to fix this is to go to Edit > Preferences > Window Management and choose Keep Above for Window Manager Hints.

Workaround limitations

There are several limitation with this workaround. First of all, it only works when the Navigation window is floating. It means that it inevitably overlaps part of your canvas, so it would be desirable to have this image selection drop-down list when the Navigation window is docked in the sidebar.

Secondly, since the Navigation window wasn't designed for this purpose, you can't zoom and pan your reference image.

And finally, once you use the Navigation window to view your reference image, you lose the ability to use it to pan and zoom on your painting. If this is how you usually pan images, there is a workaround for this.

When the scrollbars are enabled, their intersection in the lower right corner of the canvas has its own hidden navigation widget with the same arrowhead icon. Just click the arrowhead and start panning.

The widget for panning

There are, however, other ways to pan and zoom:

  • press mouse wheel and drag around to pan
  • press Space and move your mouse
  • use Ctrl + mouse wheel up/down (viewport will center around the mouse pointer)
  • use shortcuts to switch to preset zoom levels (View > Zoom will give you idea)

You can also remap any shortcuts in GIMP and even customize it to use mouse wheel scroll to zoom in/out without pressing Ctrl: go to Edit > Preferences > Input Controllers, then edit Main Mouse Wheel controller settings.

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14 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. I’ve recently stumbled into this little gem—

  2. Alexandre Prokoudine 30 December 2017 at 7:42 pm

    @Jakub, oh, interesting, thanks!

  3. But why make so complicated with work in single-window mode???

  4. Alexandre Prokoudine 30 December 2017 at 10:23 pm

    @Alex, make what complicated exactly?

  5. But why make so complicated with work in single-window mode???

  6. So easy to keep a window with xxx.yyy image opened in legacy Gimp interface…
    But legacy interface bashing is so trendy !!

  7. Alexandre Prokoudine 03 January 2018 at 3:10 am


    I don’t follow your point. What bashing? Where?

  8. ” What bashing? Where? “

    for example in gimp-git:

    Bug 792606 - Resetting to defaults in Preferences disables SWMHEADmaster
    The default value of “single-window-mode” must be TRUE.

    Must ???

    This is a must… waiting to remove once for all every non photosh-like interface?

  9. Alexandre Prokoudine 18 January 2018 at 12:15 pm


    Yes, the single-window mode is the default now, so resetting to defaults should not enable multi-window mode. It was a bug reported by a user on and it’s fixed now. I’m not sure why you would overreact like this, but multi-window mode is still an option and isn’t expected to be done away with any time soon.

  10. Sometimes I just opened the reference picture in a new layer and set it to a very low opacity. Especially when I am experimenting with new shapes and need some “guidance” . Thanks for the work around.

  11. It’s a pity that it only works when the Navigation window is floating :’(

  12. Since you can apply the keep-above-others behaviour to any window, why does it have to be a Gimp window at all? Use some other image viewer with more sophisticated zooming/panning capabilties—how about an editing window from another instance of Gimp itself?

  13. Alexandre Prokoudine 05 March 2018 at 12:59 pm


    GIMP runs in a single instance. That’s what it uses D-BUS for — to avoid duplicate instances :)

    Also, “above all” window hint is WM-specific. I can do that in GNOME easily, but can’t seem to do in e.g. IceWM.

  14. Interesting. I don’t generally use GIMP, but why not try the ‘Images’ window to view separate image references? I know in Gimp 2.8, you can change the ‘Images’ preview size to Gigantic mode with the ‘Configure this Tab’ triangle side tool button. The ‘Images’ dockable dialogue does not require a floating navigation. It’s another option, though, I typically create a new layer for the reference image and just modify layer transparencies.