Review: The Artist's Guide to GIMP

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 25, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

GIMP is part of the standard installation of most distributions. The average free software user opens it to resize a photo or to convert to a different graphics format, exactly as they might keep a Porsche around for trips to the corner store. But those who might wonder how to get more from GIMP, Michael J. Hammel's The Artist's Guide to GIMP, now in its second edition and covering GIMP 2.8, is a thorough place to start, even though it is not altogether free of the organizing problems that covering such a large topic.

GIMP is a graphics application (although admittedly not for text), so a book on it requires a certain level of typography for credibility. Its publisher, No Starch Press, as its name implies, is known for rudimentary covers, but The Artist's Guide more than meets expectations. Its landscape-oriented pages are each divided into two columns, with a ragged right alignment, and vary largely in exactly where the screen shot is placed in each column. The result is a layout that is both quietly stylish and functional, to say nothing of highly suitable for the subject.

Browsing the Sections
The Artist's Guide begins with a seventy page introduction to GIMP that summarizes its basic tools, ending with a few notes on how to use a digital camera with GIMP. Most of the rest of the book is a series of tutorials, each highlighting a few basic editing techniques, and divided into the categories of Web Design, Advertising and Special Effects, and Type Effects. The last chapter, Creative Inspirations, is a series of assorted projects that highlight techniques that don't fit elsewhere in the book, and involve a series of longer steps than most of the other tutorials.

This structure generally does a good job of covering what GIMP can do in less than three hundred pages. The introduction is particularly worth reading and is likely to have tidbit or two of useful information and even if you believe that you are already familiar with what GIMP has to offer. 

The rest of the book, too, manages the difficult task of being both comprehensive and concise. In fact, the only major topic that I was able to detect that was not covered was GIMP's extensions and where to find them. There is an entire sub-culture out there dedicated to filters, and at the very least a few links could be given to give readers a place to start exploring.

I might also criticize the contents of the Web Design section. From the perspective of 2012, gel and metal buttons seem a topic that has strayed from the mid-1990s. I mean, when was the last time you saw a web page that used either? Today, a much more minimalist style prevails. Admittedly, the topics arranged under Web Design have to go somewhere, but the section as a whole is possibly obsolete.

Another minor problem is that, in covering so many topics, the book sometimes seems no more than a series of procedural steps. Although some procedures ends with a section that suggest further directions, and each section ends in tips for further exploration, more context would help to explain the relevance of the techniques that are so carefully explained.
Somewhat more seriously, although The Artist's Guide is organized around tutorials, the resources for following along with the book are given only haphazardly. The book does not come with a CD, and where to find most of the images used in the tutorial is omitted entirely. In the few exceptions, only a general web page is given, and users are left to their own guesses exactly where to find the image. While you could scan the required images, a little more attention to readers' convenience would improve the book considerably.

A book to keep in easy reach
These problems aside, The Artist's Guide is as comprehensive and organized in its coverage as the average user could want. Probably very few would want to take the necessary weeks of balancing the book between their knees and the keyboard to work through the book from beginning to end, but if they did, they would be utterly convinced of Hamel's contention that GIMP can more or less hold its own against PhotoShop and other comparable applications.

More likely, The Artist's Guide is a book that readers will dip into looking for specific information. Fortunately, the table of contents and the index are as well-organized as required, so readers should have no trouble locating the information they require.

These days, technical books are losing ground to online tutorials, even when they're available as an ebook. However, for anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with GIMP, The Artist's Guide, either as paper or an ebook, is one of the best resources on its subject available in any medium. Personally, I plan to keep it within arm's reach from my workstation, because I know that I am likely to be referring to it constantly.

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