A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

GIMP Windows and Toolboxes

July 31 2013

by Philip Northeast

The GIMP’s power and flexibility can be confusing for new users of this image manipulation program, and this starts straight after installing the program.

The GIMP’s original configuration is opening with a number of separate windows for different functions. There is the main window for the images, a toolbox window, and finally another window for a range of dialog boxes containing detailed information about the image or the tool settings.

Gimp windows and toolbox

The GIMP as multiple windows on the desktop



These multiple windows allows users to customise the layout of their screen, particularly if they have more than one application open. This can lead to window overload with a cluttered desktop full of small windows making switching between applications a problem.

Sometimes the GIMP’s supporting windows do not handle this very well. The GIMP windows either stay on top when swapping to another application window, or they can stay behind the previous application window. This varies between GIMP versions and operating systems.

Use the Latest GIMP version

Some of the problems that inspired this article disappeared when I downloaded the latest 2.8.6 versions for Windows and Mac of the GIMP. Keeping your software current is a good general principle because often if you are having problems then so are other people, and a later version of the software with a fix is available, or in the works.

Single Window Mode 

One simple way to tame windows in the GIMP is selecting single window mode from the drop down menu in the windows item.

GIMP in single window mode

The GIMP in single window mode with all the dialogs and toolbox in the same window ad the image



Instead of having separate dialog boxes all over the screen, using single window mode puts them alongside the image in the main window.

Multiple Windows 

One advantage of multiple windows is the ability to have a number of photos open, each in their own window. This ability is helpful in more complex image manipulation projects.

The GIMP Toolbox

It is possible to operate the GIMP without the toolbox on the screen, but having the array of icons visible is easier for new or occasional users.

gimp window control menu

The GIMP’s windows menu drops down from the main menu


To display the toolbox you can find it in the Tools section of the main menu bar or use Command B (Ctrl B on a PC ) is the keyboard shortcut.

Dialog Docks and Windows 

These contain more detailed controls and information about the current tool and a range of other aspects of the images being edited.

These are opened from the windows option in the main menu bar. They open and can operate in their own window. They can be dragged and docked in the bottom of the toolbox by clicking on the dock name tab at the top.

The GIMP's dialog dock in its own window

The GIMP’s dialog dock in its own window

It is possible to have both with some docks in the toolbox area and others in their own window. When there are multiple docks in the one are they are selected used the tabs at the top.

One bug I found on my Mac is that sometimes a dock is not active straight after dragging to the toolbox area. Closing the GIMP and restarting it fixes the problem.

More than one dialog dock in window with their name in the control tabs at the top

More than one dialog dock in window with their name in the control tabs at the top

GIMP Remembers Windows 

The default procedure is for GIMP to save the window settings on exit and use these the next time it starts. This is good because once you get the windows how you like them then the GIMP keeps that window arrangement.

If users are not familiar with the peculiarities  GIMP’s windowing system shutting the application down and restarting does not reset the windows. If you do not know the tricks then you can accidentally loose a window, or end up stuck with an awkward configuration.


Now, with the tools organised, the next step is to  load a photo and start making changes.


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