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GIMP: Creating a Dispersion Effect

Updated on April 26, 2016
Black Widow is dispersing!
Black Widow is dispersing!

Today, we will be giving our subject a dispersion effect. I have chosen Scarlett Johansson in her role as Black Widow in The Avengers. The image above is what we'll achieve by the end of this tutorial. It's very easy to do, and in the process you will learn how to use layer masks.


We will be using GIMP for this tutorial, so you will need to download it if you haven't already. If you're unfamiliar with GIMP, it's an open-source software that is used mainly for photo manipulation. It is similar to Adobe Photoshop, but is free to download and use, which is ideal for people who can't afford to get PS (like me).

Step 1: Cutting out the Image

There are many ways to cut out an image from its background. GIMP does provide quite a few options, but I will only cover Select by Color here.

For practice, I would recommend choosing an image with a white background, which I have done here. Since the background is white (a single color), it's easy to use Select by Color to select the whole background. After that, you just need to hit Delete and... there, a perfect cutout

As its name suggests, Select by Color automatically selects parts of an image based on color. You can adjust the range of colors selected by adjusting the threshold. The higher the threshold, the wider the range of colors; and vice versa. Try playing around with the threshold to see how it works. For our image, a low threshold is more than sufficient for the task.

After you have cut out the image, create a new document. Make sure the document's size is larger than the cutout, since we will be adding the dispersion effect later. Here, I made mine much wider. After that, open the cutout as a new layer by pressing Ctrl + Alt + O.

Below is what mine looks like:

Select by Color. Open the cutout as a layer in a new document.
Select by Color. Open the cutout as a layer in a new document.

Step 2: Preparing the Dispersion Effect

Next, duplicate the layer by right-clicking on the layer under the Layers tab. On the duplicate layer, scale the image using Scale. You can scale it however you want. The basic idea is to provide an area for the splatter brushes to pick up later on.

At the same time, it's good to visualize what you're hoping to achieve with the dispersion effect, and scale the duplicate image according to that. For example, I want my model to disperse from behind, so that it looks like she's in motion. Feel free to experiment!


Below is what we have so far:

Scale the duplicate layer.
Scale the duplicate layer.

Next, we'll add a layer mask by right-clicking on the duplicate layer under the Layers tab, and initialize it to black (full transparency). Similarly, we'll add one to the original layer, only this time, it's initialized to white (full opacity).

So, what are these layer masks? We'll soon find out.

Add layer masks.
Add layer masks.

Step 3: Creating the Dispersion Effect

A layer mask allows you to modify the opacity of different areas across a single layer. It is non-destructive to the layer itself, making it ideal for photo manipulation.

Understanding how a layer mask works is essential to creating the dispersion effect — and photo-manipulation in general. Let's use the duplicate layer as an example. After its layer mask is initialized to black (full transparency), brushing an area with white will make it opaque, thus 'revealing' that specific portion.

More importantly, the image itself isn't affected. As such, you can easily make adjustments by brushing the layer mask with black or white until you achieve your desired result. Just be sure the layer mask is selected. I've had a few times when I accidentally brushed the image instead, so don't be like me!

With that mind, now it's just a matter of manipulating the opacity and transparency of the layer masks until you are satisfied with the result.

Try-It-Out: Feel free to experiment with different brushes. Also, try brushing your layer mask with a color value that is between black and white and see what happens.

Brush the layer mask to achieve the dispersion effect.
Brush the layer mask to achieve the dispersion effect.

That's It

What we've done is quite basic, but it's a good way to learn and practice layer masks. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial!

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