MS Paint: Tricks that you probably didn’t know you could do

When you need a free, powerful image editing/creation software, people often turn to Paint.NET or The GIMP. But who knew that Microsoft Paint was so powerful and sophisticated?

MS Paint 5.1 (WinXP)

MS Paint 5.1 (WinXP)
Image created by Dawnseeker2000.

MS Paint comes with every standard Windows installation. Most users just use it to play around with, or to create pixel art.

Evolution of the MS Paint logo

The evolution of the MS Paint logo. From left to right: Win1, Win3, Win95, Win98, WinXP, Vista, Win7.


Over the years, I’ve collected a few tips and tricks for Paint. This tutorial by Messenjah covers most of them. Note that the grid was introduced in Windows 7 The grid was actually available in earlier versions if one zoomed in 400% or more (shortcut Ctrl+PgDn).

The ribbon was added to the Windows 7 version of Paint. I dislike the ribbon interface immensely, and for whatever reason, Microsoft is slowly converting their applications to use it. It is way too complicated for something as simple as Paint. Luckily, I have a copy of the Windows XP version, so I just use that instead.

It may seem like the Win7 Paint has more functionality, namely better zoom, more brushes, shapes, and perhaps the best improvement, the addition of rulers and a grid. Unfortunately, even with all these improvements, I would still prefer to use the previous version. This is, again, a matter of Microsoft removing very useful features that they think no one uses.

One of these features is the ability to choose a tertiary colour. Everyone knows that you can left-click to select the foreground colour, and many people know that a right-click selects the background colour, but not too many people know that Ctrl+click allows one to select a tertiary colour. While painting, the tertiary colour can be accessed by holding Ctrl.

Tertiary colour, before and after.

The colour wells before and after choosing green as the tertiary colour.

In previous versions of Paint, there was a hidden 1000% (10x) zoom. That was achieved by clicking the area just underneath the 8x zoom. Of course, the current version has more sophisticated zooming.

MS Paint zoom

Clicking in the area highlighted in red will activate the hidden 10x zoom mode.


The zoom slider in Win7

The zoom slider in Win7

Paint also has a black-and-white mode (true black-and-white, not greyscale) that is surprisingly still present in the current version. The switch is in the Properties dialog, which can be easily accessed using Ctrl+E. When enabled, the current image will lose its colour information and the palette will change accordingly.

The black-and-white palette

The black-and-white palette of MS Paint.

One more thing: by holding Shift, you can restrict drawing straight lines to 45° angles and constrain the proportions of shapes.

OK, so I’m not skilled enough to make an image in Paint like the one at the beginning of the post. But I did make this, which is almost as impressive:

Optical illusion

There are only three colours in this image. (Click to see full image)

Would you believe that there are only three colours in that image (the full image, not the preview)? Zoom in far enough and you’ll see how it works. It was created using the monochrome mode, brush size, and colour erase tricks.

There are a lot more functions that I didn’t cover here. Explore for yourself! The Wikipedia article gives a good overview of the functions. Some of this is actually documented in the help file, it’s just that no one bothers to read the help file for such a seemingly simple program.
If you want a copy of the old Paint, VG has made the Vista version available for download (direct download). If you want to really experiment, you can try the version from Windows 1 and 2. Nathan Lineback from ToastyTech has converted them to run in modern Windows and made them available for download (direct download: Win1, Win2). The catch is that since these are 16-bit applications, you need a 32-bit OS to run it (64-bit Windows does not run 16-bit applications). No, DOSBox won’t work, but I think Wine will, and Paint works fairly well under Wine.

Now you can go show off to your friends who say that Paint isn’t good for much.

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12 comments
  1. Hana said:

    hey i love this post :D Are you completely interested to Paint?

    • Thanks! I’m glad you like it.
      I’m actually not a big MS Paint user; I just know how to use it well, and these are the tricks that I know.
      For any image manipulation/creation, I use The GIMP. I just use Paint for saving screenshots and simple crops and overlays.
      Having said that, I’m not any good at visual arts. My art form is music.

      • Robert said:

        i wonder if you could help me to find a better tutorial for Paint 5.1 (XP) than the small help file that goes with it.
        One issue is that I cannot erase parts of a colored free form line that I put over a photo.

      • It sounds like you already know how to use the tools, and that’s what most of the tutorials online go through. Having said that, I found a fairly comprehensive tutorial (PDF; 109KB) that might interest you.

        For the issue that you mentioned, the only way I can think of is to open another instance of the photo, do a free-form selection over the area that you want erased, then paste it into the modified image, adjusting as necessary.

        Unfortunately, as powerful as Paint is, it sounds like it’s probably not the best tool for your purpose since Paint is single-layered and you’re looking for a multi-layered workflow (and for that, I’d recommend Paint.net or The GIMP). Working with multiple layers is like working on glass sheets stacked on top of one another: you can draw on a layer and see a composite image but not touch any of the layers beneath it, allowing you to erase and have the contents of the layers beneath peek through.

  2. Robert said:

    Thanks for your reply. I’ll check out the tutorial link. As well as your suggestion, which more or less sounds like starting over. That’s OK as I have saved an original of the photo I am working on.
    Unfortunately Paint.net is no longer supported for XP.
    I have used Gimp in the past and got really frustrated with it. Maybe I’ll give it another try.
    I also have an old copy of Photoshop, the ideal tool for layers, but I don’t have time to read the 500 page manual….

    • Yeah, unfortunately, there’s not much I can suggest apart from that. After all, the paradigm for Paint is painting, not editing.

      If you want to get Paint.NET for Windows XP, you can grab an old version (the last one with WinXP support is v3.5.11).

      I don’t blame you for getting frustrated with GIMP. It does have quite a learning curve, but it’s really powerful once you learn the basics. Photoshop is more or less the same difficulty if you’re learning from scratch, so in my opinion, it would be more worthwhile to learn GIMP over Photoshop for casual editing.

  3. Alight15 said:

    I couldnt help but notice that no one says that the zoom bar goes from 12.5% to 25% to 50% to 100% to 200% to 400% but not 75% or 125% etc… this is a real pain for me with a simple image I’m removing the background from. any suggestions?

    • I don’t have much experience with the new Paint, but I think you should be able to zoom using Ctrl+Up.

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