Painting Tutorial: Transferring an Image

Sometimes in painting it can be helpful to start with a guide image or master image. While it is possible to sketch directly on your surface, for more complex compositions, it may make sense to draw things out on a separate piece of paper first.

How to Transfer an Image to a Painting Surface Step-by-Step

  1. Gather your materials. You will need:
    —your painting surface
    —a drawing or guide image you want to transfer
    —a piece of newsprint or other inexpensive paper at least as large as your panel
    —vine charcoal
    —a piece of tracing paper at least as large as your panel (optional; useful if you are transferring from a drawing or other image you don’t want to mark up)
    —a mechanical pencil or ballpoint pen
    —tape (preferably something easy to remove like painter’s tape)
    —x-acto knife, ruler and cutting mat (optional)

  2. image02_charcoal_paperMake a sheet of transfer paper by rubbing vine charcoal over the surface of a piece of newsprint. Start at one corner and work outward until you have covered a space at least as large as your panel. Avoid leaving gaps or coloring faintly, both of which may cause your drawing to transfer incompletely. Wondering why we use charcoal instead of graphite for this process? Counterintuitive though it may seem given charcoal’s tendency to magically deposit itself wherever you least want it (like the side of your nose or the seat of your new white pants), it is less likely to cause problems with our painting later. Graphite can bleed through paint films.

  3. image06_place_masterPlace the master image you want to transfer face up on the painting surface.

  4. If your master image doesn’t extend to the edge of the paper it’s on, you may want to cut off one or more edges to make it easier to accurately position.

  5. Use two pieces of tape to attach the master image to the painting surface in the correct position. Place the tape on either side of one edge, adhered securely to both the image and the surface. This will create a hinge system that allows you to lift your master to view your transfer while still keeping everything aligned.
    image07_hinge_tape_master image08_hinge_tape_master

  6. image09_place_charcoal_paperWith the master image hinged open, place your charcoal transfer paper face down on the surface.  Make sure the transfer paper covers the entirety of said surface. If you wish, you can cut the charcoal paper down so that it’s just slightly larger than your surface. This will make it easier to ensure complete coverage.

  7. Lower the master image back in place over the surface and charcoal transfer paper. OPTIONAL for drawings or images you want to protect: put tracing paper over the entire system and hinge in the same manner as for your master image.

  8. Begin tracing your master image using a mechanical pencil, ball point pen or other fine tipped utensil. Press firmly, but there is no need to strain, because transfer paper is quite sensitive. In fact, it will create a mark for any pressure put on it, so try to avoid leaning on your image.
    image11_trace_imageIn terms of the drawing itself You can be as general or as detailed as you wish. Typically, however, it’s best to concentrate on the main shapes. You do not need to trace internal textures, form shadows or similar details. Too many lines can actually end up being confusing.

  9. image12_check_trace_imageCheck your progress as you work by flipping up the hinged top sheet(s) and the transfer paper. Viewing the transfer on the surface allows you to see any incomplete or faulty areas. FYI, you can pull out the transfer paper to add more charcoal if necessary, though this is not commonly required.

  10. Once you have transferred your entire drawing, hinge open the
    tracing paper and master image (do not remove them yet),
    and clean up the transfer using a kneaded eraserimage14_erase (the stretchy gray kind) or plastic eraser (the square white kind) to remove excess marks. If you make eraser crumbles, blow them away rather than brushing. Avoid the brutal heartbreak of smearing your transfer after all that hard work!

  11. image15_erase_detailsDetailed areas can be refined using a clean eraser on a mechanical pencil. Mechanical pencil erasers are typically made from the same material as plastic art erasers, and so work well for this task.

  12. image16_touch_upIf you find areas that are faded, didn’t transfer correctly or are missing you can either put the charcoal transfer paper back in place, lower the hinged papers and retrace the affected shape(s) OR, if it is a simple spot, just fill in the line directly using your vine charcoal. Make sure to draw as lightly as possible. Dark lines may contaminate your paint.

  13. Once your drawing is fully transferred and cleaned up, compare it to your master image. Does it look more or less correct in terms of shapes and placements? Can you tell what’s what? Does all feel groovy with the world? All righty then! Go you!!!image16_final


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