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So, you’ve found the perfect reference photo and can’t wait to get started on your painting. But how do you transfer a reference photo to a canvas so you can paint your masterpiece?

There are several methods to do this depending upon what you have available and how much time you have. Here are a few that I have used.

If you haven’t yet found your perfect reference photo, check out my post on where to find free reference photos.

 

 

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Debate Over Transferring a Reference Photo to a Canvas

 

There is some debate among artist about methods of transferring your reference photo.

Some say a true artist should’t use any method other than drawing. Some even frown on the use of reference photos.

Personally, I believe there is a whole lot more to painting than just drawing your reference so it really doesn’t matter.

Modern equipment and techniques have made it much faster to get your idea on canvas, but a good painting also involves understanding colors, tones, shadows and highlights as well as a whole host of other things.

Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, did not have access to modern technology to make the process of doing the initial drawing go faster. 

For me, well… canvas + pointy pencil + Parkinson’s is not a good mix. :). I use other methods to transfer a reference photo to a canvas.

 

pencils

Drawing Your Reference Photo

 

You can free hand draw your reference onto your canvas using a pencil if your drawing skills are good.

This method is fast and more convenient if you are painting from imagination or memory.

The downside is if you make frequent mistakes and have to erase, you can end up with a dirty or damaged canvas.

If you are using acrylics try using chalk or a watercolor pencil. They can easily be removed with water.

Grid Method of Transferring a Reference Photo

I find the grid method most time consuming. This is done by drawing equal squares on your canvas, lets say one inch, and then draw the same squares on a copy of your reference photo.

You then draw the contents of each square in your photo onto your canvas. Your photo can be enlarged for painting using this method too.

So if you have an 8 x 10 photo and a 16 x 20 canvas, you draw 2 inch squares on your canvas.

You can also use Photoshop or any of the free photo editors such as Gimp to print a grid onto a copy of your photo rather than drawing them out yourself.

 

Grid paper

 

Transfer Paper

 

My favorite way to transfer my reference photo to a canvas is using transfer paper.

Transfer paper is thin paper with graphite on one side. It comes in black and white (or grey) and recently I have seen it in other colors.

It is wax free, easily erased and can be used again and again until the graphite has been used up.

There are several different types, but buying it on a roll like this one is the most economical and easiest to use.

To use transfer paper you should have a copy of your reference photo. You can print one off or use tracing paper to trace a copy.

Place your reference photo on your canvas and slip your transfer paper under it. Secure with painters tape.

Using a stylus or ball point pen, trace over the main lines of your photo. The transfer paper will transfer your lines onto your canvas. 

 

 

charcoal and kneaded eraser
 

 

Charcoal, Chalk, Graphite Pencil

 

You can rub the back of your photo with charcoal, chalk or a graphite pencil. Lay the photo on your canvas and trace the lines you want to transfer. The lines will be transferred to your canvas as you trace over them.

I find this method a little messy but it is quick and works when you don’t have any transfer paper. A light mist of spray fixative will keep the lines in place.

 

Using a Projector to Transfer Your Photo

 

If you want to go hi tech, you can try using a projector to project your photo onto your canvas. They are a little pricey and sometimes hard to find one that suits your needs but work well especially if you are doing a large piece.

There are stand alone projectors available that you can use with your reference photo. LED projectors work best and give you a clearer image to trace from.

 

There are also projectors that connect to your computer and can project your image onto your surface directly from your desk top. These are really helpful if you are doing a large piece or a wall mural.

 

pinterest pin blank canvases with text how to transfer an image to canvas for painting

 

One Last Note

 

When painting with light colors, it may be a good idea to blot the drawn on lines lines with a kneaded eraser to lighten them somewhat. You can also erase lines that you don’t think you will need.

If you are using oil paint, it’s a good idea to spray any graphite lines with fixative to prevent bleed through.

I hope these tips help you to easily transfer your image to your canvas.

If you have any other ideas about transferring reference photos to a surface I would love to here about them in the comments below. 

You can also check out my new Facebook group for some more tips. Trembeling Art Creative Corner

Thanks for reading.

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

 

 

 

 

 

Related Posts

Free Stock Photos

Drawing Tips

How to Gesso a Canvas

How to Choose the Right Canvas for Your Acrylic Painting

 

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32 Comments

  1. Hi Marilyn,
    thank you very much for your helpful hints. Recently I heard another idea to transfer a photo or picture to a canvas. Just put the photo on the backside of the canvas and fix it with a tesafilm or tesaband or something alike. Take a lamp or strong light and let the photo shine througt the canvas. I had good results with that.
    Best wishes Werner

  2. Placing books under stretch canvases prevents dents from pushing too hard when tracing on canvas.
    Also using a colored pencil over tracing helps to see if you have forgotten any area if your drawing.
    I also recommend after drawing is tracing is done to use a fine point Sharpie to go over canvas drawing. Then I use an eraser to remove the graphite lines since they can smear. Since I use acrylics the paint covers the ink. All if this is done with a book or books under a stretch canvas. Helps my students to avoid damaging the canvas.

    1. Hi Sandy; Thank you for the awesome tips! I never thought to use a permanent marker. I would be more inclined to use a Sakura Micron pigment pen since it is pigment based and not as likely to damage the surface over time. Really good ideas. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Thanks so much! No more guilty feelings for me because I use some of the tools you mentioned. Also thanks to the other artists for their input. I will be looking for a prospek.

  4. I have a Voilamart that has worked well for me in transferring photo’s onto Watercolor paper. I am now in the process of moving on to Acrylic painting but have been at a loss as how to transfer the photo onto canvas by doing so with the Voilamart. The problem seems to become more difficult if I cover the canvas with Gesso. Any Idea ? Thanks for the help.

  5. Great information. Thanks. I trace my image onto tracing paper, outline with black marker pen then pop it under my canvas and trace on with a pencil. A desk lamp is helpful.

  6. Hi Marylin
    Thank you for sharing you valuable idea I want to try painting but I cannot draw. I will try to take your method on board and I am ordering a projector from AliExpress very cheap on this site. I would love to know what sort of fixative spray do you use please.
    Thanking you very much
    Lilette

    1. Hi Lilette; I use Krylon Workable Fixatif available on Amazon. I find it works well for me. There are many more available on the market. It is a good idea to test them on a scrap piece of paper to make sure they don’t leave an oily film or stain. Hope this helps. 🙂

  7. Thank you for sharing. I love painting but cannot draw so I have used all three methods i.e. projector, grids and transfer paper. I always feel as tho I am not an artst because I do this, but reading your site, I feel a lot better.

  8. Thank you for this information. I can draw but sometimes The picture isn’t right so I resort to graphite paper. I just started oil painting at 70 so I have had to learn color theory and technique but it is coming along. I do not think the teacher would appreciate me telling her that I had to use tracing and graphite paper for my landscape project. Thank you for this information. Doreen

  9. For faces I use a plain paper printout image from my computer. On the reverse side of the printout I fill in the transfer areas with a soft lead pencil. When the image is positioned on the canvas I then go round the outline of the image with a good sharp pointed pencil which will trace the image to the canvas.

  10. If you haven’t used a proportional divider (also called a prospek), you should check it out. You can enlarge or reduce an image as well as one-to-one transfer. It as an incredible aid to getting proportions correct.

  11. thanks for the info! I was wondering which projectors you like that can be connected directly from a laptop? I have a old school ancient projector that requires a photo to be used and alot of moving it around in the dark to get the image onto the canvas or paper, and I know there is some much easier way out there! on a side note, I think it is great to draw out your image/composition free hand if you want and I can, but I really prefer to get into the paint and cut my set up time down to a minimum, especially if I intend to sell or market the piece…. and I don’t think its ‘wrong’ or cheating to do that, and its good to keep practicing your drawing skills all the time, as well!

    1. Enjoyed all the tips and information. I also wondered what type or brand of projector are used? I saw this question asked a couple of times but didn’t see an answer???

  12. I think you are wonderful, painting with Parkinson’s. It does not matter how you get your under picture on the canvas. Who is going if you don’t tell them! Best wishes

  13. My husband just got me a
    projector to start using. I’m a little shacky and it’s hard to draw. Plus I’m not that great at it anyway. So I’m ready to use it, but I think people will
    say that it’s cheating and real art. I would still have to paint it. What you say to someone that might say it’s cheating?

    1. Darlene, I don’t think you have to justify anything to anybody, but to make things easier: I would tell them that you do not like drawing at all, not even sketching, but you love painting, so that is just to keep the whole process enjoyable and not waste your time on the drawing part, while you can’t await to start painting.

    2. Robert here. Cheating using an artograph ? No , it is a wonderful tool and in a short time you are ready to paint. Am mainly now in Watercolor and my artograph is very flexible to use in composing your subject , you can move items around, delete , change subject for a better composition, on and on. There will always be something that needs changing as you create your masterpiece. Cheers

  14. That’s good to know that you could use a projector to draw the picture. I would think that would be about the extent of my skills though. I’ll have to consider getting someone to paint in the picture that drawing so that I could still have something nice looking if I decide to have a portrait of my dog.

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