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How To Transfer A Reference Photo To A Canvas

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 colours, 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.



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 watercolour pencil. They can easily be removed with water.

Having a good reference photo and looking at it frequently is the secret to getting an accurate drawing. Use a ruler for straight lines and to double check proportions. 

Don’t press too hard with your pencil. Light marks are easier to erase. If you erase a lot, clean your eraser frequently on a blank piece of paper or rough cloth to prevent smudges on the canvas.

A detailed drawing on your canvas isn’t necessary. You just want an idea of placement for the overall elements of your painting. 

If you have an iPad you can use it to display your reference photo while you draw and paint. You can zoom in on details or crop your photo for a better composition. 

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 squares, and then draw the same one inch 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.

For more information on how to use the grid method to enlarge a reference photo that you want to transfer, see my post on Enlarging a Reference Photo.


graph paper and an orange lead pencil


Using 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 colours, 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 hear 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






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44 thoughts on “How To Transfer A Reference Photo To A Canvas”

  1. Hello Marilyn
    I have been trying to get white graphite paper to trace onto a black canvas but here in South Africa
    I have had no such luck, and reading through these comments the word Sally comes up. Will Amazon which delivers to SA, sell these these transfer papers or is there any other reliable company that will deliver. I am looking for the most reasonable cost due to our exchange rate being 17 Rand to the Dollar.
    Thank you

    1. Use white chalk on the back of picture to be transferred, using a pencil go over the lines. There you made you own white transfer paper. Good Luck!


  2. My husband made me a simple light box..bright fluoro light under clear Perspex or glass placed in a simple box..place good art paper over photo and this way you only draw image once. It shows through light very well…bit like putting image up to a window on a bright sunny day.. both ways work well.

  3. Whatever my reference photo is I bring it up on my computer screen, edit, crop etc. Then I tape tracing paper to computer screen and draw reference lines. I remove tracing paper and transfer reference lines to my paper or canvas using graphite paper.

  4. I think I have used all of the methods described, but here is the one I use now.
    I place something behind the canvas for support.
    I place a sheet of Sally on the canvas and tape it on the edges.
    I print a copy of the image, printed to desired scale, on my inkjet, on the Sally
    and tape the edges.
    I then trace the desired parts of the image with a ball point stiles.

    Note: Sally is a “carbon ” type paper that leaves lines that are safe to paint over.
    It comes in white, gray and light blue.

      1. Hi Eva; You can get Saral paper at Amazon. The roll is kind of pricey but you can also buy smaller packages. Anything labeled graphite transfer paper will work fine. You can also buy packages or sheets of graphite transfer paper at Michaels, Walmart or most art supply stores. Hope this helps. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Michael McKeown PhD

    If you want total accuracy and extreme detail, you can take a digital image (the higher resolution the better) of your reference to a professional xerographic office center and have the image transferred to a high quality framed canvas. FedEx Office is excellent in our area. Your masterful artistic contribution is in colorizing and/or modifying the original image to your aesthetic. The xerography method is not the cheapest, but it is a sure way to guarantee total accuracy. Even the old masters used the camera obscura or pinhole camera, so very few artists can claim to be purists.
    Purists are OK. Sketchers are OK. Projectors are OK. Tracing papers are OK. Xerography is way OK. Life is short. Get on with the fun part.

  6. 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

  7. Sandy Daughtrey

    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. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Sandra SCHOONOVER

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Thanks for the transfer and grid tip ๐Ÿ‘. Hopefully the scale of my objects will be better. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. If you like the grid method, you can download an app for cross stitching. The cross stitching software will print the image on the grid just by uploading it. It also gives you the DMC color that you can use as a color reference. There are many free cross stitch applications out there that are free. The Play Store has several if you like using your phone over a computer/tablet. If you have a wireless printer you can print using your phone. I hope this helps someone. Happy painting!

  12. 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

    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. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. 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.

  14. Doreen St.Onge

    Thank you for this information. I can draw but sometimes The picture isnโ€™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

  15. Robbie Robertson

    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.

  16. If you havenโ€™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.

  17. 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???

  18. I think you are wonderful, painting with Parkinsonโ€™s. It does not matter how you get your under picture on the canvas. Who is going if you donโ€™t tell them! Best wishes

  19. 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 Bambrick

      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

  20. 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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