How to Transfer an Image Onto Your Canvas -3 Best Ways


Learn how to transfer an image onto your canvas and make your first painting that much easier!! A good tracing of an image, whether it be from a page in a magazine, a photograph, a drawing or stencil or something else perhaps, ensures that your resulting painting will get started that much more smoothly.

You will be better able to capture the object’s proportions and subtleties with ease and then focus on “the bigger picture” to use a cliche, I know, but it’s true.  Have you ever attempted to sketch something out “freehand” only to have to go back and erase parts of the image that didn’t look quite right? I know -it’s a bummer, and too time-consuming.

This is a a great technique to use prior to a lesson, or to get a canvas ready for an art party. As long as the image/template you use has somewhat heavy dark visible lines,it should be traceable.

There are three major ways I know of to do this successfully so I will go over all of them here. So let’s go…
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Using an Art Projector

The first way is via the use of a projector. This is how I learned at first, and this is actually my preferred method. It was a black and white drawing class that I first became aware of this approach; we also used a grid to make it easier too a grid may not be necessary but that’s up to you and where you are at in your journey. Anyway, I always had a projector that I bought at Michaels for around $25 that served me well. I think I eventually gave it to a friend (or loaned it…I haven’t seen it since, well you know how that goes.)

The long and the short of it is that a projector will enable you to you trace around the major outlines of your chosen image on the wall. You place your substrate of choice in a vertical position and use a pencil to go around the main outline. It takes a light bulb to operate and plugs into a standard outlet. I don’t think the one I owned is still carried but I did find one that has lots of good reviews. This is called the EZ Tracer. It has a 2-10x magnification range so you’re never in doubt about the right proportions depending on how big your canvas is. The light bulb is not included. Also be sure to keep the room slightly dark as you work for good results.

***I’ve also heard of people using a Smartphone to project their images. There’s a methodology to doing this if you want, I haven’t tried it so I can’t offer any guidance on it.***

Transfer an Image Using Tracing Paper

But the next best way is by the use of tracing paper. It comes in pads like these of mine here. They are roughly 11 x 14 or close, wow that one on the left was 50 cents, imagine that now. That was on sale too. I’m going to do a demo for you so we can see how well this ol’ paper has held up. I’m going to use a sheet from the Strathmore pad.

tracing paper

Next you’ll need a good pencil, ideally a charcoal one is a good choice,chalk pastels like these can work too, if you wanted to alternate between colors, which you are free to do – it’s your painting after all. Just be sure you choose pencils with soft dark leads. First take one sheet of tracing paper and tape it on top of the image you’ve chosen, so it won’t shift around.

how to trace an image

You notice how this kind of paper is slightly opaque? Take one of your pencils and go over the major outlines of the image. next flip the sheet of paper over and re-trace your original lines. This will prevent “image mirroring” which can happen with some other substrates. For this the tape on the edges won’t be necessary.

Now time to get your substrate, canvas, poster board, etc., and tape the traced sheet onto the object. Get your pencil again and go over the tracing again, but this time with moderate pressure, just sort of “scribble” over the lines like this. If you want to see how it’s turning out look under the corner of it and check to be sure you see the transfer happening, before you continue.

tracing a design for painting

If it’s not developing or is a little faint, retape it back and go over the drawing again with a little more pressure. It should be taking shape nicely. Here it goes…on the right is my original drawing.

finished canvas tracing

If it’s satisfactory, remove the tape. You now have a well-placed sketch ready to go on your canvas!

Can You Trace a Design Without Transfer Paper?

Yes! The other way to do this is by the use of carbon (or graphite) paper. You can find it at office supply as well as art venues. It is solid black and “glossy” looking on one side and matte looking on the other.  To do this, place your canvas (or other substrate) down, and then tape your sheet of carbon paper to it DARK/glossy side down.

Place your image on top of the carbon paper sheet and use an instrument, it can be a pencil or stylus, it does not have to actually have any lead in it as the outline only needs pressure to transfer, not lead or ink.

tracing with carbon paper

Image credit: Images by Maria Ravandiel

You could even use a Sharpie if you preferred – and trace over the major outlines of the object. As you can see this example here is from a simple coloring page.

You can certainly check after the first few strokes to see if the outline is taking shape on the substrate, just as you did with tracing paper, by taking a peek under it carefully. If it’s not showing use a little bit more pressure, not too much, as carbon paper can tear if too much is applied to it. When you are satisfied that it is taking shape, commence with the tracing.

Check your substrate to see how it looks. You can use the same sheet of carbon paper more than once, so keep it for the next session!

Well, there you have it, the main ways to transfer an image or drawing onto your canvas.  Which of these will YOU try?


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