Artists have various ways to transfer their drawings or reference photos to their painting surface. Some watercolorists sketch directly on the watercolor paper with graphite pencil. Others paint the outlines or key reference points of the major elements of the drawing with Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, or some other light-valued, non-staining paint.
This article will focus on a variety of mechanical drawing aids: lightbox, graphite on the back, tracing paper, transfer paper, grids, photocopy machine, computer and opaque projector.
The first methods will transfer an image at the same size; the later methods will first resize the image and then transfer it.
Tape the original to the lightbox. Tape a sheet of watercolor paper over the original. Trace the original directly onto the watercolor paper.
Sometimes it will help to darken the lines of the original with a fine felt-tip pen.
Use a window as a lightbox. Tape the original sketch or photocopy to a glass window or glass door, tape a piece of watercolor over it and trace the drawing directly onto the watercolor paper.
Tape drawing and paper to a piece of glass or acrylic and suspend it over a florescent light. Do not use a halogen light for this purpose as it gets too hot. An ordinary lamp set under a glass table is another substitute for the traditional lightbox. A lightbox is handy but often too small to be helpful.
Improvise by using your dining room table, a piece of Plexiglas and a table lamp. Separate the table as if you're going to add an extension leaf. Place the Plexiglas on top of the table over the separated section. Put the table lamp on the floor under the Plexiglas. Turn on the light and you've created a perfect "lightbox"!
Graphite on back of drawing
Turn your drawing face down and darken the back solidly with a soft pencil. In some cases, it will not be necessary to apply graphite to the back of the entire drawing. Sometimes you may want to darken the entire back of the drawing, while in some cases it will suffice to darken only over the lines of the drawing.
When you have finished adding graphite to the back of the drawing, turn the drawing right side up and tape it in position over the watercolor paper. Using a stylus, ball point pen, or a pencil, trace over all the lines of the drawing. Adjust the pressure to transfer a graphite line to the watercolor paper that is dark enough to see but not so dark it is difficult to erase later. Avoid pushing so hard that you dent the watercolor paper.
White Charcoal on back of drawing
When transferring a drawing onto a dark background, graphite may not be visible. Turn your drawing face down and apply General's White Compressed Charcoal over all the lines of the drawing, just like you would with a graphite pencil.
When you have finished adding white compressed charcoal to the back of the drawing, turn the drawing right side up and tape it in position over the dark underpainting. Using a stylus, ball point pen, or a pencil, trace over all the lines of the drawing. Adjust the pressure to transfer the charcoal line to the watercolor paper.
Tips for Preserving Original When Using Graphite or Transfer Paper
Photocopy the original, then use a stylus, ball point pen or pencil to trace over the lines of the copy.
Tape a sheet of tracing paper over the original, then use a pen or pencil to trace over the lines. The benefit of this method is you can see what you have traced and what you have missed. In addition, you will have a traced drawing you can use later. (This method will result in a stack of papers taped to the support board: watercolor paper on the bottom, transfer paper next, drawing to be transferred, and the tracing paper on top of the drawing).
Tape the original drawing or reference photo to a support board. Tape a sheet of tracing paper on top of the drawing.
Make reference marks on the tracing paper to help you reposition the tracing paper later. These marks could be the corners of the original drawing.
Use a pencil, ball point pen or felt-tip pen to trace over the original. As you trace, lift the tracing paper frequently to see if you have missed an area.
To transfer the traced drawing from the tracing paper to your watercolor paper, apply graphite to the back as explained in the previous section or use transfer paper.
Homemade Transfer Paper
- Select a piece of good quality tracing paper. It should not tear easily and should be able to bear repeated use.
- Using the side of a soft pencil (4B or softer) or a graphite stick, scribble lines close together, back and forth across the tracing paper, first in one direction and then in another, until the entire back side of the tracing paper is covered with graphite.
- Dampen a facial tissue or cotton ball with cigarette lighter fluid (or rubber cement thinner) and use a circular motion to rub the lines together until the paper has a uniformly gray surface. (The thinner will cause some streaking, but it helps keep the graphite from dusting off of the paper.)
- Optional: Run a piece of Scotch tape around the outer edge of the finished graphite paper to protect it from tearing.
- Before using your new graphite transfer paper, blow, shake or lightly brush with a dry tissue to remove any loose graphite. Any excess graphite may leave black dust on your watercolor paper.
- To use your homemade transfer sheet, tape the final drawing into position on the watercolor paper, slide the graphite paper (graphite side down) between the drawing and the watercolor paper, and trace the drawing. Try to push hard enough to get a good line transfer but not so hard as to dent the paper.
- If the transfer paper is not large enough for the entire drawing, transfer one section, move the transfer paper to the next area, and transfer that section.
- When the graphite wears out and no longer produces dark enough lines, reapply graphite and dampen with lighter fluid.
Commercial Transfer Paper
Saral® offers three transfer paper options: Sally's Graphite Transfer Paper, Saral Wax Free Transfer Paper, and Saral Wax Free Transfer Paper Sampler.
Sally's Graphite Transfer Paper comes in a box of 12, 18" x 24" sheets
Saral Wax Free Transfer Paper comes in a 12 ft roll measuring 12½ inches wide. It is available in 5 colors: blue, yellow, graphite, white, and red.
Saral Transfer Paper Sampler contains 5, 8½" x 11" sheets — one of each of the five colors.
Each of these transfer papers produce a sharp, grease-free line that can be easily erased. All Saral transfer papers can be used several times.
Use these transfer papers as you would carbon paper. Place a sheet of transfer paper color side down on the watercolor paper to which you wish to transfer a design. Place your drawing on top of Saral and tape it down so it cannot move. Using a stylus, ball point pen, or pencil, trace the outline of the design. Apply enough pressure to get the results you desire. You may have to experiment and adjust the pressure to obtain your desired result. One color of Saral Transfer Paper may be better than another for a specific job because of the surface color or texture of the material to which you are transferring the design.
- Make sure the transfer paper has the graphite side down. Trace a small area and check that the image is being transferred. You don't want to complete the entire drawing and then discover the transfer paper was upside down.
- Make the lightest, thinnest transfer line you can see so it will be easy to erase later.
- Erase with a light touch and only on the transfer line to avoid breaking the small fibers in watercolor paper.
- To help prevent smudging, wipe a new, unused sheet of Saral Transfer Paper lightly with a tissue to remove any excess coating or dust.
- To avoid smudging with the palm of your hand while tracing the image, secure the transfer paper to the surface with tape.
- To remove smudging, rub lightly over the smudge with a large eraser. If this does not work, rub the area with rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab.
- Use dark colored transfer paper on light surfaces; use light colored paper on dark surfaces.
- Sometimes it is difficult to tell if you have missed any areas. One way to avoid this is to add a piece of tracing paper on top. (Watercolor paper on the bottom, transfer paper, drawing to be transferred, and finally tracing paper on top.) Using a ballpoint pen, carefully trace over all details in the line drawing. If you have missed any areas, they will show up as gaps on the tracing paper.
- If you don't want to add a piece of tracing paper, try using a red ballpoint pen to trace over the drawing. This makes it easier to see where you've been.
- If you trace with a mechanical pencil with a thin lead, a narrower line will be transferred to the watercolor paper.
- Fold your graphite transfer paper and store in a zip-lock bag.
- Some artists use an eraser to reduce the graphite image to a ghost before painting.
The grid method involves two grids — one drawn over the original image and another drawn on the painting surface. The objective is generally to resize an image so it fits into your composition. The grid is a way of breaking a picture down into smaller, more manageable sections. The grid provides a set of reference lines that can be as simple or complex as you need. It is a tool to serve your needs, to accomplish your purpose. You may want to make a larger copy of an entire photograph. You may want to enlarge one object on a magazine page. You may want to create a larger version of a drawing in your sketch book as the basis for a painting. You may have almost completed a drawing but need help with the details of a person's eye. In each case, the grid method can help.
The first step is to draw a grid of equal squares over a reference drawing or photo. This can be done by drawing a grid directly on the original, drawing a grid on a photocopy or by drawing the grid on a sheet of acetate and placing the acetate over the image. The squares of the grid can be any size, from ¼ to one inch. The size you choose will depend on your needs.
The second step is to draw another grid on your painting surface. The size of the grid on the painting surface will depend on your objective. If you want the image on the watercolor paper to be the same size as the original, draw the second grid the same size as the first. If you want to enlarge the image, draw the second grid with larger squares. If you want to reduce the image, draw a smaller grid on the watercolor paper.
The third step is to transfer the image from the original to the grid on the painting surface, drawing one section of the grid at a time. The key to this method is to focus on the relationship of each line to the nearest grid lines.
Variation: Rather than drawing a grid on watercolor paper and then having to erase it, draw the grid on a piece of tracing paper. Draw the image on the gridded tracing paper and then transfer the enlarged drawing to the watercolor paper with transfer paper.
Read more about the grid method >>
Print Directly onto Watercolor Paper
- Make original drawing on high quality drawing paper that will withstand repeated erasures.
- Scan the finished drawing and save it as a Photoshop Document (.psd). Save a copy. (Always work on a copy.)
- Change the mode of the image from RGB to Grayscale. Convert the background layer to a normal layer by double-clicking on it.
- Select the Magic Wand and uncheck contiguous. Wiith the Magic Wand, select the white area and delete it. This makes the white area transparent. (You may need to adjust the tolerance if the white area contains several degrees of light gray.
- With the Magic Wand, select the transparent area, then select Inverse. This should select the line drawing.
- With the line drawing selected, change the foreground color to E5E5E5 or 90% black, then press Option-Delete to fill the line drawing with a light gray color.
- To make it easier to see the light gray line, create a new layer, fill it with black and place it below the layer with the line drawing. When you are satisfied with your light gray drawing, delete the black layer.
- Save the drawing as a Photoshop Document.
- Save a copy of the drawing as a PDF.
- Print the PDF on an 8½ x 11 sheet of paper. This copy can then be photocopied at various sizes for value study thumbnails.
- Print the PDF directly on watercolor paper that will go through a printer, such as Strathmore Aquarius II.
- The lines printed on the watercolor paper should be light enough to be easily covered by the watercolors as you paint. If they are too dark, choose a lighter gray for the foreground color in step 6.
Enlarge with a Copy Machine
Some photocopy machines (like the Lanier LD 060) allow you to change the horizontal and vertical dimensions independently. This allows you to change a rectangular image into a square image or into a rectangle with a different aspect ratio.
Click on the following buttons on the machine's control panel:
- Specified Ratio
- Dirc. Size Mag. In
- Click Original: Horizontal and enter the horizontal dimension of the original on the keypad.
- Click Copy: Horizontal and enter the new horizontal dimension.
- Repeat with the Vertical dimensions.
- Click the round button with a hatch mark inside. (Some refer to it as the pound sign.)
- Click OK and then the Print button.
Resize the Images Using a Computer
Scan your image. Open the scanned image file in an image editing program such as Photoshop Elements. Resize the image to any size you want. Print the image and transfer using one of the methods above.
If you have enlarged the image to a size larger than your printer can accommodate, print a "tiled" version of the image. After printing, reassemble the tiles into one image and transfer to the watercolor paper.
Resize the Images Using an Opaque Projector
Use your computer or photocopy machine to reduce your original drawing or reference photo to less than 6 x 6" so that it will fit on the opaque projector. In a dark room, project the image onto the watercolor paper that is attached to the table, floor, or wall. You can adjust the size of the projected image by moving the lens or the entire projector.
Trace the image that is projected on the watercolor paper.