Painting on a canvas is a fun and relaxing way to make a beautiful piece of home décor in any theme or image you like. You can choose abstract, still life, portrait, landscape, or more.
It can be tough to get proportions right without the aid of outlining, though. That’s why some artists choose to practice by tracing a reference picture onto the canvas before diving into the full painting.
So, how do you trace a picture onto a canvas? To trace a picture onto a canvas, many people use tracing paper, but you can also use other methods such as creating a grid, using a backlight, doing a charcoal or pencil transfer, or simply free handing the outline from your reference picture.
In this article, we’ll teach you all the different methods for transferring a reference picture onto a canvas. Whether you want to buy a set of transfer paper or get started right now with only the supplies you have on hand, we’ve got you covered.
Why Trace A Picture Onto A Canvas?
Many artists turn up their nose at the idea of tracing, possibly because it takes away from the artist’s individual skill in creating art and certain concepts from scratch. Some have also argued that tracing isn’t the best way to learn, as artists can become dependent on this method. They argue that the point is to use references as just that, a reference, not a base.
References are incredibly important for all artists to learn how to create certain forms, colors, lighting, and more. Still-life artists can use a bowl of fruit sitting on a stool. Portrait artists use real life people as models. Landscape artists use real nature settings to create their paintings. Even abstract artists reference color pallets and shapes.
While it’s always a good idea to stop tracing at some point and let your learned skill as an artist do the work, tracing can be a good way to understand theses concepts as a beginner. You may also have already drawn a sketch of what you want your painting to look like, and now you want to transfer the sketch you’ve already created onto your canvas for a final painting.
It’s also handy if you’re hoping to make a painting that’s more crafty than artsy, say as a decor piece, and aren’t necessarily looking to improve as an artist or sell your work.
If you want to replicate a cute saying you found online, it can be hard to recreate the computer-generated font. A great way is to trace the reference photo onto your canvas.
How To Trace A Picture Onto A Canvas With Transfer Paper
Transfer paper, also referred to as graphite paper or carbon paper, is used to transfer an image. It can be used on canvas, other paper, wood, and sometimes even fabric.
You can grab a pack of 10 sheets of graphite transfer paper online or pick up a pack from your local arts and crafts store.
Using transfer paper is incredibly easy. To use transfer paper to trace your picture onto a canvas, follow the below steps:
- Print out your reference picture.
- Put a sheet of transfer paper onto your canvas graphite-side down, then lay your reference picture on top.
- Tape the transfer paper and reference picture to your canvas with painter’s tape.
- Using a ballpoint pen or stylus, trace your reference picture. The goal is just to transfer the outline, not to color in any shaded areas.
- Once the whole image has been traced, remove the tape and pull away your transfer paper and reference picture.
- Your reference picture should now be transferred onto your canvas.
Transfer paper can be reused until all the graphite is gone, so don’t throw away your transfer paper when you finish. Return it to the packaging to use again for your next project.
How To Trace A Picture Onto A Canvas Without Transfer Paper
Using transfer paper is one of the simplest methods for tracing a picture onto a canvas. Because it’s so easy and quick, it’s generally the most common method used.
However, what if you don’t have any transfer paper? You can still trace your picture onto a canvas, but you’ll have to choose from one of the below methods instead.
Each of them works well, so it’s all about how you’d prefer to transfer your picture. Try a new one each time and see which you like the best.
1. Create A Grid
The grid method is the most time-consuming way of tracing a picture onto a canvas. However, it’s the best way to bridge the gap between tracing and drawing freehand. You start by tracing a grid onto your canvas in equal squares, usually 1” x 1”. Then, trace an equal grid onto your reference picture.
If you want the painting to be the same size as your reference picture, use 1” x 1” on your reference picture too. However, you can also adjust the grid sizes to enlarge the picture. If you want a 5” x 7” photo to completely fill a 10” x 14” canvas, then draw 1” squares on the picture and 2” squares on the canvas.
Once you have both grids drawn on your canvas and picture, start to transfer the picture square by square. You’ll only draw the lines that are in each square onto your canvas.
This can take a long period of time to go square by square and get all the lines just right, but it can make for a perfectly proportioned image.
If you’re working in this method and having trouble keeping track of what square you should be on in the reference picture, try drawing a single line through the squares you’ve already replicated on the canvas.
This can help keep you on track and prevent you from getting lost or drawing the wrong image.
The next option is to use a backlight. To do this method, you’ll need to have a light that’s large enough to make the whole canvas bright, as well as being small enough to fit underneath the canvas.
(You can also purchase a lightbox specifically designed for tracing.)
Tape your reference picture on the back of your canvas with painter’s tape. The image should be laying on the back of the canvas, and you should see the blank side of your picture print-out from the back.
Lay your canvas over the backlight and you should see your image illuminated. From here, you can trace your image onto the canvas with a graphite pencil. Another great tool to use for tracing on a canvas is chalk.
Sometimes a pencil can be hard to erase and ruin the canvas if you make too many mistakes. Chalk, on the other hand, erases quite easily with just a little bit of water.
If you’re painting over the entire outline and know it won’t show through in the end, you can use any tool you want to trace your image. Once you have the picture traced onto your canvas, you can remove it from the back and turn off the backlight.
Now it’s time to paint!
3. Charcoal Or Pencil Transfer
For this method, you will essentially turn your reference picture into your transfer paper. It’s a two-in-one method for those who don’t have transfer paper on hand.
You can use either charcoal or a graphite pencil for this. Both will work, so if you would prefer to use charcoal but don’t have any on hand, a regular pencil will still do the trick.
Turn your reference picture over so that it’s face down. Then, using your charcoal or pencil, cover the entire back of your picture.
If your picture is only in the center, you’ll only need to cover that area. If your picture takes up the whole page, then you’ll need to cover the entire paper. The point is to cover the area where the picture is with graphite or charcoal on the back.
This layer will now act as your transfer paper. Lay your reference picture graphite/charcoal-side down with your picture facing up toward you. Tape it onto your canvas.
Using a sharpened pencil, trace the outline of your reference picture. Once finished, pull away the reference picture and your outline should be on your canvas.
If you use a ballpoint pen to trace with this method, you could accidentally poke a hole through your paper and draw pen onto your canvas. We recommend using the sharpened pencil over any other tracing tool.
4. Free Hand
Another way to transfer a picture onto your canvas isn’t tracing at all, but rather using the picture as a reference and free hand drawing the image yourself.
This option is great for those who want to take artistic liberties with the original source picture and make it entirely their own. You can have the picture printed next to you or in front of you, then free-hand your own drawing using it as inspiration.
It can also be faster, depending on how fast you draw. There’s no prep work in covering the back with charcoal or extra materials to purchase like transfer paper or a backlight.
This method can also be the most rewarding because even though you’ve used a reference, you’ve still created the image all on your own using only your drawing abilities.
A downside to this method is that if you are a perfectionist, you may end up using the eraser quite often. Erasing pencil on canvas too much can cause big smudges and can tear the canvas.
As we mentioned above, you can try to freehand using chalk instead of a pencil. Chalk removes more easily and works well on canvas.
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