Free Shipping

How 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 watercolor 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 of the time  is ]consuming. This is done by drawing equal squares on your canvas, let's say one inch squares, and then drawing 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. 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.

Using a grid may sound as if I am ‘painting by numbers’, however all I am really doing is creating an accurate outline of the image using basic mechanical means, rather than using the naked eye alone. Even the old masters used this system to transfer their sketches onto large canvases. Having the image drafted correctly gives me the confidence and creative freedom to be able to play with mark-making, colour and tone once I start painting.

There are many variations on how to use grids to draft images. For those who would like to give the method a go, this is how I do it:

Identify the ratio of height to length of the canvas, ie: a 24” by 36” canvas has a ratio of 2:3, (24/2=12, 36/3=12, 12 is the common denominator), so for every 2 inches up, there are 3 inches across. Another example is 30” by 40”, which is simply a 3 to 4 ratio with 10 being the common denominator. When I open the photo in Corel Paintshop Pro the first thing I do is make sure that I crop the image to the same ratio as the canvas. If this isn’t done, when you come to draw the picture on the canvas it will either appear stretched or squashed. The ratio is completely separate to gridding and is done first without even thinking about squares.

I usually grid my canvases into 4’s, ie: 4 squares across and 4 squares down (this may mean that the ‘squares’ are in fact rectangles). I make the grid by lightly using willow charcoal against the steel ruler. I then make sure I have my image gridded likewise on the computer. The beauty in using a larger computer screen is I can then zoom into the picture so that each rectangle on the screen is the exact same size as the rectangle on my canvas (a way to double check that your ratio from the previous step is correct, is to measure and make sure that the height of the square is correct and then check the width, and ensure that they are also the same). I then use direct measurements from the screen to canvas, taking measurements from the grid lines to each point, e.g.: to find the location of a horse’s ear tip, I measure how far across from a vertical grid line, and then how far down/up from a horizontal grid line. I never measure from one point to another within the grid, as this will eventually lead to mistakes. I pay a great deal of attention to getting my measurements and placement of the subject correct. This means not only marking-out the outline of my subject, but also marking the most obvious ‘shadow’ and ‘light' shapes.

I always only do one square at a time, beginning from the top left and working across the canvas, and then down to the next row, like writing on a page. This helps me to be systematic about the process. It is important to train yourself to see ‘shapes’ rather than describe them mentally as an object. Maintaining this kind of detachment from what you are drawing, and adopting a systematic approach, increases the accuracy of the work. It may seem overly technical, but getting the image right on the canvas gives me the freedom to use all the creative expression I want when it comes to putting paint on canvas. With the image drawn accurately, I am free to feel the joy of painting. If I paint with joy, this is the feeling that ends up on the canvas, and the painting is up-lifting to all those who view it.

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 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, 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 desktop. These are really helpful if you are doing a large piece or a wall mural.


One Last Note

Remember to practice and push yourself. It's OK to change your image to whatever you would like. Be unique and explore the possibilities. However,  if you are trying to do realisme do not draw what you think you see but draw what you actually see. We get stressed out; it happens. All artists go through it in the beginning.

When painting with light colors, it may be a good idea to blot the drawings on 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.

You might think some pencils can draw better than others, but it's just not true.  Quite simply everyone can draw. Remember, in the world of art there are no mistakes. So don't stop… draw till you drop! Nobody is born with the talent to be able to draw. It is skill that grows over time the more and more you practice. For example have you ever seen a one year old baby pick up a pencil and draw anything that came out looking like a photograph, no. This is a skill that must be learned over time and trained. Here are some general guidelines to use. Drawing ideas start with basic shapes. If you can draw these, you can draw just about anything. Angular Shapes: triangle and square. Round Shapes: Circle, Oval, Bean. Curved Shapes: Crescent, Guitar, Teardrop. Adding shading and shadows to your drawings will give more depth and dimension.  This is great when sketching but when your laying out a design on a canvas to paint over none will see all of your extra effort you put into adding dimension. The main goal for transferring a reference photo is to draw the bare minimum and  lay out the map of what your going to paint.

Challenge: Using one of these methods transfer a reference photo on to something and then paint it.

Leave a comment

Related Posts

Art Movements and Styles
Art Movements and Styles
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM The designation Abstract Expressionism encompasses a wide variety of American 20th century art...
Read More
How to Paint Portraits from Photographs: A Step-by-Step Painting Tutorial
How to Paint Portraits from Photographs: A Step-by-Step Painting Tutorial
1. Choose a photo with great highlights and shadows I like to take my own photos whenever possible so I have more co...
Read More
How To Mix Paint For Skin Tones
How To Mix Paint For Skin Tones
Getting Started With Skin Tones Determining skin color The colors you select depend a great deal on the skin tone of ...
Read More