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Artist's Essential Tool Guide: Oil Transfers

I tend to favor paintings that are near or actually life sized (or larger) both as a viewer and as a painter.  I was told in school that an artist, if not fully accomplished, must make his or her art large to gain attention.  If that fails, make it sculpture.  If that too fails, make it a fountain...with that in mind, this oil transfer tutorial is meant for those who prefer larger canvases.  This technique can be utilized by those living in small apartments, houses or areas that are climate controlled for very little expense.

When I was younger, I struggled to understand how other artists were able to perfectly place drawn compositions onto their canvases without leaving traces of non-oil media in or on their painting surfaces.  There is clear, primary evidence from Jacopo Bellini, Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Bunorotti, Giovanni Lorenzo to today's modern classical realists like Jacob Collins, Scott Waddell and Camie Davis to name few, who make beautifully executed studies and sketches, often many times, before they begin to paint upon the canvas.  Its harder to find evidence of the steps between these lavish drawings and preparatory work and the fully rendered, finished piece.  Blessedly, I have been able to inspect most of those artists' work directly and I can attest from personal observation the stray mark or fumbled erasure is difficult to find without infrared machinations.

Its quite difficult to keep the gunk off the canvas whether it be charcoal, pencil or erasures from sensitive, translucent areas.  It took a nice little blog post, ironically not at GCA's blog where they post a multitude of drawings and paintings-in-progress, but from Douglas Flynts' personal blog, not surprisingly titled, "Doing an Oil Transfer" in May of 2010 for me to fully appreciate the simplicity of the methodology. 

Mr. Flynt, to whom I am a huge admirer and fan, suggests using tracing paper to make transfer sheets but here I respectfully disagree.  The tracing paper, ideal for smaller works, do not work well for large canvases on account of their frailty and poor durability.  I will explain more in detail but first, the set up.

I prefer to draw (perhaps dictated by an inability to draw) with the sight-size method.  The still life which this project encompasses is actually mounted to a wall in my studio space so even the drawing was difficult to execute due to the required space between the draftsman and the actual item.  The original study was actually quite small, being only about 7" long by 8.75", drawn over a period of about a week, each day with several hours of attention.  This is by no means a finished study but more of a plan of attack once the transfer is upon the canvas where local information will be applied directly in oil from close-at-hand direct observation.

It is best to make a washed-out line drawing of your studies if they are well developed or have fully rendered form with a large range of values.  This can easily be accomplished after-the-fact by scanning your drawing or more likely, digitally photographing it with your camera or even a cell phone.  We are not interested in detail here but surface landmarks.  This spartan information will guide us through the painting much like zip codes serve to guide mail delivery.

Once scanned, upload your photo into your favorite image software such as Photoshop or your favorite free alternative.  The software is not so important as how it scales printed sheets.  Since we are not using tracing paper we must make our own transfer sheets.  We are going to essentially scale our scanned study to the same scale of our canvas, which is 60" long x 48" tall.  This will allow us to apply our large transfer in sections with the ability to stop and start the process, avoid paint smear and better control the transfer's position upon the canvas.  Alternatively, one can pay a print shop to plot out a full size copy and skip these steps but I found the flexibility of this method to greatly increase the chances of a perfect, one-time transfer process.  We first take a moment to increase the contrast and brightness of our digital image to rid ourselves any unwanted range in value and/or shading.  Once that is done its time to determine the proper re-size.

Transfer drawings should be lightweight like etchings or woodcuts.

The trickiest part with scaling an image to plot to a 1:1 scale is knowing the actual printing area of your plotter.  My printer is a bit old by today's standards and has a peculiar available printing area.  Most modern printers do have the ability to print "poster" or "border-less" sheets but I find its best to obtain the print ratio manually and leave nothing to your computer's imaginative behavior .  The largest paper size I can plot at home is a 8.5" x 11" standard letter but the actual printer surface is limited to 7.99935" wide x 10.521" tall.  This ratio can be easily obtained creating a new image at 8.5" x 11" in Photoshop and testing the "Scale to Fit" option in the print dialog.  My printing ratio for letter size is .9411:1.  Another way to say this is that my physical printing surface area in reality equals 94.11% of one letter sheet.  You'll notice that PSCS3 automatically rounds the decimals in the dialog.  I suggest typing in the numbers manually to achieve the highest level of accuracy.  The human eye can detect very minute errors in the finished work.  A moment here might save some strange proportions later.

Your actual plot area/ratio will differ.

Now we only have the matter of slicing our scanned image which can be done with slices or, I as do, copied/cut sheets, each plotted individually in order.  This lets me save each and every plot and will stack nicely in the printer numerically.  This makes our job very easy when we do a practice layout a bit later.  Its also easy for one single sheet to be lost, destroyed or misprinted and this saves time later if your printing goes awry or have kids who are opportunist artists themselves.  Mine tend to use every available sheet of paper they can find or root out.

The green square is a 1:1 section ready to be printed.
This is a full size sheet, highlighted green above, printed.

You might notice that your plots do not align after printing the first few.  Don't panic.  Be sure that your print settings ARE NOT SET TO CENTER or that they ARE NOT SCALED TO FIT.  Its best to set the origin close as possible to 0,0 in your print dialog box or more easily, allow the printer to begin the print automatically as long as those two aforementioned settings are NOT checked.  We don't want the printer or software to offset the plots.  There will small overlap which will actually help us later when we are dealing with wet paint.  Another reminder, set that printer to use draft ink settings or quickest printing.  We want to avoid any saturated ink.

Its very important to layout your plotted, full size transfer before you begin to tape it together and ready for the actual oil transfer.  I tend to choose a nice open space next to the computer where I can easily place each sheet and compare it to my gridded plan right on the screen.  Your original drawing can do this also pretty handily.  Its important to note that every section of the grid is not as important as the whole, as long as you maintain proper order of your grid (the printer does that for us) and you never loose key indicators like the corners of your canvas space or its actual dimension, again in this project, 60" x 48".

You can see in the picture below I have NOT printed every section to save both time, paper and ink.  Printers that are unable to fully span the width of a page will provide you with a handy set of implied lines to align your full size plot.  They appear as white stripes in the photo.  Alternatively, if using Photoshop, you can choose to show/print the bounding box and/or 1 pixel border in the print dialog box.  Since I started in the top left corner, it was easy to span several plots without missing a section.  I simply measured the width to determine the remaining space with a tape measure to check it.  This step gives you the opportunity to double check the centering of your image or anything else your unsure of.  If your drawing looks a little off at this point, you can reconsider it or view it in a handheld mirror without having all of the anguish of a mid-painting crisis.

Default margins provide easy alignment.

 Finally, we are ready to get the palette!  You'll need a few basic materials you probably already have in your supply cache and even your kitchen for the next step but it will definitely differ from painter to painter as we all tend to use that which works best for each of us.  I was a great fan of the large thumb hole disposable paint palettes when in school but now gravitate towards more substantial palettes which hold more paint more securely and yet are still easily cleaned without extra solvents or glass scraping.  Making household items perform a double duty is a green and earth-friendly-thing-to-do and I like to save money whenever possible.

I had a bit of old solvent wash stain left on my palette from another painting session and I always begin with a fresh surface.  Color upon your palette not only looks untidy but also influences your chroma decisions and can greatly effect a piece over its production.  Its a good habit to always start fresh, even at this stage. It'll do wonder for your space organization, studio cleanliness and peace of mind. 

Re-think, Re-purpose, Reuse.

I do not bother with removing the old stained paper; its absorbent and will soak up anything that gets through in the future.  I simply take two sheets of new, unused white printer paper and tape them together with two small pieces of masking tape.  I place them upon the board palette (an old book shelf), securing the corners with 4 small additional pieces.  I then take a long sheet of wax paper and cut it squarely, being sure it passes beyond the edges of the white-space.  Then, taking 4 long strips of masking (clear packing tape works even better), I run the wax paper box across each direction as I tape it to the board, careful of any pocketed air, forcing it away from the taped side.  This ensures a slick and even surface that your palette knife won't catch later when mixing colors.

Ready for paint.

Our plotted papers serve the same purpose Douglas mentions for his tracing sheets.  I found that using tracing paper is a waste of both time and money as long as you have access to a non-paneled window, or even better, a common glass sliding door. This everyone-has piece of high-tech equipment, allows you to avoid pricey and unnecessary light tables and gives you plenty of space to comfortably stand as you make the transfers.  The image below shows the first column, all taped together using making tape, taped onto the glass door with painter's tape.  Using painter's tape, found at any hardware store, is the secret to this method.  Its hold is strong enough to withstand the entire process but won't leave any gum or glue residue on the glass surface and, more importantly, leave nothing upon your canvas surface.

Overlap is easily visible and the margins are very translucent.

Columns 2 and 3 up.
Edges are very easy to line up, even more so if you border the plots.
The middle image above shows the next two columns of sheets, with careful attention taken to overlap the margins the printer couldn't get to.  In just a little bit of sunlight, the paper is easily transparent just like Douglas' tracing paper but without the murkiness.  This is due to the bleach used to whiten printer paper.  The brightness and clarity of the sheets cannot be fully appreciated as my photography skills are quite rudimentary.  The full scale printed section once blurry and somewhat nonsensical becomes easily read.  All that remains to do is repeat this process so we have X number of columns which span the entire width of our canvas, just like our floor example.

For our first and most important transfer, we want it limited and should have at least one key placement indicator, here the top left corner on the canvas.  All we need to do is FLIP the column AWAY from us and re-tape it to the glass.  The printed surface now faces out towards the exterior of the building.  The image will still be just as visible.  Time to ready the paint and get to scumbling!

Brownish hues are best for easy to read transfer lines, which are thin.

Since my still life has quite a bit of white walls with several, soft cast shadows, it was important to select a lighter color for the transfer rather than Burnt Sienna straight from the tube.  I actually added twice the amount of Flake White shown.  The photographs render it rather darkly; it is more of a intense pink in reality.
Column1 flipped, scumbled and ready for the canvas surface.

Scumbling is a simple technique.  One applies a dry, thin layer of pigment directly upon the working surface without any thinner, oil or solvent of any kind. Here our working surface is the backside of our plotted section sheets.  If you add a thinner, solvent or oil, you'll end up with a glaze which will destroy the paper we have chosen for our transfer.  I find that a stiff brush, boars hair or even a cheapo synthetic brush works best.  The stiffer, the better.  Its been suggested that a large swath of area needs to be scumbled across the surface of the page but again, I strongly disagree with this: we are trying to make the THINNEST line possible with the LEAST amount of pigment.  I like to use a brush no larger than about 1/2" thick or up to 1" for areas with many lines in close proximity.

Our gessoed prey.  Very difficult to photograph in the wild.

As mentioned earlier, this step is the most important and critical.  When placing column 1 upon the canvas, one must triply ensure that the column is aligned properly with the horizontal plane of the canvas and matches that of your drawing.  Take your time with this or it will only compound frustration later if put up in haste.

Column 1 on canvas, double check alignment!

Now all that is needed is a colored tool, in this case a red ink pen.  It will give you a very crisp line and will mark the drawing so that you don't forget to transfer any area.  Press firmly with attention not to place any part of your hand upon the canvas as it will leave smudgy marks where ever there is scumbled pigment.  A scratchy, sketchy back-and-forth motion works best.  The area that is actually scumbled thankfully is already limited by our careful attention earlier and its accidental transfer is rather unlikely.  You can use a mahl stick to prevent rubbing if need be.  Small wooden dowels, also found at hardware stores ($2) are easily obtained.  Mine is 3/8" diameter, is made of pine.

Red ink pens allow you to check what you've already transferred or missed.

Transfers should be clean and minimal.

Aligning the second column may present a little more difficulty because of any printing margin limitations which were actually quite helpful when assembling the plots a bit earlier.  If you plotted a border you can easily draw a line with a ruler or straight edge right atop the glass and simply cut it off.  This will give a perfect alignment with the previously transferred column.  This only reiterates the importance of the first column's proper set.  Since my original study was so small, once scaled to full size, its lines, originally .05mm in thickness, appear quite thick and were easily marked and cut away without a border.

Mark the margin, line it with border or ruler, and cut off.
Proceed to repeat this process with careful attention to always flip the drawings over on the glass door.  If you don't you'll have to reprint the covered areas or doubly lay clean sheets and re-scumble.

There really is only one rule when it comes to art making and that is whatever works best is the best.  We are often taught in school that the established way is the only way and can fall into paradigms that just don't make sense after we are out of the go ahead and rotate that canvas any which way it makes sense to properly align your plotted surface indicators (corners, edges, center-points, etc).  I actually found it quite agreeable that for my 3rd column, the canvas needed to be rotated 180 degrees where I could best find the bottom edge of the shadowing lines.

Its not too late, flip it, flip it good!

Once you are confident your first few columns are properly centered upon your canvas, you can really make some quick progress.  I decided it was time to put the rest of my transfer up on the canvas after placing about 2/5ths it.  I taped the columns together after I chopped off the little unneeded margins the printer couldn't get to and scumbled for what seemed like ages.  Working inside really helped the process and being a cool 76 degrees, there was little concern for the thinly applied scumble drying out before I could finish the remaining sheets. 

The remaining columns, joined and ready.

Placing this large section started to become burdensome.

The finished transfer.

At first glance it does seem to be a lot of preparatory work but a little planning goes a long way when considering more complex compositions on a larger scale.  I think its obvious that this technique really can allow you some breathing room in the event that you are interrupted, have children in the home or simply don't want to risk placing a huge amount of scumbled paint onto a fresh canvas.  This method, aimed for larger oil transfer using home-based equipment without the need for assistance, keeps you organized, clean and most important, can give you perfect results.  That makes your painting experience much more enjoyable and ultimately, more successful when you place your first and last stroke of oil paint.


croquis and tracings;
oil sketch and/or grisaille study;
highly finished drawings for all the figures in the composition, as well as drapery studies and foliage studies;
detailed studies in oil for heads, hands, animals, etc.;
cartoon; and, only then,
the finished painting