How to Transfer a Drawing

Today’s topic is how to transfer a drawing. For those who have been artists for any length of time, that may seem like a pretty tame subject. But recent correspondence with a reader reminded me that every single one of us began without even the most basic information.

Yes. At one time, I was asking the same question this reader asked: How do I transfer a drawing to drawing paper?

How to Transfer a Drawing

What to Use to Transfer a Drawing

There are a lot of ways to transfer a drawing. You can use a projector, transfer paper, or transfer it by drawing it again freehand or with a grid.

Let’s take a look at two of the more traditional methods: Carboning and transfer paper.

Carboning the Back of the Drawing

The easiest way to transfer a line drawing to another surface is to shade graphite directly on the back of the drawing. This process is called “carboning the drawing” and it lets you trace the line drawing onto almost any other drawing or painting surface.

All you need is a graphite pencil that’s soft enough to make a nice, clear line, but not so soft that it smudges wherever you happen to rest your hand. A 4B is the best choice if you tend to draw with a light hand. Otherwise, a 2B is probably your best choice. An ordinary No. 2 pencil also works very well.

How to Transfer a Drawing - Carboning a Drawing

You don’t need to cover the entire back of the paper, but you need to make sure to shade every part of the line drawing. It doesn’t matter how careful you are in shading. Notice the random patterns in the illustration below.

This is what my line drawing looked like after I carboned it.

How to Transfer a Drawing - A Carboned Drawing

You can see the shading on the drawing because my line drawing is on tracing paper. If your drawing was printed on printer paper or drawn on a drawing pad, you won’t be able to see the shading from the front of the paper. To make sure you’ve shaded behind every line, hold the drawing up to a window or lay it on a light box. Do any additional shading that might be necessary.

Commercial Transfer Papers

You can also use commercial transfer papers. They’re clean, easy to use, and you can usually use them half a dozen or more times. You can also get some transfer papers in lighter colors for use with darker papers. Saral makes excellent transfer paper in different colors, so there’s transfer paper for any color of drawing paper you want to use.

Make sure to get greaseless or wax-free transfer paper. Not all transfer papers are made the same, and if you use one that’s not greaseless or wax-free, it may mar the surface of your drawing paper.

How to Transfer a Drawing

Whether you carbon the back of your drawing or use transfer paper, the transfer process is the same.

Step 1: Place the line drawing on the drawing paper

Center the line drawing on the drawing paper so there are roughly equal margins on each side. You’ll use these margins for framing later.

Tape the line drawing to the drawing paper. Use small pieces of low-tack tape. Artist’s masking tape is best, since it’s archival and leaves no damaging residues on drawing paper.

But the masking tape painters use to protect door frames and other interior details when they paint a room is also acceptable.

If you can’t get artist’s tape or painter’s tape, ordinary masking tape works. It may be too sticky, though, and likely to tear your drawing paper when you remove it. To reduce the stickiness, press each piece on your pant leg or some other soft, lint-less cloth before putting it on your paper.

For drawings 11×14 or smaller, tape each of the four corners as shown above.

For larger drawings, you may want to add a small piece of tape at the center of each of the long sides.

If you shaded the back of the line drawing, you’re now ready to transfer.

If you’re using commercial transfer paper, slip the transfer paper between the line drawing and the drawing paper. Make sure the transfer surface is next to the drawing paper. That usually (but not always) means that the dull side of the transfer paper is facing up.

Step 2: Trace the line drawing using a sharp pencil or other tool

Next, trace carefully over the line drawing using a sharp pencil with medium pressure or slightly lighter. You need enough pressure to transfer the lines to the drawing paper, but you don’t want to indent the drawing paper by pressing too hard.

You can use a ball point pen, a mechanical drawing pencil, or even a well-sharpened colored pencil. Using a color other than black will help you see which lines you’ve traced over and which ones you haven’t.

Step 3: Make sure you’ve transferred everything

When you finish, check the transferred drawing by untaping and lifting each corner one at a time to see the drawing paper underneath. Can you see all those lines clearly? Have you missed any areas? If you see a spot you’ve missed, tape the corner down again, and add those lines.

Check each corner this way, just to make sure you transfer everything.

When you’re satisfied the line drawing has been completely transferred, remove the line drawing by slowly and carefully pulling the tape up and away from the drawing.

If you used graphite as a transfer medium, there may be unwanted smudges on the paper. Clean these up with a small piece of mounting putty. Gently press the mounting putty against the transferred line drawing, but don’t turn it, rub or roll it over the paper, or you may remove part of the line drawing.

Step 4: Outline the transferred drawing

The final step is outlining the different parts of the drawing with the appropriate color. For this drawing, I outlined the metal parts of the bridle with White, the leather parts with Sienna Brown or Dark Brown, and the blue areas with Mediterranean Blue. I used Indigo Blue to outline the parts of the horse I wanted outlined.

Use light pressure. You want only to mark out the shapes and make the line drawing permanent (in case the graphite lines smudge or smear.)

Another reason to take time to outline your transferred drawing immediately is that the line drawing is still fresh in your mind and it’s easier to confirm the drawing, even if parts of it are a little vague.

How to Transfer a Drawing - The transferred and outlined drawing.

This step is entirely optional, but it can be very helpful. I don’t usually outline drawings on white paper, but outlining helps me see what I’m doing more easily when I’m working on a medium value paper.

Transferring Drawings Shouldn’t be Complicated

Or require expensive equipment.

As mentioned above, there are many ways to transfer a drawing. But these two transfer mediums and this method is the most basic. The materials are also the most easily accessible and affordable.

That makes them the perfect place to begin.

This post is excerpted from the Portrait of a Black Horse email drawing class.

6 Replies to “How to Transfer a Drawing”

  1. I’ve been transferring drawings for years, and still I found some tips in this article that are helpful. Thank you.

  2. I’m also a pastel artist so I often coat the back of my line drawing with a grey or appropriately colored pastel. (Pastel lifts easily when I no longer need it.) I then use a colored pencil on the front of my line drawing to transfer the drawing. This way I can clearly see which lines I’ve already transferred and what’s still left to do. When using pastel for this task, outlining the transferred drawing with colored pencil immediately is imperative because pastel lines will easily “smear” away.

    1. Linda,

      Thank you for that information.

      I’ve been told that pastel is a good transfer medium for Clairefontaine Pastelmat, but I’m not all that familiar with pastels. Are you using an oil pastel, dry pastel, or pan pastel for the transfer medium?

    2. An addendum to the above. For coating the back of my line drawing I use either a dry pastel pencil (dull so it covers a wider area) or a hard pastel stick. If I’ve done my line drawing on tracing paper, I can just flip it over and apply pastel pencil or stick on the the back side. If I’ve done my line drawing on thicker paper, I’ll use my light box to see the lines. Note the application of the pastel can be relatively sloppy since I use a sharper pencil to trace the line drawing onto my good pair. (I say “sharper” but am careful not to make it too sharp to avoid etching my good paper.)

  3. Thanks! I might try this sometime. Most of the time though, I try to freehand most of what I do. I have taped paper to my computer screen before & traced a few local history drawings I’ve done. Not the whole thing, but enough to get buildings & other stuff the exact same shape as in the photo I use as my “model”.

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