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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Brecheisen

Photo Transfer to Canvas Tutorial / Mixed Media Project

1.) Prepare your photograph:

  • If it’s your first transfer, converting it to black and white is a good idea to get some practice. If not converting to black and white, desaturate the colors a bit.

  • Turn the contrast UP UP UP!!! Unless you are an experienced painter and can blend/shade well.

  • Resize your photograph to meet the dimensions of the surface. If it’s something large like 16x20, you will want to cut the image into four 8x10 sections.

  • Reverse the image horizontally. (Especially if there is type on it or it will be backwards haha.)

  • Print your image! Print on regular paper, not photo paper. I have an Epson R2880. It’s an amazing printer, but I’ve found that inkjet doesn’t work as well. I take mine on a thumb drive to Staples for prints, and you really can’t beat $0.11 / print (2014). Just remember to tell them to use regular paper.

  • Cut your photograph: When cutting the photograph I use a razor and a ruler. Line the ruler up with the edge, and be sure to put the ruler on the the part of the photo that's not printed. Press firmly with one hand and use the razor while pressing firmly to cut your straight edge. I just find that this method works better than scissors.

2.) Prepare your canvas:

  • I recommend putting down a collage over the canvas. In my experience, the paint and ink run if trying to use a canvas without something over it even when using mod podge or gel medium. You can use all kinds of things for collage material: magazine clippings, concert/movie tix, playbills, textured/printed paper-anything whether it has artistic value or meaningful value. If the materials are very sentimental, don’t forget you are painting over them and putting the photograph over them, so they may not show through. Personally, I like to use magazine clippings with large fonts, things with sentimental value in areas I know I’ll paint with light colors, and then I use tissue paper over large parts of it to create texture.

  • Use mod podge to keep them in place and cover the entire thing with mod podge to keep all the edges down and preserve your collage. I let most everything dry overnight, even this step. So, let your collage dry over night.

  • Paint over your collage with watercolors or really watered down acrylics. Some people recommend a layer of gesso over the collage first to mute it, but it’s really up to you as the artist. When painting over the collage there are all sorts of things you can do. Some people recommend making it lighter in the center of the canvas and getting darker towards the edges. It doesn’t have to be perfect!! If you are not great at blending, who cares? The transfer will be put down over it, so most people won’t even notice.

  • You can also add vignetting to the outer edges. It’s best to start lightly and go darker. For instance, start the vignetting lightly in this stage, and then go darker after the transfer is done. Let dry overnight.

3.) Transfer time!!

  • Cover your entire photo with a good layer of mod podge. Try not to let any mod podge get on the back of the photograph, because it will be much harder to deal with later. I have used matte and gloss. I like the gloss better, because it’s easier to spread quickly in my opinion, but it can make things more difficult in the next stage. (Rubbing the paper off takes longer.) Use a sponge brush to spread the mod podge over the photograph on the printed side. Make sure there are no bubbles or “chunks”. Hold it from the edges and press the photograph and put facedown onto your collage.

  • Press gently starting at the center to push air bubbles out. Make sure when you are covering the texture that you push the paper down into the cracks as best as possible so you get a solid print.

  • Set aside and let dry overnight.

4.) Time to rub the paper off and reveal the print underneath!! (Or as I refer to it, the “Testing your patience stage” haha.

  • Get a spray bottle and spray a section of your transfer. Let the water sit for a couple of seconds as to wet the paper through, and rub gently. Do this for the entire image, but save the edges for last. A lot of times, the edges seem to be the hardest and typically paint will smudge for some reason. So don’t mess up your print! (Even if it does run a bit it can create a cool effect, and a lot of times you can paint to fix what you’ve messed up.)

  • If your print was a little larger than you canvas, and you’ve pressed the edges down around it during the transfer process, save that for the absolute last rubbing. It just makes things easier in my opinion.

  • The rubbing process will likely take you many times. This is the longest part of the transfer process, and many times I end up rubbing the entire thing 10+ times. The best thing to do is to go over the entire picture, let dry, then repeat as many times as necessary to get all the excess white paper film off the print.

  • I also use a toothbrush for the really textured areas. Use this sparingly and lightly. I like to use circular motions and the rub over with my finger to wipe away the paper after using the toothbrush while it’s still a little wet. If you don’t, you’ll likely still end up with a mighty white paper film all over the textured parts.

5.) Repaint your photograph.

  • At this point, your transfer still looks rough, but not to worry! This step ties your print, collage, and paint together into a cohesive statement especially if you’ve accidentally rubbed some of your print off during the rubbing process. Most tutorials advocate starting with your lightest color and repainting from there. I start with the blacks first especially if there’s not a stark contrast added to the photo. I fill in the blacks on the print then add my color to the paint palette with extra water and mix well. Just keep making your paint lighter by adding white or water to your mixture and fill in your print. Many tutorials recommend using cotton balls for the larger sections and swabs for the smaller sections. I like to use paintbrushes, but do what works best for you. I am in love with Royal paintbrushes. They are not super expensive and are great for this type of job. Just make sure you have a couple different sizes to include a super tiny brush for lines or edges. I prefer using angular brushes for most of it. You can also use a larger brush to do a light wash over the whole thing before starting with the blacks.

  • If you are using acrylic paints, try not to get any of the color on the black parts. If you are using watercolors it isn’t really that big of a deal at all. I’ve not had any tint added to my blacks using watercolors, but I have with acrylics. Don’t forget that acrylics get very tacky if you don’t allow them to dry.

  • Let dry and see if there is any more white paper film you may need to paint over. Repaint if necessary.

  • Paint the edges of your canvas. I like to use acrylic for this part as to cover the edges and sides of the canvas completely with no canvas showing through. I usually end up painting over them twice, but make sure and let it dry in between painting. Remember that acrylic paints get tacky when they are not completely dry.

6.) Final Step!!

  • Protect your work with a uv spray. I like to use a gloss spray. It ties the painting, print, and the texture together in a very magical way. (When you see the difference after spraying it, you will understand.)

  • Let dry according to instructions on whatever product you use.

Materials List: (As seen in many of the photographs)

  • Canvas

  • Collage materials

  • Water color/Acrylic Paints

  • Paint Brushes

  • Sponge Brushes

  • Mod Podge

  • Spray Bottle

  • Krylon UV Protective Gloss Finish

  • Gesso (if you want)

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