So here’s the deal: I’d rather you know how to draw to get your image onto your canvas, but not everyone feels that way. And let’s face it—some images are just too hard or time consuming to draw by hand. My hope is that you’ve already gone through all the drawing section and you’re just here because you’re so excited to start painting. With that said, I’ll share some quick and dirty secrets to getting your image on canvas without having to actually draw (much).
First—some art history!
During the Renaissance (and a little before…and a little after), artists would paint large frescoes on walls. They didn’t have high tech equipment to help them get their small drawing into a large fresco, so they would copy their drawing onto a large piece of thick, heavy paper the same size as the wall where the fresco was to go. When the drawing (called a “Cartoon”) was complete, the artist would poke holes along the outlines, hold the drawing up to the fresco wall and, using a bag of soot, would “pounce” over the holes. When they were finished and pulled the cartoon away from the wall, they would have a perfect outline of their drawing. Most cartoons were covered up by frescoes, but some were never completed and can still be seen today, like the Raphael Cartoons in London.
Check out the Raphael Cartoons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphael_Cartoons
There are a lot of reports that artists like Vermeer and Caravaggio used a camera obscura to get their images onto canvas. Two centuries before the invention of the modern camera, Caravaggio turned his studio into a giant camera obscura by making a small hole in one wall of his studio.
When light entered through that hole, whatever was on the other side of the wall was projected into the studio and while the image was upside down, color and proportion were preserved perfectly. I know you’re thinking that’s more like a projector than a camera, since cameras record things.
Well, some of Caravaggio’s paintings have recently been found to contain mercury salt, a light-sensitive chemical that’s used in film. That means that the image that was being projected onto his canvas was also being recorded. Unfortunately, the image didn’t record indefinitely, so Caravaggio had to sketch the image as it was being projected. The image was only visible when the studio was in complete darkness, so in order to see his paint, Caravaggio mixed barium sulfate into his lead white paint to make it luminous enough to see in the darkened studio. Genius!
Read the article here: Was Caravaggio The First Photographer?
If you haven’t seen the movie Tim’s Vermeer, I highly recommend it. In it, they talk extensively about Vermeer and his purported use of the camera obscura. Go rent it!
This is sold at just about any art store and is a sheet of paper with graphite (like pencil lead) on one side. It comes in white and black (or dark grey, really) and can be purchased in a roll like saran wrap or in a sheet. It is reusable, so you can use the same piece over and over again until there’s not enough graphite on it to leave a good mark (you’ll be able to tell).
With graphite transfer paper, you’ll set your canvas on your easel, then put the graphite paper with the graphite side facing the canvas and tape it in place. Then take a printed copy of the image you want on your canvas (be sure to size it correctly when you print it) and place the image on top of the graphite paper. Tape it in place also—you don’t want things sliding around as you’re working. Then using a pencil (HB works fine), trace over the printed image. When you’ve finished tracing everything on the paper, remove everything from the canvas. The image will be transferred onto the canvas.
If you’re using oil paints, you’ll want to spray the lines lightly with a little workable fixative. Graphite will leak through oil paint and eventually show through your paint.
This works in the same manner as graphite transfers, only with charcoal instead of graphite. If you’re anything like me, you buy transfer paper then forget where you put it or use it up and are too excited to get started to go back to the art store and buy more (yes, I did just admit to using it). What I do in a pinch is make a copy of the drawing or print out the image then rub charcoal all over the backside of it. Blow off any excess charcoal dust (this can get messy) and tape the drawing to your canvas, charcoal facing the canvas. Trace the lines just like you would with the graphite transfer paper and you’ll get a copy of your drawing on your canvas. You can spray this with a little fixative to keep the lines in place as you’re painting or just dilute your paint (with acrylics, add water; with oils, use thinner) and trace over the charcoal lines. It will make whatever paint color you use the color of muddy charcoal, so just something light enough that can be easily covered over but dark enough that you can still see it. When the paint has dried, use a clean rag and flick off the excess charcoal so it doesn’t muddy the rest of your paint.
I just did this myself a few days ago. Here you can see my toned canvas with the charcoal transfer on top:
Much like Caravaggio did, you can project your image onto canvas. For between $50 and $300, you can get an art projector.
Lots of artists love their projectors.
Some work off hard copy images (a printed version of your image) and some projectors connect to your computer so you can select an image from there. If you have a projector, you will load your image into it according to manufacturer instructions. Set your canvas up in front of it and adjust the projector’s lens until the image is in focus (the size of the image can be adjusted either by moving your canvas or with a “zoom” feature on the lens). When it’s all set up, turn out the lights and use a pencil to trace the image onto the canvas.
The woman pictured above is using a projector to put something on a wall, but it works the same way with canvas.
Another way to transfer your image is by using the gridding method. This one does involve some drawing, but it’s much easier than trying to copy directly from observation. Make a copy of your image and starting in the lower left corner, use a ruler to mark out one-inch sections along the bottom edge of your image. Then do the same thing along the sides and top of the image. Use your ruler to connect these lines horizontally and vertically so you end up with a bunch of one-inch squares on top of your image.
Next, you’ll scale up the drawing to your canvas size. If your image is 8” x 10” and you want to get it twice that size on your 16” x 20” canvas, you’ll mark out two-inch squares on your canvas. Once you’ve finished that, you’ll start drawing the elements of the image one square at a time. This may sound intimidating, but actually when you look at the squares individually, they’re much easier to draw.
This won’t help you get your image onto your canvas, but it will help you trace your image if you don’t have access to a copier. A lightbox is basically a box with a translucent pane of plexiglass on top and a light inside. You place your image on top of the lightbox, turn it on, put another piece of paper over the top and voila—you can see the image through the blank piece of paper.
If you don’t have a lightbox, you can use a window. Tape your image onto a window and tape your blank piece of paper on top of it. Then trace the outlines of the image coming through!
Check out our recommended products for getting your image onto canvas here.