TIP #33: How to Transfer a Drawing onto Watercolor Paper

TIP # 33 How to Transfer a Drawing onto Watercolor Paper

It can be hard to change ‘mistakes’ made with paint if it’s even possible at all. That’s why many students like to sketch their designs in pencil before they start painting. 

But because watercolor is a transparent medium, those pencil lines may show through the paint. That’s why it’s best to draw very lightly and only what you really need to. 

Pencil lines can also be hard to erase completely. So it’s a good idea for kids to work out their design on another paper first, and then transfer only the most essential lines to their watercolor paper.

There are basically 4 ways (that I know of!) to transfer a drawing onto watercolor paper. I’ll explain what those are along with some options for each of them. (affiliate links are used in this post.)

4 Ways to transfer a drawing onto watercolor paper:

1. Backlight Method

With this method, light comes through the back of your drawing which is taped to a clear surface. Then, tape your watercolor paper on top of your drawing. You’ll be able to see your drawing through the watercolor paper well enough to trace it. I’ve used this method with 3 different surfaces:

  • Window: Tape the drawing onto a window and then tape the watercolor paper on top of it. Yes, you really can see through the watercolor paper! (This is my favorite method for kids.)
  • Lightbox: Tape the drawing to a lightbox (a.k.a. light board or light pad). Many companies make variations of these. The one I have is made by Artograph.
  • iPad or tablet: Tape the drawing to an iPad or tablet with an app like “Lightbox Trace” or “Soft Box Color”. Make sure you protect your screen with a piece of plexiglass or another screen protector first. Then, choose “white” for the light color and turn your screen brightness all the way up in Settings.

With any of these options, use a low-tack tape such as Painter’s Tape or Washi Tape. This will prevent your paper from getting torn when the tape is removed.

2. Graphite Paper Method

  • Graphite paper comes in sheets or rolls. It’s a very thin, almost tissue-like paper that’s coated on one side with a layer of graphite. Place this on top of your watercolor paper (graphite side down) with your drawing on top. Then just trace over your drawing with a mechanical pencil or ballpoint pen – something with a firm point that can handle detail. (Important! Avoid graphite paper that has the word “carbon” in its name. Carbon is a waxy material that makes the image last longer but also makes it hard to erase.)
  • You can also make a “DIY” version of graphite paper by rubbing a soft pencil or graphite stick over the back of your drawing. Then lay your drawing on topof the paper you want to transfer to and use a sharp pencil or ballpoint pen to trace over your drawing.

3. Projector Method

Use a document camera or a projector app for your tablet (like “Projector”) to project your drawing onto watercolor paper.

4. Grid Method

You can enlarge, reduce, or copy at the same size using a grid. Simply use a ruler to measure and draw a grid over your original drawing. Then lightly draw a corresponding grid on your watercolor paper with the same proportions. After that, you can carefully transfer your drawing square by square onto your watercolor paper.

The grid method is the most time-consuming of the options I’ve shared here. But if you want to make your painting larger or smaller than your original drawing, it’s the way to go.

When you need to erase…

The grid method requires that you erase your grid lines before you paint. The Magic Rub Eraser is my personal favorite when it comes to erasers. It erases cleanly and doesn’t leave any eraser residue behind.

Kneaded Eraser is also helpful for lifting or lightening your pencil lines. First, you soften the eraser by “kneading” it between your fingers. Then you press it against the pencil lines you want to lighten or “lift”. If your drawing is light enough, this can help your finished painting to be pencil line-free.

Important reminder…

With any of these options, it’s important to remind students about the rules of copying. It’s fine for them to transfer a drawing or photo they made on their own. But if they transfer someone else’s drawing or photo, they shouldn’t claim it as their own work. Copying this way should only be used for the purpose of learning!

an inspiring quote:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” ~ Hans Hofmann

This quote has meaning on so many levels. When it comes to painting, pencil lines are usually only there as an aid to the painter. 

If the pencil drawing isn’t meant to be part of the design, it becomes a distraction to the viewer. In general, the fewer pencil lines that are visible in the finished painting, the better.

a question worth considering:

What could help your students gain the confidence to paint with fewer guidelines?