Transferring a Drawing From Paper to Canvas

Blank art canvas in mess artist's studio
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Don't be intimidated by transferring a drawing from paper to canvas. Many methods can be used, and some have been employed for centuries.

Pins & Charcoal

If you're not worried about keeping the drawing pristine, you could treat it as a cartoon (the old masters meaning of the word, not a comic strip). That is, you could place the drawing on a cork board or carpet scrap, then take a pin and prick the drawing full of holes. Next, attach it to the canvas so that it doesn't move and "pounce" on it with charcoal (powdered charcoal in a bit of cloth), which then goes through the holes and transfers the design. Having an apprentice to prick the holes, like one of the old masters would have had, would help retain your sanity. You'd also likely want a very smooth canvas for it to work well. The National Gallery in London has a bit more on this in the literature on its Leonardo Da Vinci Cartoon.


You can cover the back of the drawing with charcoal, pastel, or soft pencil, then run a stylus or anything hard but blunt (such as a teaspoon handle) along the lines of the drawing on the front to transfer it. Tape or clip the drawing in place so it doesn't move as you're transferring the lines.

You can buy transfer paper that does the same thing (or make your own with a very thin piece of paper like newsprint and charcoal). If you're using anything called "carbon paper," make sure it's wax-free or there's a small chance it might create problems with your paint adhering to the canvas.

Using Grids

If the original isn't a particularly detailed drawing, you can draw a grid on the drawing (or overlay it with a grid or fold the paper to create the grid over the image). Then you scale the grid to the canvas and proceed to draw in the main lines by eye. This method allows you to keep the proportions of the lines and features of the drawing, one grid area at a time. Keep the original on hand when you start to paint, to guide you in filling in the details. You can also use a small brush and thin paint to "draw" the lines rather than applying pencil lines to the canvas.

Photo Transfer

You could take a photo of the drawing and pay someone to print it on canvas for you. Then you coat the canvas with a layer of transparent acrylic medium, and paint on top of that. If it is a smallish canvas that you're going to be painting, you could use a camera lucida or overhead projector. There's even an app for that. 

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, remember it wasn't a fluke that you got the drawing you now want to transfer correctly; it's because of your artistic skills. It's not essential to have absolutely every bit of the drawing on your canvas to turn it into a successful painting. A painting isn't simply a colored-in drawing.