The Tracing Paper Transfer Technique

Updated April 17, 2017

Transferring images to other surfaces is a natural process for quilting, painting, embroidery, architectural rendering and even tattoos. Tracing paper is a basic tool for the artist who wants to either experiment with the composition of a work in progress or for copying a sketch to other materials like paper, fabric or wood.

History of Tracing Paper

2009 is the 200-anniversary of the invention of tracing paper. In the early 19th century, artists, architects, engineers and draftsmen traditionally used tracing paper. The ancient recipe for making tracing paper included marble dust, garlic and fish glue. Today, the paper is made from layers of cellulose fibre mixed with oils and resins to create translucent paper.

How to Use Tracing Paper

Tracing paper comes in different types and weights for use on an assortment of surfaces. Graphite or carbon-backed transfer paper is placed between the image to be transferred and the surface it will transfer to. Surfaces might include wood, paper, cardboard, fabric, glass and even plastic. Plain tracing paper doesn't always need graphite transfer paper sandwiched between it and the transfer surface. Graphite hand-applied to the blank side of the paper works equally well. A soft graphite pencil coats the underside of the drawing and then the graphite is smeared over the paper with a tissue. The pattern or copied image is taped to the transfer surface to keep it secure while being drawn over with a blunt tool like a dull pencil or stylus.

Technique for Watercolor Artists

For watercolour artists thinking about adding an image to a painting already in progress, the sketched image is transferred to the painting with tracing paper backed with pencil graphite. The sketch is drawn over to imprint the graphite onto the painting. If the artist is pleased with how it looks, the image is incorporated into the painting. If not, it's easily erased from the surface.

Techniques for Quilters and Embroiderers

For embroidery and quilt crafts, a sheet of tracing paper is placed over the pattern or image to be copied. Transfer paper is slipped between the copied pattern and the fabric and then drawn over with a dull pencil or stylus to imprint the image. Another technique for embroiderers is to baste the patterned tracing paper directly onto the fabric. The paper is tugged snugly in place with an embroidery hoop to keep it from tearing. The design is embroidered through the paper, and when finished, the paper is carefully torn away.

Technique for Wall Mural Painting

Graphite coated tracing paper is taped to the wall, and the illustration is drawn over to imprint the image onto the surface. The tracing paper is peeled away to leave a light pencil drawing behind, which is then painted.

Reuse Traced Pattern Transfers

Patterns can be reused and transferred to other surfaces as long as the paper isn't torn. Soft graphite is washable and erasable, so any residue left behind from the transfer can be cleaned away.

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