As a children’s book illustrator, most of my work is finished digitally. Working digitally provides flexibility and can save time when changes need to be made.
But when I want to enjoy a relaxing day of making art, I don’t want to sit in front of a screen. I want to hold a real paintbrush in my hand.
I want to swirl colours around on a palette and watch them spread, and mingle, and dry on real paper. If given complete freedom to choose, I will always reach for traditional mediums.
I knew I loved line and wash illustrations long before I started using watercolours in my work. Have you ever seen a piece of art that is so good, it almost hurts? Watercolour and pencil illustrations hit me right in the gut.
When it comes to watercolours, paper is important. To get good results you need to use nice, cotton rag paper. When I first started working with watercolours, one of my biggest hurdles was figuring out how to get my best sketches onto the best paper.
Why Transfer Your Lines?
Why not do the sketch directly on the nice paper? There are several reasons why I think you should consider not painting over your original sketch.
1. The Cost of Watercolor Paper
Quality watercolour paper isn’t cheap and I make a lot of bad drawings. You have to make bad drawings to get to the good ones.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to complain that I was always doing my best drawings on the worst paper (in notebooks with lines!). I still like sketching on inexpensive paper because I don’t have to worry about wasting nice paper on a bad sketch.
2. You’ll Erase the Sizing
Watercolour paper is coated with a substance called sizing that prevents the water from soaking in too quickly. Because of this, it’s best to treat the surface of your watercolour paper gently. Lots of erasing will damage the sizing and cause undesirable painting results.
3. You Get Unlimited Do-Overs
One of the biggest reasons not to paint your original sketch is that you can attempt the painting again without having to recreate the drawing. When you transfer your drawing, you preserve the original sketch and you can then use it to create as many paintings as you like. (you just have to transfer the lines again).
Line Transfer Methods
The problem of transferring lines has probably been the bane of every watercolour artist's existence since the beginning of time.
This problem is not unique to watercolours, although with transparent mediums there is the added challenge of making your lines look nice because you won’t be covering them up with opaque paint.
Over the years I’ve tried most methods of transferring my sketches to watercolour paper. Hopefully, my experience can help guide you toward a method that can be incorporated, somewhat painlessly, into your art process
A lightbox is just a plexiglass box with a bright light inside of it that allows you to see through the paper to make tracings. You can buy electric lightboxes, but some people even use a bright sunny window.
I’ve owned multiple styles of lightboxes, but my current favourite is the 11 x 17 LED Artograph Light Pad, which makes a perfect surface for working on large, detailed illustrations.
To transfer using a lightbox, I print out my drawing at the size I want (if the original was done on paper, I scan it first).
I like to secure the printout to the back of my watercolour paper with removable tape, making sure that the printed side is touching the back of the watercolour paper (otherwise the drawing will be reversed). Also, be careful that you are making your tracing on the side that’s meant to be painted on — some watercolour papers are only sized on one side).
Note: sometimes thicker watercolour papers are hard to see through, even with a lightbox. This method won’t work if you’re using a watercolour block or another opaque material.
2. Etchr Mirror
This is one of my favourite tools for transferring lines. I admit the Etchr Mirror seems very mysterious. It’s hard to understand how it works, and how useful and versatile it is, without trying it for yourself.
The Etchr Mirror includes a plastic stand that holds your device along with a shiny reflective, but transparent polycarbonate “mirror.” The image doesn’t appear on the paper, but on the mirror itself, and you look through the mirror to transfer the image.
To use the Etchr Mirror, you need a device with a screen such as a phone or an iPad. You take a photo of your sketch and then can use the free app to reflect, resize and adjust the contrast of the image as needed to create the optimal reflection.
You can use the Etchr Mirror to transfer lines onto any surface, including watercolour blocks. Transferring directly from your device saves time, materials, and eliminates many steps (scanning, adjusting in Photoshop, printing on paper, etc.).
The Etchr Mirror can be disassembled and stored flat in its original box to save desk space. Or you can pop it into your bag and take it anywhere. It’s a great portable option because you don’t need anything other than your device screen.
3. Art Projectors
There are several types of art projectors. Some can project from a digital image and some older models require that you insert a small paper drawing (usually 6” x 6”) or printout inside the projector itself.
If you are using an older model, keep in mind you will still need to digitally resize and print your image at the correct size to fit the projector.
The drawing can be projected onto any surface at whatever size you need. If you often create very large paintings or murals, a projector might come in handy.
I have used one in the past to project a sketch for a 20 x 30 painting onto thick watercolour paper since I knew it would be hard to see through the paper using my light pad.
4. Inkjet/Giclee Printers
One of the most convenient ways to transfer linework is to use an inkjet printer to print your lines directly onto your watercolour paper.
Both Epson and Canon make inkjet printers with waterproof ink. This is important because you don’t want the lines to bleed when you paint over them with watercolour. You’ll also be able to soak your paper in water and stretch it without messing up the lines.
Using a printer is an extremely convenient way of working because if you mess up the painting, or want to try different colours, you simply print more copies.
Convenience has a price of course. The machine itself is pricey and the ink is expensive. Also, if you do not print regularly on it, the heads may need to be cleaned before you can use them and this wastes ink and paper.
I have an Epson P600 which also makes amazing art prints. However, I am even more stingy with my ink than I am with my time, so I usually use my Etchr Mirror or light table instead!
5. The “Peter De Séve” Method
This method I learned from an article on Muddy Colors where Justin Gerard talks about his method for traditional work, which is a process that Peter De Séve once wrote about. You can download the tutorial here.
First, you do your drawing on vellum tracing paper. Then you flip the drawing over and make an exact copy on the backside (in reverse) to ensure that your drawing will not be reversed in the final. Then you attach the tracing paper to your watercolour paper and burnish over the back of it to transfer the lines to the final surface.
I have used this method several times (see photo above) and I like the effect, but it’s so labour-intensive that there is a lot of pressure not to mess up during the watercolour stage. If you try this I recommend scanning your original drawing in case you need to start the process over.
Note: Peter De Séve mentions that he uses a soft brown pencil and doesn't want to tell us what it is, but I don't believe in secret recipes or secret art supplies. I am pretty sure it is a Derwent Drawing pencil in Chocolate 6600].
6. Transfer Paper
This is one method that I have not tried. I imagine the results would be similar to the Peter De Séve method, but with less effort and more of a carbon copy result. The rolls made by Saral do come in different colours (blue, yellow, black, white and red), but I prefer the look of a brown pencil.
Do you know a method of transferring lines that I didn’t mention? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.