Studio Saturdays: A New Take on Photo Transfers

An image transfer is an image transfer is an image transfer, right? Nope. Not only are no two image transfers the same, but artists are always coming up with new ways to render transferred images and turn them into art. Case in point: the May 2017 Art Lesson, Layering with Photo Transfers. The techniques are nothing short of transformational—no pun intended. This one? It’s a keeper.

Katie Blaine is the artist responsible for this month’s lesson, and when I discovered her work I felt an immediate connection with it, and knew you would love it too. I didn’t even know photo transfers were part of her repertoire until she told me, and I thought her use of both visual and physical texture would be perfect for the Texture Adventure theme for this year’s Art Lessons. I know I’ve said this before, but I have a much deeper appreciation of Katie’s brilliant artistry after trying her techniques. I want to shout from the rooftops that this is so much fun, so creative, and so satisfying!


Okay, here we go. This technique is based on doing photo transfers two ways: one with gesso, and the other with heavy gel medium. I’ve done plenty of gel medium transfers before, but never one with gesso, so that intrigued me. Also, the way Katie layers her images, then enhances them with mixed media, totally takes things to another level.

To create this piece, I first chose some images. Katie loves urban landscapes and uses them often in her work. But her techniques will work with any images, so you’re not limited to urban grunge. However, this project will get you thinking about your images and how they’ll be layered, and I like that thoughtful component to it. Katie says the process is “a creative way to play with opacity and transparency in your artwork to create interest and visual texture.” I started with several images, some of buildings and some of nature, thinking I’d combine the two. I printed them out on regular copy paper on an inkjet printer—inkjet is key for this project. These photo transfers won’t work with laser prints.

Photo transfer images
I started with very different images for the photo transfers–hard-edged buildings and softer, rounded natural items.

For a substrate, Katie recommends using a canvas panel, which is easily found and fairly inexpensive. To kick off the physical texture portion of this project, I spread some light molding paste from top to bottom. Light molding paste dries more quickly than heavy modeling paste, but it still gives you those great highs and lows on your surface. I had some bumpiness on the edges of my canvas from the molding paste and sanded that off when the canvas was dry. Also, it’s not a bad idea to prep more than one canvas—I liked having one that I could experiment with, since this was my first time trying these techniques together.

Practice canvas for photo transfers
Prep a couple of canvases for your photo transfer artwork, and use one as a practice canvas.

Next, I painted the canvas a turquoise-y teal with a little pale yellow thrown in. Keep it simple with one or two colors, and choose shades that will complement your images.

Painted canvas for photo transfers
Brush the canvas with acrylic paint in shades that complement your images.

I spent a decent amount of time thinking about how my images would be layered for the photo transfers. The gesso transfer produces an opaque image, while the gel medium transfer produces a translucent image. With the gel medium transfer, anything in the image that is white or very light will become transparent. Those details informed where I placed my images, and which would be transferred first. Also, remember that images will be backward on the canvas once they’re transferred, so you may want to flop them before printing. Or, like Katie, you may want to use backward text and images to enhance your artwork.

I transferred the flower and tree images first using the gesso transfer. After spreading gesso on the front of the image, I applied it gesso-side-down to the canvas and pressed it with a spreader. After a couple of minutes I lifted one corner of the paper and saw the image on the canvas, so I kept going, peeling off the rest of the paper. Katie has great tips in the lesson for doing this successfully. Remember–part of the charm of image transfers is that they have imperfections. I used the gesso transfer technique with the tree on the right-hand side.

Peeling back paper for photo transfer
The image is revealed after transferring and peeling back the paper.

The gel photo transfers are done pretty much the same way, but whatever is under the transfer will peek through, offering lots of exciting layering.

Gesso and gel medium photo transfers
You can see how different the photo transfers look–gesso on top, gel medium below.

But this is not the end of our texture adventures with photo transfers. Now is your opportunity to add your artistry. You can enhance, add to, change up, saturate, de-saturate, and alter your images using mixed media. Paint over any gesso that squeezed out from the image transfer. Emphasize or extend lines with a charcoal pencil. Create highlights with oil pastels.

I started with chalk pastels, smudging two shades of blue around the tree to extend and enhance the sky, and some greens around the flower. With a Stabilo All pencil I accentuated some of the architectural lines, then used a damp brush on top. From here it was pure pleasure, going back and forth between the pastels and the pencils, creating highlights and lowlights, and using the texture on the canvas to my advantage. Having that second canvas was super handy for trying out supplies.

Enhancing photo transfers with mixed media
Enhance your images with mixed media, such as pastels, pencils, and gel pens.

To add some interest to the middle of the piece, which seemed a little barren, I stamped some text with beige paint, then sanded it back a bit. Make sure to check the lesson for lots more tips and tricks for this part of the technique, and to see more of Katie’s amazing artwork.

Mixed-media photo transfer
I bet you have some incredible photos that would work great with this technique!

What I especially like about Katie’s process is that when you look at the finished piece, you’re not sure if it’s a drawing, or a photo—or both. You keep the viewer interested in and intrigued by your work. And that’s a very good thing.

There is one more thing about this lesson I love—you can download it today for only $3.99! Each of our lessons comes with a companion video, so you can see the artists working in real time. Go make this!

What, you’re only getting the one lesson? We have so many more great projects and techniques for you in the North Light Shop. Take a look!

Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Volume 5: Layering With Photo Transfers by Katie Blaine
Get all the details for making this fantastic project in Art Lessons Volume 5: Layering With Photo Transfers by Katie Blaine
Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Volume 4: Real and Implied Texture
Want more texture adventures? Check out Art Lessons Volume 4: Real and Implied Texture by Sandra Duran Wilson.
Texture Techniques for Abstract Art: 15 Lessons video with Jodi Ohl
Learn how to create texture in gorgeous abstract art with Jodi Ohl in the video Texture Techniques for Abstract Art: 15 Lessons.
Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Volume 10: Image Transfers by Darlene Olivia McElroy
Get tons of techniques for making a variety of photo transfers in Art Lessons Volume 10: Image Transfers by Darlene Olivia McElroy.


Blog, Collage, Mixed-Media Techniques

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