Image Transfer Techniques

Helen Kitson, 2022 : a piece  featuring an acetone image transfer on a page from a vintage music book

In my work I like to use original papers rather than copies, but there will be times when you want to incorporate an original image that feels too special to use. Generally, I would say don’t keep things ‘for best’. In the same way that I will wear my favourite dresses to the office rather than keep them for a special occasion that will probably never come, I would also say it’s preferable to use original pieces in an artwork than let them gather dust in a drawer.

When it comes to personal and family papers, however, I would err on the side of caution if they are too precious to make mistakes with. In those cases my advice would be to make multiple photocopies of the papers and experiment with the copies. I have used some family papers in my work, but generally only the less precious things such as book inscriptions still attached to book covers, which can be removed from the artwork if it doesn’t turn out as I’d like.

You could, for example, distress the copies to make them look less pristine and more vintage, using tea or coffee. If you decide to go down this route, I would advise adding bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to neutralise the acidity. And if you did choose to use the originals in your work, you could make a mock-up using the copies before using the originals in a finished piece.

Another alternative, and my personal favourite, is to make copies and transfer the copies to vintage paper. So you still have the image you want but on a piece of vintage paper rather than a snow-white sheet of printer paper.

Helen Kitson, 2022

There are multiple ways to transfer an image, for example using acrylic paint or gel medium, but these are time-consuming and frankly hard work!

My favourite method is to use a solvent to transfer the ink from printer paper onto vintage paper. It’s quick, simple, and it can transfer the image beautifully. Please note that this technique only works if you use a laser printer and won’t work with an inkjet (but there are many other ways to transfer images using inkjet, which I won’t go into here as I don’t have first hand knowledge).

Generally the images I use for this process are copyright-free images I’ve found on the internet and copied and pasted over. I have certain signature images that I use time and time again, but whatever your interests you’re almost bound to find a large variety of suitable images online.

My go-to place for images is Flickr Commons, where you can find thousands of images shared by institutions across the globe that are either in the public domain because the copyright has expired, or the images have no known copyright restrictions. Also worth a visit is the Public Domain Review, which curates and shares out-of-copyright material. For more contemporary images, try a website like Unsplash, which offers thousands of photographs that are free to use.

One of the reasons I decided to make this post was that I recently had to change my home (laser) printer and although it’s the same brand as the old one (HP), acetone transfers no longer worked. Because these transfers are integral to my work, I did have a bit of a meltdown before taking a deep breath and remembering that the key ingredient to mixed media work is experimentation. It involves an awful lot of working stuff out and looking for alternatives when one method simply won’t work for you.

Through trial and error I’ve discovered it will still work if I use a very small amount of acetone on a cotton wool ball and then burnish the transfer paper before removing it from the paper to which I’m transferring it.

If you don’t want to use acetone, an alternative is the Kreul Transfer Marker. This is like a large pen that you rub over the image as you would with an acetone transfer and then burnish it well with a wooden lolly stick or similar (e.g. the back of a teaspoon) and that worked really well, plus I could control how much of the image to transfer (I like to have some fading at the edges). It’s a more expensive way of transferring images than using a cheap bottle of acetone, but worth trying if the acetone method is too messy for you.

Image transfer using a Kreul Transfer Marker. Above the main image you can just make out the ghostly trace of a transfer I made forgetting to burnish!

With all image transfer methods it’s very much a matter of trial and error. So much depends on your printer, the paper you use in your printer, and the paper you want to transfer the image onto.  Some papers will work brilliantly and others will fail completely.

The basic method of transfer is more or less the same whichever type of solvent you use. First, print out your chosen images onto paper and roughly cut out the one you want to use. You can use black and white or colour copies.

Place the chosen image face down onto the paper you want to transfer it to.

Although I don’t always bother, it’s a good idea to cut a large border around the image and secure the paper with a few strips of low-tack masking or washi tape to keep it in place as you work.

Working quite quickly, add a little acetone to the cotton wool ball (you want it wet but not soaking) and dab it onto the back of the image, pressing down quite hard, until you’ve covered the whole image. At this stage, carefully lift a corner and take a peek. If you’re lucky, the image will have transferred. If not, you might have to burnish the image to transfer the ink to the paper.

If this is something you would like to explore further, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of Playing with Image Transfers: Exploring Creative Imagery for Use in Art, Mixed Media and Design by Courtney Cerruti.

The great appeal of solvent transfers is their immediacy: you don’t have to soak anything in water or wait for hours (or days) for paint or glue to dry. Nevertheless, you can of course get different effects with different methods, which are worth experimenting with.

Using Courtney Cerruti’s book as a guide, I made my first packing tape transfers. These can be used with colour copies and with magazine images. Any type of clear parcel tape can be used.

The tape I used, with a width of 5cm

For my experiments I used pictures taken from a 1957 magazine. The method is very simple: stick the tape to your chosen image. Burnish firmly all over, making sure you don’t have any creases or air bubbles. (I worked on piece of baking parchment to stop the ends of the tape sticking to everything else!). You then soak the tape in lukewarm water for a few minutes (but it won’t harm the image or the tape if you leave it in for longer) then rub away the paper pulp until the reverse of the tape is smooth.

You can see there’s a slight ‘haze’ on the back of the tape, which means I should have soaked these again to remove the last traces of paper pulp.

These aren’t glued down (the tape does retain some stickiness after it’s been soaked, but you might want to use some extra glue to ensure a firm bond), but as you can see you can get some nice effects using this method.

I occasionally use the acrylic paint transfer method, although this one is more time-consuming. You brush paint over your substrate and, while the paint is still wet, place your black and white or colour photocopy face down into the paint and press it in place with your fingers. Allow the paint to dry completely, ideally overnight. Then use a damp sponge to wet the transfer and rub away the paper backing – you need to be gentle to avoid damaging the paint. I find this works best with smaller images; it can take time to remove all the paper pulp, and often when the image is dry you’ll see there is still some left so you need to repeat the process of dampening and rubbing. You can use the same technique using clear matte medium to transfer an image to a painted surface.

Image transfer using acrylic paint on a vintage book page

If image transfers are your thing, I would urge you to try as many different techniques as you can and to experiment with them. They won’t all work for you as you’d like (I’ve never yet managed to get a decent image using a gel plate despite trying every trick in the book) or suit your style, but they offer great flexibility to add interest when using found images in your work.

2 responses to “Image Transfer Techniques”

  1. Thanks Helen, your tips are extremely helpful. I’ve a gallon of acetone on the shelf… now I have a new use for it.

    I will definitely use your links to free images sites a go too.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I’m glad it was of use! Have fun playing with the acetone!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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