Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Transferring Digital Images to Canvas

Continuing the project I started with DIY Abstract Art, my final decision (thanks for all your comments) was to attempt transferring the watercolor images to fabric or canvas for an unframed look. Since part of my motivation was to explore a new technique, I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned during this process… No finished product to show yet

First of all, because there is a BIG difference between the image you see on the screen and the image that comes out of the printer, I start by printing a few proofs on white paper. At least with my printer, red colors have always printed horribly compared to the original digital images… Although I make sure I convert the image to the printer’s color profile, proofs for this project keep coming out too red/brown, lacking a lot of the watercolor detail, and sort of dingy.

In order to produce an acceptable proof (still, way below the image quality observed on the screen), I’m forced to tweak the color correction at the printer level – not something I’m proud of when I’ve already worked the image in Photoshop. After ten or so trials, my best proof results from a reduction of the black ink, an increase of the yellow ink, and an overall reduction of color intensity… plus some additional Photoshop tweaks. Without these corrections, the image prints as a reddish-brown blurb without any appreciable brush strokes.

Now that I have a control print on paper, it’s time to start experimenting with the different methods to transfer the art to canvas or fabric. My options are:

  1. Print Canvas by Fredrix: Letter-size sheets of primed canvas that you can load on your printer and print on, straight from the computer.
  2. Iron-on Transfer Paper by Canvas Concepts: Like any other iron-on transfer paper, except this one claims it is specially created for transfers to canvas.
  3. Contact Transfer: Cover a photocopy of the image with Contact paper, burnish, soak it in warm water, and softly rub the paper off while it’s wet. The result is a thin transparency of the image which can be glued to any medium.
  4. Gel Medium Transfer: Cover a photo with the sticky medium, apply it over the fabric, burnish and peel the paper off.
  5. Blender Pen: The process involves using a pen loaded with Xylene to cover the back area of a photocopy placed facing the canvas or fabric.

Print Canvas

See largerBecause of the rougher texture of this medium, a lot of the subtle detail from the original image is lost. The first impression comes out too light. I make a second print with identical settings right over the first one, and obviously the density of the color improves (I get more color than I did before), but the overall effect looks dull. Colors lose a lot of saturation, and the contrast between light and dark is not as pronounced as it is on the image printed on paper. It’s possible that results could be improved with more tweaking (i.e. color correction, print profile, printer’s selection of medium, etc), but at $1.50 per canvas sheet, repetitive tweaking is not cheap.

Update at 7:24 pm

See largerSee largerOopsie!… Big apologies to Fredrix and scratch all my comments above: I’ve been printing on the wrong side of the print canvas. How embarrassing!

Printing on the coated side of the sheets (duh!) results in a nice and vivid image, with a tiny bit of shine, and the bonus: appreciable canvas texture. What I need to figure out now is how to best put four 8×8 tiles together into one larger piece.

Iron-on Transfer Paper

See largerThe Canvas Concepts product costs $2.83 per sheet. Since the instructional illustrations show the process of transferring an image to a pre-stretched canvas, that’s exactly what I do: I proceed to iron my transfer straight over an 8×8 pre-stretched canvas, but the final product is not what I expect. Most of the area where the canvas touches the wooden frame results in a bubbled transfer. The area in the middle (which I had filled underneath with a small towel) comes out great. If the whole thing had come out like the center of the image I would have considered it a relative success. The truth is that colors look dull, dark and lack contrast in comparison to the original image.

See largerJust to give this method a second chance, I try one more transfer but this time I use a flat piece of off-white fabric. I’m not sure of what kind of fabric I have here… It looks like a blend of cotton with something else that makes it slightly shiny. I try with a different image of similar tones and brightness. The end result looks a lot nicer: I don’t get bubbles, and colors look more vivid. The bad news is that the fabric under the image shrinks a little and I can see a tiny little bit of waxy residue in some spots. Not too much to bother me, but the shrinking is a bummer… As good as it looks, I won’t be able to stretch this piece over the 8×8 frame I had. The obvious lesson: Next time, transfer a much larger piece than you need or preshrink the fabric for the transfer.

Contact Transfer

See largerThis method produces the most vivid, clean, and flexible transfer so far. Because the image isn’t mixed with any textures, the transfer retains as much detail as you can get printed on high-quality photo paper. The final product is a transparency, so it’s possible to play with colors by using different colored backgrounds. The only issue I have with this method, is that the result looks plastic and reflects some light. Although you could paste the thin transparency on a canvas or fabric, you won’t be getting that natural cloth look. I like, however, that this method provides the easiest, and surest way to combine several letter-size tiles into a seamless larger piece, which I need in this project since I intend to produce 16×16 inch pieces.

Gel Medium Transfer

See lagerVia art-e-zine, the original recipe for this technique calls for fluid matte medium, which I didn’t have handy. So I tried an experiment with gel medium instead. Unfortunately, by the results obtained, I think I didn’t apply enough of it everywhere. As I peeled the paper off, some of the color didn’t transfer and the image scratched in several spots. To make it harder, the paper wouldn’t peel off the places where a heavy coat of the glue had been applied, so I had to rub it off softly with a wet finger.

In the end, this transfer feels a little lighter than an iron transfer, though it shows less of the fabric texture through the image. It also appears to look more matte – even on the same fabric. It’s not a bad look… The color intensity is preserved, and I’m tempted to try it again and see if I can get a better result. The method, though, is by nature more prompt to “happy” accidents, which is not the look I’m going for with this project.

Blender Pen

I wish I could report results from attempting this interesting technique. The truth is that my local art store does not carry the famous pen, so I haven’t been able to try it. For what I’ve learned so far from all these experiments I know that my first attempt will be to transfer to a smooth fabric… maybe satin. I think this may produce the sharpest and brightest image.

Further Exploration

Would you like to experiment with any of these techniques?

Art-e-zine presents several resources for image transfers with detailed instructions and samples. Three of the methods discussed here come from this resource. Have fun, and PLEASE let me know if you find the Holly Grail of image transfers from digital to canvas… At this point I’m going to try a couple more things, and if all fails may end up just going for print and frames (bummer), or I’ll just paint the abstract art. HA!


  1. On , Jennifer wrote:

    What interesting results! You’re like a scientist at work. I have a curious question… since watercolor paintings are not typically (to my knowledge) done on a traditional canvas – more typically done on a sized paper sheet – is there such a thing as a transfer made specifically for watercolor appearances?

    Your contact transfer seems to have the most watercolor detail. Hope you find something that works to your liking!

    Awesome stuff.


  2. On , Maria wrote:

    I haven’t found one… Though I haven’t specifically looked for watercolor transfers. What I’ve been searching for is general image transfers to canvas/fabric.

    You’re absolutely right: Watercolor is so subtle that you typically do it on paper. I’ve thought about this, and realize that my goal is sort of silly: Transferring a very subtle watercolor to canvas, attempting to preserve the detail, much of which is due to the smoother texture of paper.

    That’s why of all these options, based on the end result I want, I like the contact transfer best. Printing to photo paper is the only way I’ve found to get the closest to the original digital image; but I don’t want the shiny photo look… The contact transfer achieves the quality, but the finished look is matte, and sort of different. What I’m thinking is that placing it on canvas would look silly. I should probably be consistent and put it on paper.

    Another thought: The contact method is cool if you want to experiment more things. For instance, you could get crafty and use the transparency with lights or candles. It also looks cool as a coaster. I know… I’m getting sort of tacky, but it brings some creative ideas.

  3. On , Marla wrote:

    Very thorough. :)

    The fabric one looks nice, but so did the right side of the canvas.

    The added benefit of the fabric version is that when you get tired of the tryptic, you could quilt it. What an amazing quilt that would make.

    You mentioned satin. It’s so shiny. What about silk or fine linen or sateen? (all shrink with heat)

    Anyway. It will turn out perfect whichever way you do it. Congrats.:)

  4. On , Maria wrote:

    Hope you saw my update on the print canvas… Once I started using it correctly, I realized that this was the best option for the job.

    The finished product is finally done… This is what I ended up doing:

    1. I split each piece of the tryptic in four quadrants.
    2. Printed each of the 12 quadrants on a letter-size sheet of print canvas (by Fredrix).
    3. Masked a very small border around the stretched canvas
    4. With acrylics, painted a cross on the canvas to match the colors of intersection between each quadrant.
    5. Affixed the quadrants onto the canvas with acid-free spray adhesive, leaving a small gap between each quadrant
    6. Not done yet, I will also apply an acid-free glossy varnish for UV and moisture protection

    With the limitation to print images no larger than 8×10 inches, seams on each 16×16 inch piece where a problem. There was no way that I could assemble the pieces without visible seams, so I thought it would look better to just acknowledge their existence and work with them.

  5. On , Ivan wrote:

    Hola prima,
    Me he quedado un buen tiempo leyendo tu blog, está bien “catchie”. Acerca de tu arte, recuerdo un dibujo que hace mucho hiciste de mi papá, creo que fue en el año 89, desde esa época me he maravillado por el talento que tienes para dibujar, y ahora veo que en lo conceptual y digital no te quedas atrás. Un abrazo a ti y a Joey.

  6. On , Maria wrote:

    Gracias Ivanushka!
    Si bien recuerdo, el dibujo de Nacho fue tal vez el primer intento “serio” de arte que hize. Es decir: La primera vez que me aventure con papel grande y toda la cosa, fuera de mi cuaderno. Que lindo eres en recordarlo.
    Ojala sigas visitandome por aca…

  7. On , Sarah wrote:

    how exactly did you do the contact method…? i’m planning on painting a canvas and puting an image over it, but i don’t want to mess up. i’d like to make sure i do it right.

  8. On , Maria wrote:

    Sorry it took me a while to reply.

    For a Contact transfer, you make a color photocopy of the original image. Then you apply contact paper over it (sticky side of contact facing right side of photocopy). You burnish it very well, and then soak it in warm water for a few minutes. After say 5 minutes, you can start peeling and rubbing the paper off the contact. This step takes a while. You take it as far as you can attempting to remove the “white” without scratching the image. Keep it wet to easy the removal of the paper.

    This is where I stopped. I decided that mounting the contact transparency over canvas would look weird. The contact transfer looks plastic, and I thought would look better mounted on a more consistent / solid medium (e.g. wood, foam board, etc).

  9. On , Dennis wrote:

    I am interested in transferring digital JPEG images of my paintings on to metal surfaces i.e cabinet door etc.

    Is there a process or software that can help me achieve that?

  10. On , Maria wrote:

    I haven’t come across any transfer methods to metal. Of course, I haven’t looked for them either… Interesting question, though!

  11. On , Angela wrote:

    I want to recommend another product, Lazertran. It’s $20 for 10 sheets so that is only $2 per sheet(9×12) and they have large sizes also. I’d be curious if you tried it and posted your results here.

  12. On , Maria wrote:

    Thank you for the tip, Angela!
    I’ll check it out next time I do something like this…

  13. On , Storms wrote:

    Very helpful and interesting blog… I’m thinking of tyring to make my own Christmas presents this year using digital photos of the grandkids. I’m still looking for a vendor for the “Print Canvas by Fredrix” you mentioned, but I had one other question: What kind of printer did you use? I have a fairly nice HP but I’m not sure if it is up to the standards you’re using… Any thoughts or advice you could give would be greatly appreciated! Vaya con Dios!

  14. On , Maria wrote:

    Ha!… well, the printer in which I tried this was a plain inkjet Canon… The typical printer anyone has at home (not even special for photos). I’m sure that your fairly nice HP will be totally up to standards.

    At the time when I did this experiment, I found the print canvas at my local art store. If you’re in the U.S., I think this store is equivalent to Michael’s. But I also found that Amazon carried it. An internet search showed me several results. I bet you’ll be able to find a reputable online outlet selling it. In fact, for what I can tell, you’ll find way more options of the product online.

    Good luck with your project!

  15. On , Christine wrote:

    I am thinking of doing a scrapbook page I made for a friend of mine onto canvas as a Christmas present for her but I would like to make it as a 12×12. Any suggestions as to how to make this in the correct size?

  16. On , Maria wrote:

    Hi Christine. I’m not sure… That was exactly my challenge: printing something larger than my printer allowed.

    I know that there are online companies out there who print custom stuff on canvas and mail it to you. A Google search should probably give you a few names (I can’t remember those I found so long ago). They’re not cheap though.

    For a more handmade solution, I guess, I would see if Fredrix offers the print canvas product in a larger format (I think they do, but I’m not sure), and then I’d ask local printing companies if they can print your design on the print canvas.

    Looking at the ad currently displayed at the bottom of this post, it seems that some printer manufacturers (Hewlett Packard and Epson) have come up with canvas products. I’d probably check those out too.

    Good luck…

  17. On , Chased Copper Earrings wrote:

    Awesome blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your theme. Bless you

  18. On , Maria wrote:

    Hi. I designed my theme for this web site specifically, so it’s completely custom made and wrapped around my content and way of working. So it’s not easily transferrable to other web sites / people. Thank you for asking, and for your nice words!

  19. On , Chris wrote:

    This is a great article. I love your scientific approach to this problem. I work primarily in the digital arts so I’ve been trying to find an affordable way to turn that into something more traditional. This blog has helped me tremendously :)

  20. On , Maria wrote:

    Glad it helped you Chris. Thanks for taking the time to write me :)

  21. On , liana wrote:

    I have used the blender pen with black and white photo copies onto wood. It is fantastic! It is sold at Michaels in the wood crafts section with the “staining pens”. It does smell a lot.