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Pencil Drawing Advice: How to Transfer Reference Sketches to Paper

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Underdrawing via graphite transfer on an A2 sheet of Bristol board - "Old Giants Resting" by David W. J. Lloyd.

Underdrawing via graphite transfer on an A2 sheet of Bristol board - "Old Giants Resting" by David W. J. Lloyd.

A Quick and Easy Way to Layout a Drawing

If you're an artist who likes to work from reference materials, be it photos or sketchbook work, at some point, you will want to transfer your ideas to paper and make a drawing. There are many tried and tested means for laying out your work on paper (or canvas), including measuring, using a grid, projection, or simply doing it by eye.

As a time-pressed individual, my preferred method is quick, inexpensive, and most importantly, effective. I use printed inkjet paper and graphite to transfer the image to the size of paper I require for my final drawing. If you're interested, and would like to try it yourself, you'll need the following:

  • Ink jet printer and paper
  • A graphite stump - 2B or more
  • Your source image
  • The piece of paper you will be making your drawing on

Before we start, we need to say a few words about the process.

Isn't This Cheating?

Some people think this type of transfer is cheating. They're wrong, plain and simple. This viewpoint comes from a misunderstanding of how artists work and have worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yes, there are some artists who can magically just do this from their brain, but for every one that can, there are a dozen people like me who struggle to get their vision down on paper without these kinds of tools.

A Reliable Artist's Tool

For years, artists have used methods such as grids, measurements, pin-pricked paper and chalk dust, camera obscure and projection to lay out their final art works. This is such a small part of the process that it's pretty much irrelevant to the final piece. People will say such things as, "you've just traced that" or "that's cheating" because they have been misled to believe that all great artists can just capture what's in their heads automatically.

They don't realise that tracing and transfer has been a part of many of the world's most famous artistic methods for centuries.

To discount a piece as cheating or just tracing shows the person making such comments values the process of making the artwork over its final impact. This can come from both ignorance or a misplaced cultural snobbery. There are plenty of accurately drawn pieces of art in the world done without the use of tracing or other methods of transfer that lack any kind of emotional impact or response, just as there are many pieces that did use tracing or similar methods and knock you sideways with their artistry. It really is in the eye of the beholder, and how the artist got there is the least important part of the finished piece.

A Skill in its Own Right

They also don't realise that tracing itself is a real skill. What do you use, what do you leave out, what about shade, shadows, highlights, etc? I can guarantee you that if I gave ten people the same piece of graphite backed resource image and asked them to trace it, you would wind up with ten different interpretations of the same image. Yes, it may help get the basic proportions right on a figurative piece, but without the skill to then render the image beyond an outline, it's not the biggest or most relevant part of the process.

Worst of all, such an attitude also ignores the work the artist has done to get to the point of being ready to trace an image. Even if it's just a simple photo that's to be traced, the artist has selected it whilst rejecting others. It's about the composition, the light, the subject or whatever; either way, it has to fit with the artist's vision. Personally, I combine several images to make the source material for my drawings which can take hours to do, whilst the tracing is rarely more than 5% of the time spent on a piece.

The original source image I created prior to transfer, which required hours of work and composing.

The original source image I created prior to transfer, which required hours of work and composing.

Method Limitations

Before we start, there are a few limitations to this method that I should mention. The primary one is size as unless you have a large format printer and paper (A3 and upwards) you will be limited to the size you can print, which is typically A4.

Personally, I have an A3 printer, and the biggest size transfer I have used this method to complete is an A2 drawing. I achieved this by taping two A3 sheets together to make the image in A2 size. In theory, you can use multiple sheets stuck together, but this can be a problem if you try to go too big. Go too big and you will be spending a lot of time adding your graphite to the back of your print.

Another issue is the resulting pencil line weight, as you have to get a feel for how hard to press your pencil on the paper as you transfer. Too hard and you mark the paper below with pencil dents that can affect the final drawing. Too soft, the image does not transfer fully to the paper, and you have gaps in your outlining.

This method is also tricky if you are planning on tracing tonal elements rather than line elements. It's not well suited to blocks of tone and getting a differentiation in the tones you trace across. You can hint at them, but trying to shade through your tracing can remove any subtly in what you're doing on the final drawing as it tends to all come out the same tone.

Step 1: Print Your Image

Once you've taken the time to choose or compose the image you want to turn into a drawing, print it out onto a piece of bog-standard inkjet printing paper.

The image to transfer printed

The image to transfer printed

Step 2: Graphite the Back of the Print

Turn the print over, so the side with the image is facing down. Take your graphite stump and get covering the back of the print.

Cover the back of your image in graphite.

Cover the back of your image in graphite.

At this point, the graphite doesn't need to be tidy; you just need to make sure that you have covered the whole of the back of the paper where the image will be and not left big gaps in the coverage. In the above image, the print on the front is an oval, so I could see the outline of the shape through the paper and only covered where I wanted to transfer it.

Step 3: Fix the Print to Your Drawing Paper

Once you're happy with the amount of graphite on the back of the print, you can present it to the paper you're doing the drawing on. You can either attach the drawing paper to a board with masking tape or work straight from the pad, depending on which you prefer.

Take the printed paper and place it graphite-side down on your drawing paper. Once you are happy with its position, secure the paper in place with masking tape at the edges. This is to ensure it doesn't move whilst you're tracing the image through the sheet.

Line up your print with the drawing paper, and tape it down to keep it fixed.

Line up your print with the drawing paper, and tape it down to keep it fixed.

Step 4: Begin Tracing

You're now ready to start tracing the image onto your drawing paper. There are a few things to bear in mind here whilst tracing the images. Firstly, pencil weight. I prefer to use a soft pencil, like a 4B, to trace. Keep the pressure fairly light as you trace, don't push too hard on the pencil.

If you use a heavier lead, there's a tendency to push harder, and it's harder to see where you've traced on the print. If you're pressing too hard on the transfer, it can cause damage to the paper underneath, leaving white lines indented in the paper. If the graphite is quite dark on the back of the print, it really doesn't take a lot of pressure to transfer it. Also, as you're using a softer pencil, you leave darker lines on the print to see where you've been.

The second thing you need to consider is keeping the paper flat. I like to try and keep the print stretched as I trace. The print can ripple whilst you're working, which can play havoc with smaller details. Gently stretch the paper with your free hand to keep it as flat as possible whilst you trace, like the image below.

To keep the print flat to the paper, stretch your paper gently as you trace so it doesn't move.

To keep the print flat to the paper, stretch your paper gently as you trace so it doesn't move.

Choose what you want to focus on whilst you trace. Do you just need the outlines, do you want to denote areas of shade or detail, etc. Remember, this process is just to give you the basic outlines you need to progress the drawing. At this point, it is possible to overwork the tracing, which can be confusing when you set out to shade and enhance the drawing. Don't get too bogged down with the tracing, as it's a guide, not the finished piece. Here's what your print looks like once you've finished tracing:

The print with the traced pencil over the top.

The print with the traced pencil over the top.

Notice how I've just concentrated on the outlines, and given myself some visual notes on structure and tonal areas. I haven't tried to trace every single detail and colour in areas of tone. Remember, tone gets lost because the transferred area of graphite will be the same tone the whole way across. If you've hinted at areas of tone and structure in your drawing lightly enough, you can rub them out on the under drawing should you need to.

Step 5: Now the Hard Part Begins...

So, there we go, the layout drawing is now transferred to the drawing paper. I discard the printed paper with graphite on, as it has now served its purpose. Here's the traced image for you.

The transferred image ready is done and I am to continue the piece.

The transferred image ready is done and I am to continue the piece.

You'll notice there is a lot of information missing in the transfer, and there are some untidy areas due to variations in the graphite on the paper and my pencil pressure whilst transferring. But I have what I need: the information to begin turning my original idea into a fully realised pencil drawing.

Typically, the transfer process takes up less than 5% of the total time of the piece. The real time and effort are spent building up tones and dark areas of the drawing, observing the details and tonal shifts in the original source and tidying up. My drawings don't always use the light in the source photos, so sometimes I have to change the shading in my images as I've used multiple sources with different lighting to make the source image. Here's the final drawing, entitled "Lady Rut."

The finished drawing: "Lady Rut."

The finished drawing: "Lady Rut."

The Artist's Goal

I could have used several methods to get this image to paper, and have done so in many past drawings. I've used the grid method, digital camera obsucra, observational measurement, freehand copying and pure guesswork. For me though, this is by far the quickest, easiest and most accurate means of doing so.

Some people may prefer to develop their observational skills and draw directly from life or imagination, which is fine as well. At the end of the day, how you got there is irrelevant as long as you complete a piece of art that moves someone, somewhere. That's the most important goal for any artist!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 David Lloyd