How to Make Your Own Cheap, Reusable Graphite Transfer Paper

By Carrie Lewis in Art Tutorials > Drawing Tips

There are many ways to transfer drawings from one surface to another: Light boxes. Opaque projectors. Drawing freehand, or with a grid.

Most artists are familiar with transfer papers, too. These are papers specially designed with a substance on one side that can be “moved” to another surface if pressure is applied to the back of the transfer paper. It’s a concept that dates back to manual typewriters and carbon paper, which typists used to make multiple copies of a document without having to type it more than once.

Carbon paper is still available, and can be used to transfer drawings from one surface to another. But it can be messy and isn’t appropriate with all media, as it tends to create “dirty” or smudged transfers and can be smeared or dissolved if used with wet mediums.

Commercial transfer papers have also been designed specifically for artists. Saral Transfer Paper is probably the most recognized name for transfer papers. It comes in rolls and is available in an assortment of colors, including white for artwork on darker papers. But there are other brands and types, as well.

The benefit of most commercial transfer papers is that they can be used more than once. Many of them are also greaseless and/or waxless, which means they won’t stain drawing paper or other supports.

I’ve used many of these products and found them satisfactory, but in recent years, I’ve found something I like even better than the best commercially manufactured options—my own homemade transfer papers.

If you want to make your own as well, then read on!

Here are the two supplies you’ll need

1. Paper

You can use almost any paper that’s smooth and sturdy. I prefer 24-pound ink jet paper. It takes a lot of graphite and is heavy enough to be used many times.

Whatever your preferences, choose a paper that is available in larger sizes. Ink jet paper can be purchased in standard 8.5 by 11 inch sheets, 8.5 by 14 inch sheets, and 11 by 14 inch sheets. Those sizes are more than adequate for most of my work.

2. Graphite Pencils

You might think that the softer the lead you use, the better. Well, depending on how you want to use the paper, you could be right!

Personally, I’ve found is that 4B to 6B are the best. Anything harder than 4B and you’ll still get a nice clean transfer, but you’ll have to use heavier pressure to successfully transfer the lines—which could lead to unwanted impressions in the drawing paper.

Conversely, anything softer than a 6B and you’ll be able to easily transfer lines without using a lot of pressure, but it will also be much easier to leave unintentional transfer marks on the drawing paper.

The nice thing about this type of transfer paper is that smudges are fairly easy to clean up with a kneaded eraser, no matter how soft the pencil you use. Try a few different softnesses and see what works best for you.

Making your graphite transfer paper

Shade one side of the paper with several layers of graphite. It’s important to cover the paper completely—I generally do several layers of graphite, turning the paper between each layer so that the paper is completely covered. I use medium and medium-heavy pressure for every layer and coat the paper until it’s shiny.

You might be tempted to use a fixative of some type to keep the graphite from smudging. Don’t do it! Even workable fixative reduces the usefulness of the transfer paper, and most varnishes will make it totally useless.

Handling and storing homemade transfer papers

If you use an extremely soft graphite pencil, you’ll find yourself leaving graphite fingerprints all over if you don’t handle the paper carefully. While that might be all right while you’re working, you don’t want to leave smears or smudges on anything else and will want to store the transfer paper carefully.

The trick is to store your homemade transfer paper in pairs, with the transfer surfaces (the sides covered with graphite) facing each other. I keep transfer papers in a file folder to keep them clean and flat. Larger sheets can be rolled—again face to face—or stored flat in the same manner.

If you don’t have two sheets of transfer paper, simply pair your transfer paper with a clean sheet as a protective covering.

Here’s the best part

Yes, this type of transfer paper is inexpensive and easy to make, but even better, after a few uses, I can recharge the paper by layering more graphite over it. With careful storage, a sheet of homemade transfer paper can last for months or even years.

Plus, if you want to add color. . .

Just substitute the graphite pencil with the colored pencil of your choice. Use a soft pencil like Prismacolor Premiers in order to get a decent transfer line.

Transfer papers made with a colored pencil will not be suitable for artwork that you plan to finish with graphite or charcoal, since colored pencils are either wax- or oil-based and will resist layering with graphite or charcoal. They may also not be suitable for use under oil paintings. Test them first to make sure they won’t bleed through layers of paint, or cause the paint to flake.

Colored pencil transfer sheets also tend to be a little less “clean” than graphite transfer sheets and the smudges are more difficult to remove. If used carefully, however, they can be just as useful as a graphite transfer sheet or—for that matter—as any commercial transfer paper.

Whether you use graphite or colored pencil, making your own transfer paper is definitely a time- and money-saver! As such, it’s well worth trying. Give it a shot!


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