From Paper to Paint: Transfer Methods


After eighteen years of working with watercolour, I’ve reached a stage where I almost never draw directly on my watercolour paper. In this post, I’ll tell you why I avoid sketching directly on my watercolour paper and what I do instead.

Protect your Paper

why you should think twice about drawing directly on watercolour paper

Watercolour paper is surprisingly fragile. Many papers have something called ‘surface sizing’, which helps the paper absorb water evenly while keeping pigments near the surface where they can remain most bright and vibrant. However, if you’re an indecisive sketcher you run the risk of overusing an eraser which can disrupt the sizing and paper fibres and can affect your watercolour paints from drying perfectly. Watercolour paper is also expensive; the price can make artists afraid of making mistakes that might mean they overwork their paper by rub out and start over again.

This is why I recommend drafting your designs on printing paper and then transferring them onto watercolour paper once you’re totally happy with them. Mistakes are less frightening to make on printing paper than watercolour paper, and you can rework sections to your heart’s content.

After almost two decades of painting, this is the methods I use.

Graphite Backing

This method is my personal favourite – and all it requires is five minutes, a pencil, your drafting paper, and your watercolour paper. This method is the DIY version of carbon tracing paper, and I much prefer these results.

Here’s how you do it:
  1. Pick a piece of paper to draft your design on – this can be done on a piece of printing paper, a scrap of lined notepaper or even the back of an old bill.

  2. Once you’re happy with your design, flip the sheet of paper over. Make sure you don’t have your watercolour paper below your drafting paper.

  3. Take your pencil and then shade the reverse of your design. Make sure all the lines are fully covered with pencil underneath.

    Best Advice: If you’re struggling to see your design through the paper, don’t fear; simply place your paper against a sunny window pane and your design will shine right through. If it’s nighttime and you have a laptop, simply open a blank word document, fill your screen and up the brightness on your monitor and place your paper against the screen. Gently sketch out the edges of your design. Then place your paper back on the table before shading it all in.

  4. Turn your drafting paper back over so that your design is facing up. Place your design on your watercolour paper and position it where you would like your painting to be.

  5. Take your pencil and trace over your design. You’ll need to apply some pressure; the harder your pencil lead, the more pressure you’ll need, but make sure you’re not pressing so hard that you dent your paper. Use your hand to hold both sheets of paper firmly.

    Best Advice: I generally use a 3B/4B pencil for shading, as I find they has the perfect balance of darkness / hardness for this method. Having said that, if you do choose a softer, darker pencil like an 8B or 9B, just remember you’ll need to use less pressure to get your design onto the watercolour paper. Also be aware not to drag your pencil backed paper over your watercolour paper, as it can leave pencil smudges.

  6. Before lifting your hand: without removing your hand, lift a corner to check how clear your design is and that you haven’t missed anything. Adjust accordingly.

If your pencil lines are too dark, simply use a putty eraser (or bluetack!) to lighten the lines. Ideally, you want faint lines that you can see but won’t show through your watercolour washes. Remember, you won’t be able to lighten or rub out pencil lines after you’ve started painting.

I’ve filmed a video of my process which you can see below:

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