When I’m working on a complicated composition that might involve a lot of pencil work and erasing, I like to draft sketches on inexpensive paper, and then transfer my final sketch to watercolor paper. This prevents me from overworking the fragile fibers of the paper, which can impact the flow of watercolor paint. My techniques for transferring images vary depending on the scale of my subject. I might use a projector for large paintings, a window or light box for medium sizes, and for smaller sketches, I prefer to use tracing paper.

My tools for sketching with tracing paper

Sketching on tracing paper has its advantages. The paper is cheap and transparent! I can erase and rework images, and easily retrace them and start fresh. It gives me a chance to get to know my subject. Here’s the tracing I completed for my painting of a life size polar bear skull.

My completed polar bear skull sketch on tracing paper

Once you have a completed sketch on tracing paper, the puzzle is how to transfer the image in the correct orientation. Turning the initial sketch facedown on the paper would result in a mirror image being transferred. This can be solved in a few ways. On technique is to scribble graphite on the back of the paper and retrace the front of the sketch. This is effective, but can result in additional smudges from the excess of graphite. You could also purchase carbon transfer paper, but I don’t have any experience with it–I prefer to use what I already have on hand!

Tracing the mirror image on a fresh piece of paper

The technique that I find cleanest and simplest is to create a fresh mirror image (reversed) tracing of my first sketch. With this trace, I focus on the primary contours of my image and use a soft pencil such as a Palomino Blackwing (I can’t resist nice looking tools). Now when I turn this sketch facedown on the final paper, the image will be oriented correctly and I can rub the tracing paper with a bone folder, spoon, or my fingers to transfer the graphite.

Transferring my sketch to final paper

The result is a very clean, light image. The paper I’m using in this example is my favorite Arches Cover Cream. I love it for natural history studies, which I paint with watercolor and white gouache.

The image is lightly transferred

This is the final painting I completed from the original polar bear sketches.

Polar Bear Skull, 10" x 15" watercolor and gouache
Polar Bear Skull, 10″ x 15″ watercolor and gouache