How to Trace Something Onto a Canvas – Our Guide and Tips

There are many reasons why you might want to trace something onto a canvas. You might have created an incredible design you wish to trace, or you might just want to trace a picture of your child’s favorite superhero. In this guide, we look at some of the methods you can use to get an image onto canvas.

By tracing the image onto a canvas first, you can then start to paint or color in. The artistic merits of tracing are a debate for another day! In this guide, we’re just talking about the way to get an image you have found onto the canvas. However, did you know that there are theories that artists like Caravaggio used a form of tracing?

Methods of Tracing Onto Canvas

Below, we’ve covered multiple methods of how to transfer a painting or picture onto canvas. Some methods are more effective than others. Which you choose might also depend on what tools you have available.

Transfer Paper

One of the easiest tracing methods is to use transfer paper. It’s easily available and pretty affordable. Transfer paper is basically a big sheet containing graphite on one side. It’s reusable and comes as a roll or sometimes as individual sheets. It’s a really useful tool for an artist.

Graphite transfer paper can sit on top of your canvas. The steps are simple:

  • Put the transfer paper on your canvas, preferably on an easel.
  • Take the image you want, place it on top, and use masking tape to keep it in place.
  • Using a pencil, draw around the outside lines you want to transfer to your canvas.
  • Once you remove everything from the canvas, the outline will be there.

It works by transferring the graphite as you draw around the image you wish to trace. It really couldn’t be easier.

Top tip: You can reuse graphite paper many times, and don’t need to use a new section every time.

Using a Projector

How do you trace onto a large canvas? A projector is your answer. This is a great method if you need to “enlarge” an image onto the canvas. You can start with a relatively small picture, but using a projector you can draw it accurately on a large canvas with ease.

Projectors are also fantastic for projecting an image onto a wall, or other art formats like painting on boards. Sounds, expensive, huh? Well, you might be surprised to learn that there are some affordable projectors on the market.

This projector is pretty affordable, and can use screen mirroring from your phone. Find the image you want to trace and adjust the size to fill the canvas. It’s also possible to copy a picture onto a canvas using the projector, it doesn’t have to be attached to a device.

The method is simple. Keep the projector in the same place, and the projector stable, and try not to get in the line of light, as you will block the image. The projected image can be used to give you a guideline.

The video above gives you a great guideline on how you can easily get an image onto canvas.

Charcoal Transfer

This is a very similar method to using transfer paper. You might look at it as something of a “hack” version of this. You can effectively make your own transfer paper by coloring in a blank sheet with charcoal. Reverse it on top of the canvas, and follow the same steps as you would with transfer paper. Instead of graphite transferring, charcoal will transfer onto your canvas.

The downsides of this method are that it is a bit messier, and excess charcoal might end up on your canvas. This is manageable, but transfer paper is probably better if you have it available.

Find another helpful video about this subject below from the brilliant Robin Sealark.

Can I Trace Onto Canvas Directly?

tracing onto canvas

A lot of people are wondering how to trace onto a canvas without tracing paper or another type of transfer paper.

Whether you can trace directly onto the canvas is an area of some debate. Some people have had success with tracing onto the canvas directly, others say it is impossible. We found that it is possible, but only in certain situations.

Things that will help include:

  • Using a lightbox. Without a lightbox, it’s really unlikely that the image will project through onto the canvas.
  • Use an image with a dark outline. It might even help to go around the outside with a marker pen.
  • Using a thinly-stretched canvas. In fact, cheaper canvases might be better for tracing, as thicker canvases will block out more light due to their denser, more fibrous design. Obviously, whether or not you want to use lower-quality canvases is up to you.

It’s not the first method we would recommend, but there is every chance you could have success tracing directly onto a canvas. If you already have a lightbox or are happy to invest in an affordable model, it will help a huge amount.

Is Tracing Cheating?

As we said from the output, you might not be tracing to start on a piece of original art. If your child wants a painting of Spiderman on his wall then the easiest method is probably to trace the outline to start working on it. It’s really up to you whether you choose to trace or not.

In terms of creating original artwork, tracing from a photo isn’t really “cheating” but you will find people who discourage it. You won’t learn quite as much this way. For beginners, it can be a good way to start to get the hang of perspective and proportion. There’s no “right” or “wrong”. It is all about giving yourself tools and options to get the job done.

You’re bound to find endless Reddit threads discussing whether or not tracing is a legitimate technique. It really doesn’t matter. If you decide to do it, ensure you do it right!


Have you got your own favorite methods of tracing onto canvas or any neat hacks or tricks you’d like to share? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Tracing onto canvas or even enlarging onto canvas can be tricky, especially if you aren’t experienced doing so. The actual material of canvas doesn’t really lend itself to tracing directly, so you have to either get creative or use some added tools like projectors or transfer paper.

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