Kerrie Woodhouse

Whimsical Watercolour

9 Ways to Transfer your Drawing for Watercolor Painting

art tipsKerrie Woodhouse

So you have your nice thick piece of watercolour paper in front of you, and a nice drawing of the thing you would like to paint. No drawing? Perhaps you have a reference photo. Either way the problem now is how to transfer the drawing for watercolour painting?


The good news is… you have options.

Psst.. by the way.. Are you wishing you had some done for you line drawings that you could get started painting straight away? I've got some for you!


Watercolour paper is a very special thing. Thick and luxurious - it has to be to cope with all the water. But this means it is not an ideal drawing surface if you are needing or wanting to begin with a detailed line drawing. The best idea then, is to complete your drawing on another sheet of paper and then transfer it to your watercolour paper.

The thing is - since the paper is so thick and luxurious transferring it can be a little tricky. So let's review your options

1 Transfer your Drawing with the Grid Method

You can draw grid lines over your drawing and then make similar pale gridlines in pencil over your watercolour paper in the same proportion. Then you can simply transfer your drawing by creating the linework with your pencil on the watercolour paper, square by square in the grid you created. When you are done, you can carefully erase the grid lines before you start painting.

If you are working from a reference photograph (that you have the rights to use, obviously - no one needs to start their painting journey with the bad karma that comes from image theft!) then there are free apps you can use to create the grid for you. You will find a few different apps available but this is the one I use. It lets you choose the number of boxes in your grid so you can customise it to your liking.


Another option is to create a grid on a sheet of clear acetate. Then you can place that grid over a printed photo or your drawing and proceed with the square by square drawing transfer method. This means you don’t have to mark up your photo or drawing and you can reuse the acetate grid over and over again.

2 Transfer your Drawing by Tracing (with a Sunny window)

Another option is to trace your line drawing from the drawing paper to the watercolour paper. If I have a nice dark line drawing I am sometimes able to see enough of that through a second sheet of thin drawing paper to reproduce the line on that second clean sheet of drawing paper.

However, because the watercolour paper is so thick, this will not be possible. But if you have a sunny window you can place your watercolour paper on top of the printed line drawing and then hold it up to the window.

I suggest attaching it to the window with some removable tape (painter’s/artist tape or even washi tape across the top edge or corners to hold it in place). The light from the window, on the bright day should help you see the image well enough to trace the outline.

If you choose to paint loose like me this might work well enough because for a loose painting all you need is a loose outline with little or no details. If you prefer something a little more detailed you may find you need to explore other options.

3 Transfer your Drawing with a Light box

A light box makes fairly easy work of transferring a drawing to watercolour paper. These days you can get a fairly inexpensive one - I don’t think that a branded one is necessary. Mine came from eBay for less than $20 Australian dollars and suits me very well. You can adjust the brightness to your liking.


4 Transfer your Drawing with a DIY light box - old style

Now you may not want to purchase a light box but be able to come up with a DIY solution. For example, I have glass coffee table and a spare desk light. Before I got my lightbox I used to pop the desk light under the glass coffee table and then place the drawing down on the glass table with the watercolour paper on top of it and trace away.

No glass table? Maybe a clear plastic tub turned upside down might work. It just needs to be deep enough for you to fit a light underneath.

5 Transfer your Drawing with a DIY light box - technology to the rescue

I have to say I did rather enjoy fashioning my own light table with supplies from around the house, but there is potentially an easier solution. If your image is on your computer and you have a large enough screen you can get the image on the screen. Take a photo or scan of your drawing and then open that on your computer. Then, tape the watercolour paper to your screen (carefully using low tack tape obviously) and the brightness of the screen should help you transfer the drawing for your watercolour painting.

You can do the same thing with your iPad or tablet if the image is small enough. You might have to switch off its auto sleep function will you are doing this exercise, unless you are a super fast tracer!

6. Transfer your Drawing with Transfer Paper

Yes, that does seem a lot of fuss and bother. So how about transfer paper?


This is a relatively inexpensive supply that you can get either from an art shop or more typically from the office supply store. Place your watercolour paper on your desk with the transfer paper over the top. Then put your drawing on top of that and trace the main outlines. The pressure from your pen or pencil will transfer the graphite on the transfer paper onto the watercolour paper.

Best of all the transfer paper is reusable so you will be able to do many many paintings with the one sheet.

7. Transfer your Drawing with Tracing Paper


If you don't have or don’t wish to acquire transfer paper, then you can simply use tracing paper. And if you don’t have tracing paper some baking paper from the kitchen will do just fine. As long as you can see through it you can place it on top of your drawing and trace the outlines you will need to guide you in the painting.

Once you are done, flip the tracing over and use a graphite pencil to completely cover the back of the line drawing. Then turn the tracing the right way up and place it onto your watercolour paper. Trace over the lines once again so that the pressure from this second tracing transfers the graphite on the back of the tracing to your watercolour sheet.


8. Drawing Directly on the Watercolor Paper

Do you have to transfer your drawing for watercolour painting? Of course not!

If you are a reasonably confident drawer then you can create a loose sketch directly onto your watercolour paper. Do take care that you don’t damage the paper with too much erasing. For this reason many purists wouldn’t dream of doing this and would most definitely use a transfer method.

Being far more rebel than purist, or perhaps just impatient I usually always take this approach. Visit my YouTube channel and you’ll see what I mean!

If you want to know more about different approaches to underdrawing for watercolor painting, this blog has all the details including a few bold suggestions - come and see if you are up for those!

9. Don't Draw at all!

What, now?

Yes, you don’t have to start a painting by drawing at all. You can begin with a clean sheet of watercolour paper and just paint. This method is sometimes called direct watercolor painting - find out more about that here.

As beginner painters there are many obstacles we can put before ourselves when we start learning watercolour painting. My job is to help you jump over those so hopefully we have eliminated some of the initial problems you might have around drawing for watercolor painting.

Got any other watercolor problems? Email me! I’d love to help.

Many beginners worry that they can’t draw so they won’t be able to paint. We all start somewhere and that is perfectly fine.

Be where you are and just start.

Happy painting!

Would you like some done for you line drawings so that you could get started painting straight away? Here you go…


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