How To Transfer a Study to a Large Canvas

Study for Leaves of Grass, oil on canvas, 2010.
Study for Leaves of Grass. All works by Patricia Watwood.

With the image of a female figure reading in the summer grass in mind, I began to develop my oil painting, Leaves of Grass. I started with a preparatory drawing. I work with models and from life as much as I can, only using photographic reference when absolutely necessary for practicality.

Models brings their own presence, and sometimes, I have to be patient for the right pose to arrive, or begin with one thing and let it evolve as I work and learn more about the arrangement based on my familiarity with it.

Study for Leaves of Grass, oil on canvas, 2010.
Study for Leaves of Grass, oil on canvas, 2010.
In the final composition, I adjusted the model’s foot position from flat on the ground, as it was inthe drawing, to resting on the ball of the foot, giving the whole pose a freer, more fluid feel.

The early studies are done quickly, so that I can feel free to change things around, and be open about how it will unfold. I spent about 1½ hours on the drawing, and then forced myself to switch to another project so that I wouldn’t get locked into my image too quickly. The more hours I invest in any particular picture, the harder it is to break it down, revise it, or throw it out altogether, so I stepped away.

The next thing I did was to transfer the drawing I made to a canvas, to begin an oil study. I liked the pose and the figure so far, and felt ready to move forward in developing it. Here are the steps to transfer a study to canvas:

1. To begin the large painting, I like to transfer the drawing, and copy the information from the study to the large work. This saves me a lot of time by not having to re-draw, and also saves on model fees! I took my small painting and laid tracing paper over it. I traced all the principle lines of the composition, in graphite pencil, reducing the design to a simple linear graphic. You can see that the lines are very simple and in some areas (clumps of grass, for example) there’s very little information transferred. In those passages, I will just copy directly from the painted study to the large canvas.

2. Next, I take the tracing paper to a photocopy store, where I get the drawing enlarged. At some stores, you can do this yourself on an oversize black and white copy machine. Some places will do it for you, and you just tell them what the finished dimensions should be. The paper is three-feet wide, on a roll, so you can enlarge the drawing quite a lot, and the machine can enlarge up to 400%. I have had good success enlarging drawings in this manner. I have made photocopy enlargements of original drawings as well as tracings.

3. The next step is to take the photocopy and rub pastel on the back of the paper so you can transfer the lines. I put the paper on my studio window and rub NuPastel (dark red or sienna) on the back where I see the lines. In an area with a lot of detail, I tone the whole area, but if it’s a simple line I just trace the line. Next, you tape the paper in place on your prepared canvas. Then, I draw over the lines on the front of the photocopy with a graphite pencil. Make sure you press hard enough to press the pastel onto the canvas. I usually lift up the paper and check to make sure I can see it (if not, press harder or rub on more pastel).

4. When that is done, I set the photocopy aside (tape it to a cardboard or foam core board), and fix the transfer lines on the canvas. To fix the lines, I use a small brush–a round with a good point–and redraw all the lines in paint. I will mix raw umber or burnt sienna with a bit of white, and just a touch of medium. Then I thin the paint with my solvent so that can paint the lines fluidly. I compare the painted lines to the large photocopy as I go to be sure I have drawn the lines accurately. Sometimes I will compare with the study or original drawing to make sure I retain the likeness of the original. Once all the lines are redrawn in paint, I let it dry overnight. Once the lines are dry, I begin the underpainting.

Have you worked the same way? What have you found along the way? Do you have any tips to share with the community?


For more painting instruction from Patricia, check out her latest DVD, Figure Painting: Realistic Skin Tone.

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Oil Painting Blog
Patricia Watwood

About Patricia Watwood

Patricia Watwood has studied painting with Jacob Collins at the Water Street Atelier, and also with Ted Seth Jacobs at Ecole Albert Defois. She earned her MFA with honors from New York Academy of Art.

Watwood paints nudes, figures, portraits and still lifes in the classical tradition. Her paintings draw on allegorical, mythological, and narrative themes. She continues the classical pursuits of representational painting, with an eye on the contemporary world. The recurring theme in her paintings is the spiritual human presence. Watwood states, “Formal training is the indispensable underpinning of my practice. I seek to follow and build upon the artistic intelligence and traditions of the past, and bring them anew to my own generation.”

Watwood has exhibited in group and solo shows in New York, Paris, Houston, San Francisco and Long Island.  Her work is represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. Her figurative paintings have been included in several museum shows, including “Enchantment” at the Hartford Art School, “Slow Painting,” at the Oglethorpe Museum; “The Great American Nude,” at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences; and in “Representing Representation VI,” at the Arnot Museum. Her work has been featured in numerous art publications including International Artist, and a recent cover article in American Artist magazine.
Watwood also does portrait commissions, and is represented by Portraits, Inc.  Her recent projects include a portraits for Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, and the former Mayor of St. Louis, for St. Louis City Hall.  Watwood is currently teaching at the New York Academy of Art, and at the Teaching Studios of Art in Brooklyn. 

Watwood and her husband and two daughters live in Brooklyn, New York.

5 thoughts on “How To Transfer a Study to a Large Canvas

  1. I’ll take a digital picture of my rough schetches and with a projector project the barn,
    fence and trees from 3 different drawings that I liked the best on my canvas and outline them. Also size is accompolished easily by moving the projector closer or further away. Used to do it this your way and found I like the versitality of this way better.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Patricia. I create an image file in Photoshop at the same size as the eventual painting, and put a 1-inch grid over it. Then I use a huge straightedge to draw a 1-inch grid on the canvas with an H pencil, and then draw the key lines and a surprising amount of shading, also with an H pencil, then erase as much of the grid as I can, then fix the whole thing with spray fixative. Remembering where landmarks are leads to my frequently mumbling things like “14 just east of 32.”

  3. That is really interesting – I use an approach very similar to you, Daniel, even though you and I have not discussed this. I am still a big fan of gridding up from a smaller drawing, as it allows me to “learn” the drawing and the various hills and valleys of the subject. The mere act of spending time with the grid and pencil gets me into the feeling of the painting, and it is like opening the door to the start of the project … something I currenly am missing like nobody’s business!!!!! Soon I will dive back in!

  4. Sometimes in making a small study for a larger oil painting, an artist will sketch in certain areas very loosely. It's almost as if she says to herself, "and there's some other stuff that fills in this area of the composition, but I'll