I Failed at Photo Transfers So You Don't Have To!

Everything looks so easy on Pinterest, doesn't it? You find step by step instructions with plenty of pictures and you're pumped full of confidence only to find the final product doesn't look anything like you had in mind. Sound familiar? It's exactly what happened to me when I tried to take on the seemingly simple project of transferring photos to a canvas. I mean, all you have to do is slather some adhesive on the canvas; press a photo printed on regular paper face down; wet the paper with a spray bottle, then rub it off. How hard can that be?

Photo transfer fail

This hard.

That's not a craft. That's something you hide in a drawer and pull out on occasion to remind yourself not to be cocky. That's a disaster. So what went wrong? I found tutorials suggesting you should let the project dry over night, so I did. Eight hours wasn't long enough to let the gel medium dry, so when I wet the paper, everything turned into a sticky mess and huge chunks of paper ripped right off. No big deal. I'll just let it dry a full 12 hours next time because that's all I need, right? Well ...

Photo Transfer - too faded

While the finished project turned out much neater than my first pass, there's still something rather ghostly about this print. The final look was rather faded, so I figured I just needed to turn up the contrast before printing since you do lose a little of the color in the transfer. I ended up getting busy and this one dried for two full days. The result was better, but still not great.

Photo transfer - too wet

You can see several places where all the color came off. That can be caused by rubbing too hard OR getting the paper too wet. In my case, it was both.

Ok, so what do you need and what do you do to make this work? First, keep a few things in mind: Your end result is not going to be perfect. It should be a little faded and may even have bits where the color comes off. It's great for a vintage or rustic type of decor. Also, the better quality the printer, the better looking the final transfer. Your final print will be a mirror image of whatever is on the paper, so you may want to flip you picture in a photo editor before printing. To get a full-bleed, make sure you crop your pictures to the proportion of your canvas. You'll notice I have a white border along the top and bottom- my canvas was 8x10, but the photos were in 5x7 format. Follow the instructions carefully and be prepared to take your time.

Photo Transfer supplies

As far as supplies, you only need a few things: The photo of your choice printed on regular copy paper, a jar of gel medium, a soft sponge, a canvas and a spray bottle with a fine mist setting filled with water.

Using your sponge, paint a thick coat of gel medium on the canvas, then press your printed picture face down on the surface.

Smooth the paper until you no longer see air bubbles, then let the gel medium dry. For me, the magic number was 24 hours. You can weight the project with a book to keep air bubbles from forming.

Once your gel medium is fully dry, mist the paper with a little bit of water. This is where things get tricky: just spray it with enough water that the paper thins and the image shows through, but not enough that it beads up and makes visible pools.

Using the sponge, rub the wet paper gently. Think of hand-washing your grandmother's heirloom china, not a stainless steel pot. If your paper isn't starting to come off, add a couple mists of water. This takes some real patience, as the process just takes a while. The paper WILL dry up on you, so just add a spritz or two of water to keep the paper coming off. When you're finished, you should have a lovely, but roughly finished photo to display.

Photo canvas transfer

If you're not satisfied with your first try, just remember it took four passes at this before I found one I was pleased with. DIYs can come with a lot of trial and error, but when you figure out the process, the end result can be crazy-rewarding!