Acrylic / Gel Medium Transfers =======

Hello, and thank you for visiting my site! I threw this together for my friends a few years back, and I had no idea it would become the world's #1 site for acrylic gel transfers. . . . . 

Mixed media  Paul Fujita '02

Welcome to my page of information on acrylic gel medium transfers!  I've been playing with the technique for a few years and it was hard to perfect, but I have taught several people how to do it with great ease. I just think that transfers are fun and its a good way to experiment with images. I was looking around on the web for different info about what other people are doing, and I couldn't find a lot of information about the technique that I use. Most people are saying to use either the most poisonous chemicals imaginable, or that it takes 8-24 hours. I do transfers using only acrylics, and they take mere seconds or minutes. I can't really believe how simple it is, and that it is not too commonly known. If you enjoy mixed-media art, then you must learn about transfers!

What is a transfer?

      A transfer is any process that takes a printed image, and removes it from whatever it is on, and then transfers it to another surface.

      The story goes, that once upon a time, Robert Rauschenberg, the great American painter, was in his studio messing around and he spilled paint thinner onto a canvas that had a magazine page sitting on it. I think he may have let it sit for a while, but when he went to pick up the page, the image had been melted by the solvent and reproduced itself onto the canvas! Voila! The modern transfer was born, or something like that. 

 In 1991, when I was a freshman at PSU, I had the opportunity to study under Mel Katz. We did various abstract techniques that were very direct and fast. One of these was the transfer. We used some intense paint thinner that was only available at this obscure store. We taped magazine pages face down onto paper, then brushed on some solvent, then rubbed it with the edge of a spoon, then - bingo- the image was on the paper. This was great, we got some cool results, but my problem then and now is that I don't like poisonous chemicals. If you think you are cool, gnarly or smart, go for it. Be the romantic artist whose studio apartment is soaked in toxic garbage and breathe all of the poisonous fumes you want. You can use Goof Off, lacquer thinner, lighter fluid, or even xylene blending pens to make your transfers, I just honestly don't think its worth it.  But whatever the case, this class introduced me to principles of abstraction and transfers.

I had heard about acrylic transfers but I had never seen one done before 1997 or so. The process wasn't exactly clear, and there were several different methods used. One of these is the commonly known method that involves building up the acrylic on the photocopy until it is thick and then soaking it in water so the paper falls off. This is good but it takes too long in my opinion. So I experimented on my own for a couple of years until I came up with an easy, quick method to do transfers.


gesso and acrylic transfers onto wood.   Fujita '02

What makes a transfer work?

When a transfer succeeds, it is a firmly fused layer of medium that is bonded quite well to an image that consists of photocopy toner. What is it about acrylic and toner that causes them to stick together so well? I posed this question to my father, retired chemist Tom S. Fujita, and got a long and complex answer. Basically the acrylic is an emulsion, which explains why it starts out like liquid and then dries up like a flexible plastic. When it is wet, the molecular structure of the emulsion is  desperately grabbing out for something and so when the water evaporates, they bond to each other or whatever is next to them. Thus - voila - your paint sticks to the canvas. So then you take a photocopy, which is made from toner, and expose it to acrylic, and they bond together. Tom felt that on a molecular level, the emulsion is melting the toner, however there are never any visible smears or blurs unless you use a computer printout which kind of works but not really. At any rate, this would appear to lend to theoretical archivability but who knows? Maybe you have a better explanation which I would be curious to hear.

Why do a transfer?

It is, in my opinion, the best way to put an image onto a surface. How would one go about putting a transparent image onto another image? You'd have to use a computer or make a transparency. What about adding an image to a painting? Well of course you could just collage it on there, but unless you use special materials its just going to look like crap and disintegrate within a few years. All of these problems can be solved using a transfer. The result is a collage effect with the physical stability of a painting.

This is a photocopy transfer drawing on printmaking paper. I used dozens of copies and gel medium and that's it. The surface is totally flat.

Fujita '98

Acrylic vs. Oils

Acrylic transfers work best with acrylic paintings or mixed media works. As a general rule, one should not mix oils and acrylics on the same painting. But there is nothing really stopping you if that's what you want to do. However, if you try to do acrylic transfers onto an oil painting, it may not truly bond together. Putting the transfers down first might be the better idea if you plan on using oils.

detail of some more complex layering techniques - Fujita 2005

Materials Needed:

  Photocopies or other printed material - I like photocopies because you can pick out exactly what you want to transfer, and the quality of the black is very good. However, any printed material will theoretically work. I have used mimeographs, old books, newspaper, and various color stuff. Some Canadians I've heard of are very advanced in transferring color onto t-shirts and stuff, but I have not done too much color. I like the absoluteness of a b/w copy transfer.

Acrylic gel medium - Gloss gel works good. But anything containing acrylic will function. Acrylic paint, gesso, latex paint, or various mediums work as long as the ingredients say "Polymer acrylic medium" then that's the stuff.

  Baren - This is a printmaking tool that is used to rub a block print onto paper. I use the cheapo brand that's just a plastic handle attached to a round pad that is layered with a friction-reducing mesh fabric. Some barens are made out of bamboo, but I like the plastic ones because they allow the user to exert pressure with the handle and not just by pressing down on the back of the baren. A spoon could work also, or some people use a special bone. Sometimes I use a brayer. The point is that you need to press down on the copy really hard without messing it up.

 Surface - What do you want to do the transfer on? I have used nice printmaking paper which was ok but tended to peel up because of the rigorous process involved. Unstretched canvas worked alright (you could use a stretched canvas but you would have to place a hard object behind the canvas in order to get the proper amount of pressure)  I like wood the best. I have transferred onto walls, all sorts of gessoed surfaces, and all sorts of 3-D surfaces. It is possible to transfer onto a bumpy surface but its more unpredictable.

Water - You will want a small container of water.

Sponge - Optional. Some people prefer a sponge or other tool to remove the paper. I use my bare hands unless its a really rough surface.

How to do a transfer:

Take your surface and make sure it is relatively clean. Then figure out what image you are using and where you want it to go. You can apply the medium either to the surface or directly onto the image. From here on, I will refer to the vehicle as "medium" although that can include gel medium, gesso, acrylic paint or any combination of anything acrylic.
 2. If you are applying the medium to the surface, you could use a brush and get a very precise area to be filled with the image. If you are applying the medium to the image, it works good just with your finger. The reason I do this is that it is easier to feel that you have the right amount of medium. Also, if you were using a brush and doing a bunch of transfers, you would have to continuously worry about the medium drying up and ruining your brush. If you leave your brush in water, you create the hassle of then having to totally dry your brush off each time you get more medium because the excess water picked up in the brush will totally throw off the consistency of the medium. You do not want to water down the medium.

    3. I just smear gel medium onto the photocopy with my finger until it completely coats the copy. Don't leave huge gobs on there because you don't need to and it will be slower drying. However if you feel the medium starting to get tacky then it is too thin and it starting to dry. You need just the right amount. Different amounts get different results. Sure, you can just glom it on there, but you will have to wait a while until it is completely dry. But this can achieve a thick, glossy surface with the transfer sitting on top of it. If the surface is uneven, this can be helpful. If the surface is flat, then you really need just a thin layer of medium in order to make it work

4. Once you have the proper amount of medium going, then its basically like gluing one thing to another - pretty simple. Its also kind of like making a print. Lay down the image, and then press it down firmly into place. Then, like a block print or whatever, take the baren and begin smoothing and pressing down the image from the middle out. Here's where excessive medium can harm the process. If there's too much, the image will slip around on the surface. You want the image to really be sticking in place. One method is to use a roller to flatten the image, just lay down a piece of paper on top otherwise the gel will ooze all over the place. At any rate, smooth down the image with the baren or other tool until the image is solidly stuck down. No air bubbles or blobs of medium should be underneath.

5. The idea here is that the photocopy or other image is 100% in contact with the gel and the surface in a perfect layer. But if its not perfect that's ok too. I like the distressed edge of an imperfect transfer, and that can be taken all the way into abstraction by just transferring a random brushstroke on a solid black photocopy. Once the copy is firmly in place, wait a second and then peel up a corner of it. after just a few seconds, parts of the copy will begin sticking to the surface. If it doesn't stick and the gel is still wet, press the copy back down and wait. If the medium is not too thick, your transfer will be ready almost immediately. What you should see is your photocopy separating apart. The black toner and the layer of paper facing it should be stuck to your surface. The rest of the paper in your hand should have the toner removed from it. This can be the tricky part, and to ensure success you could just leave it alone until its completely dry. If you have perfect timing, you can potentially see your image, but normally the image is somewhat visible and covered with fibers of paper.

6. Now comes the fun part - bringing the image back out. You can come up with any technique for this that you want, but I just use my bare hands because I can really feel the transfer and feel when I have the paper removed. Take a small dish of water and get a half a drop on your finger and then moisten the layer of paper that is stuck on your transfer and rub it off. Repeat this process until all of the little fibers of paper are gone and you have a clean transfer. There are different methods for different circumstances, but just a tiny bit of water works good for me because I can get more friction and remove the paper more easily. This step can be kind of tricky, as you can rub away the transfer if it is not completely dry. But you can also get the paper off more easily if it is fresh and still a little moist. Experiment!
NOTE: since I made this page, I had to do a grueling transfer project where I was using wood surfaces. A friend who helped out felt that it was easier to put a bit more water onto the transfer to get it off. This is definitely true if you are using a strong and waterproof surface, and if the transfer is totally dry. I also used an eraser to get the paper off when the surface was just too rough or whenever I felt that my fingers were worn to the bone. This sped up some parts of the process.

7. You can layer transfers over transfers, and one thing to note is the quality of blackness that you are achieving. A raw transfer is not glossy like pure acrylic medium because you are looking at the back of a black copy. In this state it is possible to add pencil. But if you then paint a layer of clear medium on top of the transfer it will bring out a more glossy black, and a glossy surface. Furthermore, if you have multiple transfers on top of each other, and then lay on a coat of clear, you will be able to see the depth of the layers much better. This is a very cool step involving principles of glaze painting, where light enters the surface of the painting and then bounces around within the transparent layers, giving it a glow from within, as opposed to a matte black surface where the light hits the piece and then kind of just stops. 

8. Get crazy! There are endless possibilities for transfers. Lately I have been doing multi-colored transfers by applying different colors of paint and tinted gel to the photocopy. Its also good to lay down the medium, and then put several different copies down in a collage-type arrangement and then transfer them all at once.


Ok finally some step by step pics

contact me at fujita (at) calsk8.com, paulfujita (at) gmail.com!!!! Thanks for all of your interest and support!


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