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How to Make a Transfer Print

Transfer Printmaking
by David McCall
 

Printmaking is an often-overlooked branch of fine arts, yet it has its own rich history, unique sub-forms, and aesthetics you can’t get from any other process. As an art form, printmaking has been in development for nearly 900 years. (World Printmakers)  One of its newest branches is transfer printmaking. It is, in fact, so new that it is not referenced on Wikipedia’s page on printmaking. (Wikipedia)  Interestingly, even though it is a new branch of printmaking, transfer prints have already split into several different techniques. These various techniques will be discussed in this paper.

First of all, you may be asking yourself, “What is transfer printmaking?” Quite simply, it is the act of transferring something that has already been printed onto another surface. The source materials can be any media that can be somehow manipulated to release from the original surface and bind to a new surface.

The origins of transfer printmaking can be traced back to Robert Rauschenberg. Though it is debatable whether he was the first to ever do a transfer, (Plagens) he is the first artist that documented his technique back in 1958. He discovered (probably by accident) that, when soaked in a solvent, newsprint and newspaper photographs would transfer onto collages and paintings. (Livingstone)  This birthed the new branch of transfer printmaking and inspired generations of printmakers to find new ways to get things to transfer.

Though it all started with newspaper clippings, the most common forms of transfer printmaking today involve photocopies or laser printer printouts. The techniques we have so far discovered seem to give the best results with these toner-based original copies. The reason for this lies in the nature of the toner, itself. Toner is comprised mostly of carbon and polymers or waxes that are sensitive to electrostatic charges. Through a complex process these charged particles are attracted to the paper and then fused to the paper under heat and pressure. (Saxby)  The different transfer techniques use different approaches to undo this binding done by the polymers or waxes and create a new bond for the carbon (pigment) particles.

The various techniques I’ve found are:

  • Solvent transfer
  • Thermal/pressure transfer
  • Acrylic gel medium transfer


Each of these methods uses a different “attack” on the original toner bond and gives each technique a unique aesthetic.

The solvent method dissolves the polymers or waxes to release the carbon. This leaves no binding agent so the carbon particles must be embedded in the new transfer surface. This dictates that the solvent transfer method be done with a porous receiving surface. Toothier papers and wood, work well for this method. Its main drawback is the danger involved in using the powerful solvents required (either acetone or xylene).

The thermal/pressure transfer basically reintroduces the original binding environment of the fuser in the printer or copier. It heats the binders to the point where they are fluid once again and ready to bind to a new surface. It requires that the receiving surface be hotter and stronger than the paper so that the binder/pigment can flow onto it and then the paper is ripped away. This dictates that the receiving surface be something like metal or glass, which is probably one reason why this is an uncommon method.

Acrylic gel transfers basically use acrylic binder without pigment as glue that pulls the carbon and binder to the new surface through a stronger bond than with the original paper. The polymer chains in the acrylic probably chemically interact with the polymers in the toner to interlock. I did not find any scientific studies into this, but it would be interesting to see the chemistry and physics behind this technique.

The acrylic gel medium transfer method is the one I will go into in more depth. It started as a complicated process that took much time. You would basically lay up many coats of acrylic gel medium on top of the toner print/copy to create a thick, rubbery membrane on the paper. After it had dried, you would then bathe the paper and membrane in water and rub the paper off of the membrane, leaving the toner embedded in the membrane. You could then apply the membrane to whatever you intended (be it a collage, piece of paper, or anything else). Not too many people seem to have taken up this technique since it was so time consuming and gave you a thick, rubbery image at the end.

Paul Fujita, in 2003, was the first to document a much more streamlined acrylic gel transfer method. He talks about how he had heard rumors of an easier derivative of this technique, but no one ever taught it and no one ever documented it. Apparently the word got out about his new method and people kept asking about it, so he created the first how-to guide for it. (Fujita, Interview with Paul Fujita on Acrylic Gel Transfer Technique)  This refined technique is non-toxic and works on almost any surface, making it the most accessible of the transfer techniques.

Here is a step-by-step guide to Paul’s streamlined technique:

  1. Go shopping. Gather materials required: Acrylic Gel Medium (Liquitex Gloss Medium & Varnish works well), a photocopy of something to be printed (Paul says photocopies tend to work better than laser printouts… and older copiers work better than newer ones. This is probably related to the lower resolution and corresponding larger carbon particle size of the older copier toner (Saxby)), a surface to transfer to, a small dish of water, and something like a brayer or baren. Aaron Whisner suggests using the bottle of acrylic medium, itself, as the baren.
  2. Clean house and plan. Prep the receiving surface. Make sure it is clean. Hard, flat surfaces work best, but even soft, uneven ones will work. Make sure your photocopy is reversed and properly sized for the receiving substrate.
  3. Finger paint. Apply the acrylic medium to the photocopy with a finger. Smooth it out until it is transparent and evenly coating the surface. Wipe away any excess. There is no right or wrong amount to use; a thin coat will dry more quickly and a thick coat will be more forgiving of an uneven surface.
  4. Squeeze. Take the still-wet, acrylic-coated photocopy and apply it to the receiving substrate. Remember, you are basically gluing the toner to the new surface, so press it firmly to the new surface and be sure to eliminate any air bubbles (air bubbles are basically holes in the “glue” and will prevent toner transfer). This is where you use your baren or brayer.
  5. Leave it alone. After you have verified a clean contact between the two surfaces, let it dry. This might only be a few minutes if you’ve done a thin coat of acrylic, but it is very important to make sure it is completely dry. If there are wet globs of acrylic and you begin the paper removal process, you will lift the acrylic and the toner with it, leaving a blank spot on the transfer.
  6. Remove the original substrate. Use the water and your fingers to wet the back of the photocopy and begin rubbing it away. It will take some time, but you can make the paper disintegrate and leave just the toner on the surface of the dried acrylic. If you are transferring to something that is waterproof, you can use a water bath to aid in this. Let it soak. If it is not waterproof, it will take a bit more finesse and technique (this will come with practice). For something that can’t handle a water bath, just wet the tip of a finger with a dab of water and begin rubbing the back of the photocopy. Sometimes you can get strips of paper to peel away. Other times it will just crumble away like eraser rubbings. Your goal is to remove all of the paper fibers, but leave the acrylic and toner intact.

There are many tips and sub-methods being developed all the time. Some people have experimented with using laser overhead transparency film instead of a photocopy. These take much longer to dry (up to two days), but are much easier in the original substrate removal phase (just peel the transparency film away in one, clean motion). They also require pressure as they dry because the acrylic gel does not adhere to the transparency film as strongly as it does to paper. Most people just use a heavy book for this (just make sure there isn’t any stray acrylic that could damage or glue the book).

Here are some images of Aaron Whisner’s overhead transparency technique:

The acrylic is applied
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Squeezing out excess acrylic, removing air bubbles
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Weighed down while drying
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Lifting the film away
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The final product
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(Whisner)
Paul Fujita has developed an artistic style that uses many layers of transfers. He says they become dimensional and that the clear layers of acrylic medium between the layers of toner cause the light to bounce around inside and create some unique aesthetics. (Fujita, Interview with Paul Fujita on Acrylic Gel Transfer Technique)

Here are some of Paul Fujita’s multi-layered works:
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Here are some of Whisner ’s work:
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Works Cited

Wikipedia. Printmaking. 7 May 2011. 7 May 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printmaking>.
Whisner, Aaron. Art 365 Series.
World Printmakers. Printmaking History. 7 May 2011. 7 May 2011 <http://www.worldprintmakers.com/english/pmhist.htm>.
Fujita, Paul. untitled. Portland.
Fujita, Paul. Interview with Paul Fujita on Acrylic Gel Transfer Technique David McCall. 7 May 2011.
Livingstone, Marco. Rauschenberg, Robert. 7 May 2011. 7 May 2011 <http://oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T070888>.
Plagens, Peter. "Back to the Future." Newsweek 7 January 1991: 50.
Saxby, Graham. The Science of Imaging, Second Edition. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2011.
Smith, Roberta. "A Rarely Seen Side of a Rauschenberg Shift." The New York Times 8 March 2007, Late Edition ed.
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