How Do You Transfer Your Image to Paper for Coloring?

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Here’s something I give thought to occasionally, what’s the easiest way to get an image onto paper so that I can get to coloring? Did you notice, I didn’t ask what is the “best” way? Because in all honesty I don’t think there is a universal best way.

What I tell those that ask me that question is that the best way is the way that works best for them. It may not be the same for you as it is for me. But I am willing to share with you ways that I transfer my images to paper.


I started out as a tracer. I would simply print an image I was going to color (or photocopy if it was in a book), tape it to a window and trace. It wasn’t long before I figured out that wouldn’t work if I was starting a project before sunrise or after sunset! So I progressed to a light box to get the job done.

Yes, tracing worked but it was not as easy as I expected nor were my tracing necessarily so nice when I lifted my tracing from the window or the light box. Here’s my analysis of my tracing:

My Tracing Pros -

  • Any one can trace

  • Requires no special tool if you use the window

  • If you trace too dark, you can normally lift off some of the pencil marks to soften your trace lines

My Tracing Cons -

  • Need a light source to trace when there is not enough light through a window

  • Detailed images take time to trace

  • Easy to miss areas when tracing, so you have to line up your trace with the image again

  • Your tracing results are messy

I never understood how I couldn’t be a good tracer. It’s like singing, in my head I sound great but what comes out, let’s just say you’ll never hear me on any singing show. Tracing was just the same. I trace and trace, things feel great, then I lift the tracing off my light source and it looks jagged and in some areas disconnected.

You know, tracing seems so basic that I think anyone should be able to do it and do it well. Turned out for me, tracing is a skill I had to develop. So if you struggle with your tracing maybe you haven't developed this skill either. Don't fear, like with your coloring itself, the more you do it, the better your tracings become. I actually do a lot of tracing on an iPad which has resulted in measurable improvements with my tracing skills on paper!

Digital Printing

The next stage for me was to stop tracing and print my image directly to my coloring project paper. This was a natural move for me to take once I realized if I was printing the image on printer paper why not print directly on to my coloring paper? It was a game changer until I hit projects that called for papers that were thicker than my printer could handle. So yes, it’s not the end-all-be-all for getting an image onto your paper. Darn it.

My Digital Printer Pros -

  • Cuts out all those tracing steps

  • Fast

  • You can adjust the intensity of the image prior to printing (i.e., lower the opacity so it prints grey instead of black)

  • Printout is 100% accurate to the original image

  • If your coloring paper is larger than that of your printer, after cutting it to size, you have swatch paper for your project

My Digital Printer Cons -

  • If you lack the software and/or knowledge to use photo editing software, then your images will print with outlines as dark as the artist provided

  • You have to know how to change settings on your printer to produce better printouts

  • Not all paper will pass through your printer (too thick)

  • Not all projects will fit on the maximum size paper that your printer can handle

  • Not all printers are Copic marker safe. You will need to test your printer to ensure that the printer ink is not bothered in anyway when you take your Copic marker over the top of it.

When those don't work . . .

So I don’t trace if I don’t have to, but what do I do when I have a piece of paper that just won’t feed through my printer and/or it’s so thick I can’t see through it with a light box?

I borrow a technique from my watercolor class. Funny thing it combines aspects of both techniques above. The first thing I have to do is flip (or mirror) the project image in my photo editing software and then I print it onto regular printer/copier paper. Then with a piece of transfer paper (i.e., graphite) under my printout, I trace the entire image. Now I replace the transfer paper with my project paper and I trace over the image once again. Here’s a tip, if you do a small scribble over the original trace line you will be able to tell when you’ve traced the entire image!

My When Those Don't Work Pros -

  • I can use any paper size or thickness I desire for a project

  • As long as I have my printed “mirrored” image, I can do this anywhere (like a hotel room late at night after an all day business meeting) without needing a light source

  • I can lift the graphite before coloring if I used a heavy hand

My When Those Don't Work Cons -

  • Detailed images take a long time to trace

  • You have to be careful to get everything traced on the first pass because it’s hard to line up (but I’ve got a good tip for that) again if you need to add missed details

As you can see, I’ve not found a magic tool that will take my image and place it perfectly on the coloring paper for me. But I like knowing that there are multiple ways to get the job done. That’s really the important point, getting the job done so that we can get on to coloring or painting.

If you struggle with tracing, ask yourself if you just haven’t done it enough to be better at it. Like riding a bike, I started with training wheels, then a parent holding me up, then finally taking off on my own and crashing. Crashing a few times. But look at me go now!

You can do it too.

I have to admit that I even have come to like tracing. Instead of being in the way of me getting to the fun stuff, I see it as an opportunity to really study the image I’m about to color. When I do trace it, I start see what’s in the image and think about how I will color it.

Now what are you doing sitting there. Let’s go trace something and color!

Time for me to get back to my practice. I've finished my technical drills and studied characteristics of glass so I could make my own set of colored perfume bottles. Now it's onto the clear jar. It's never too late for you to practice coloring glass. If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you will be able to find the Practice Technique Pack for Glass here!

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