Traditional Transfer Techniques in Western European Art

Explore techniques used during centuries to copy original works of art and follow the tutorials to try them yourself.

Study of an Apostle (about 1560–1570) by Bernardino GattiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In European draftsmanship, some drawings were working drawings, playing specific roles in the making of other works of art including frescoes, paintings, and prints.

Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (1585) by Hendrick GoltziusThe J. Paul Getty Museum

When an artist’s design was complete, it was transferred from the paper to another surface—such as a wooden panel, canvas, wet plaster, metal plate, etc.—using one of several possible techniques: pricking and pouncing, tracing, squaring, and incising.

Often the task of transferring designs from paper onto another surface fell to workshop assistants. This was particularly true in the case of large-scale projects.

This presentation explores the various techniques commonly used during the 15th–19th centuries, and includes tutorials to try it yourself. 

Traditional Transfer Techniques in European Art (Tools) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Tools

Seen here from left to right, some of the tools used for various transfer techniques were:

• Translucent or semi-translucent paper 
• Blind stylus 
• Needle tool 
• Black chalk 
• Sachet filled with powdered chalk or charcoal

Nude Woman with a Snake, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, about 1637, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Female Nude with a Turban, Christian Friedrich Gille, 1855, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Tracing

Using translucent or semi-translucent paper, a drawing could be traced or partially traced to create near identical copies. Nineteenth-century painter Christian Friedrich Gille—known for his depictions of Dresden and its surroundings—had access to Rembrandt’s Nude Woman with a Snake (about 1637) and likely traced it to create this graphite copy on the right.

Overlay of Nude Woman with a Snake and Female Nude with a Turban by Christian Friedrich Gille and Rembrandt Harmensz. van RijnThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this overlay of the two drawings, we see just how closely their compositions align, demonstrating how exact traced copies could be.

Two Studies of Dancers (about 1873) by Edgar DegasThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Squaring

To copy an artwork—to scale, reduced in size, or enlarged—a grid may be used. This process is known as squaring.

After the original drawing is overlaid with a grid, a corresponding, proportional grid is drawn onto another surface, allowing the artist or a workshop member to copy the composition square by square. This helped an artist break down a larger work into smaller segments and deal with it one step at a time.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - squaring (step 1) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Try squaring:

Required tools: black chalk , a ruler, and a blank piece of paper.

1) Square the drawing you wish to transfer, then prepare a grid of the same proportions on another sheet of paper.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - squaring (step 2) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

2) Proceeding square by square, copy the details to the blank grid.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - squaring (step 3) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

3) Compare the original and copy side-by-side to check accuracy.

Portrait of a Woman (1758–1762) by Jean-Étienne LiotardThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Incising

Incising requires chalk and a stylus (a pointed, non-marking implement). 

First, the back of a drawing is covered in chalk, then placed on top of another support, like paper or a canvas.

With a stylus, the lines of the original are traced, impressing chalk from the back side of the original drawing onto the underlying surface. 

Detail of Portrait of a Woman by Etienne Liotard (1758/1762) by Jean-Étienne LiotardThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Incising leaves visible indentations on the original drawing, readily visible when viewed with light at an oblique angle.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - incising (step 1) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Try incising:

Required tools: an original design, black chalk, a blind stylus, and a blank piece of paper. 

1) Cover the back of the design you wish to transfer with black chalk.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - incising (step 2) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

2) Place the sheet on top of the blank piece of paper, chalk side down.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - incising (step 3) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

3) Retrace the outlines of the drawing with the blind stylus.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - incising (step 4) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

4) Carefully lift the sheet up to reveal the copied design.

Dancing Peasant Couple Dancing Peasant Couple (1525) by Urs GrafThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Pricking and Pouncing

Pricking and pouncing is a transfer technique in which the drawing is meticulously pricked with a needle to create a perforated outline of the design. Sometimes, a sheet of blank paper is placed beneath the drawing before pricking, creating a sort of stencil in the sheet below, which is commonly referred to as an “auxiliary cartoon.”

Next, the pricked drawing or auxiliary cartoon is laid on top of another surface and a sachet filled with powdered chalk or charcoal is patted over the perforated design, resulting in a dotted outline of the drawing on the new surface.

Traditional Transfer Techniques - pricking and pouncing (step 1) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Try pricking and pouncing:


Required tools: needle, sachet filled with fine powdered chalk or charcoal, and two blank sheets of paper.

1) Place the drawing you wish to transfer on top of a blank sheet, then prick the outlines of the design with a needle. 

Traditional Transfer Techniques - pricking and pouncing (step 2) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

2) Place the “auxiliary cartoon” or the perforated original on top of a blank sheet, then start patting the sachet over the design. 

Traditional Transfer Techniques - pricking and pouncing (step 3) (2021) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

3)  Carefully remove the top sheet to reveal the copy below.

The Head of a Young Boy Crowned with Laurel (about 1500–1505) by Lorenzo di Credi (Lorenzo d'Andrea d'Oderigo)The J. Paul Getty Museum

These copy and transfer techniques played an important role in artists’ creative processes and they continue to do so today, as artists transfer their working drawings to panels, walls, or canvases. 

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

This Google Arts and Culture project was created by Getty Marrow Interns Alejandro Adame, Alejandro Espinoza-Michel, and Tyra Popovich and Getty Post-Baccalaureate Intern Kaylie Sagara.

To cite these texts, please use: "Traditional Transfer Techniques in European Art" published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.  

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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