Homemade Carbon Paper

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You can make your own carbon paper for easy image transfers.

What is Carbon Paper?

It's an old problem for artists: How do you transfer an original sketch or design to your artwork surface? Since the early 19th century, one popular solution has been to use carbon paper: thin paper coated with pigment and wax that can be inserted between two pieces of paper (or paper and canvas) and traced over to create a faint, black copy of the original image. With the advent of desktop computers and printers, carbon paper--once an office supply staple--has gone the way of typewriters and mimeograph machines, but artists can still find "artist grade" carbon paper in art supply stores. However, for those who'd like to avoid the cost, or just like to do it themselves, it's possible to make your own carbon paper for very little cost and trouble.

Quick Carbon Transfers

For small, individual images, the quickest way to make a carbon transfer is to trace your image onto a piece of tracing paper using graphite pencil. Then, flip the image over onto your artwork (pencil side down) and rub the back vigorously with your finger, being sure to get all areas of the image firmly. The pencil will transfer to most surfaces with a faint gray line.

Alternatively, you can scribble over one side of the tracing paper, covering it entirely with pencil. Lay this face down on your artwork and lay your original image on top of it. Trace the image carefully to transfer it to the surface. Be careful, though: the excess graphite from your scribbling will transfer along with the image if you press on it too much.

Preparing Carbon Paper

For less messy transfers, you can prepare whole sheets of carbon paper ahead of time. This is useful if you make a lot transfers, and you prefer to do all your scribbling at once.

For this method, start with an entire sheet of tracing paper. Instead of a pencil, use a graphite stick to cover one entire side of the paper. Graphite sticks (or carbon sticks) are available at most art and craft stores in the drawing section; look for cubed-shaped ones that lets you draw with the full length of the stick, for easy coverage.

Next, dampen a rag with a few drops of rubber cement thinner and spread it evenly across the graphite-covered paper. Let it dry for a minute or so, then wipe off any excess with your rag.

To use your homemade carbon paper, just lay it face down on your artwork with your original placed on top, and trace. It will leave a faint, smudge-free gray line, without any excess mess of traditional carbon papers.

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