Introduction: Image Transfers With Acrylic Gel Medium

Picture of Image Transfers With Acrylic Gel Medium

This ridiculously simple technique for transferring images into a plastic yields a wide variety of possible uses.

The thin nature an flexibility of the gel makes it well-suited for incorporating into artworks. It's transparency gives some interesting possibilities... think light boxes or night lights (I did a multi-piece light installation with gel medium transfers as part of BFA work). The malleability makes it well suited for jewelry and other small craft projects.

This tutorial shows the basics - more the process than a final product - your imagination can take it from something simple into something amazing. There's almost an infinite number of applications across the arts and crafts spectrum.

And i realize the image of the BMW isn't the most artistically dynamic, but it works pretty well to show the process.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

The basic materials list is pleasantly short. What you'll need:

- acrylic gel medium
- brush
- dish or tray
- water
- scissors (in case trimming is necessary)
- an image to transfer

notes on the gel:
the beauty of this technique lies in the nature of the acrylic - you can adjust and modify the gel to suit your needs... whether using retarder to increase smoothness, mixing in acrylic pigment, or even mixing in other materials (i've seen everything from gold flake to sand mixed into the acrylic gel). I use Liquitex's Gloss Heavy Gel Medium, but any clear acrylic medium works.

notes on the image:
Any image can be used for transfering, although some work significantly better than others. Uncoated magazines/newspapers work beautifully, but more coated photos/postcards/etc. may or may not transfer well - a color photo copy would be recommended to increase the probability of a successful transfer. Laser printed images work, but ink-jet prints generally don't work as well.

notes on the brush:
you can use any brush you'd line, whether bristle or foam. The different textures of the brushes will lay the gel medium down differently and will yield varied final products.

Step 2: Apply First Coat of Gel Medium

Picture of Apply First Coat of Gel Medium
Place the image on a work surface (dried acrylic gel can be difficult to remove from unwanted areas).

Apply a thin coat of the acrylic gel medium with the brush, being careful to keep brush strokes smooth and even (unless you really want to build up the brush strokes and have them come through in the final product).

  • Optional: If you wanted to add other acrylic media like pigments, or even other materials, it can be integrated in this step. in my example, I just stuck with pure gel for this go 'round.

Allow the first coat to dry (usually takes between 20 minutes to an hour, depending on thickness and air conditions). When dry, the milky acrylic gel will turn completely clear (see the photo!).

Some people prefer to tape down their images (I've even heard of setting it in a glass pane with spray adhesive to ensure it remains flat) but I've personally never found the buckling of the paper with the moisture from the gel to be a significant problem.

Step 3: Wash Your Brush!

Picture of Wash Your Brush!

There's little worse than a brush that has dried acrylic medium gummed up in it!

Wash the brush in warm running water after each application. Enough time for the coat to dry is enough for the brush to dry out as well. Not rinsing your brush will pretty much render the brush useless.

And just to be safe, I'd rinse it in a non-food prep sink, just to be safe. Acrylic isn't the healthiest stuff in the world (this would be a good point to mention it's not advisable to consume the gel medium either, even if it looks like sour cream).

Step 4: Continue Applying Coats of Gel

Picture of Continue Applying Coats of Gel

Apply the second coat of gel medium, alternating the brush direction to ensure an even application. Each alternating layer should be brushed in a perpendicular direction to the previous coat.

Allow the second coat to fully dry again, turning clear, before applying the next coat.

Continue applying thin coats (and allowing for drying) until you have a fairly substantial layer of gel medium. Usually somewhere between 4 and 10 coats is ideal, depending on thickness of each application and desired final thickness.

Step 5: Allow the Image to Fully Dry

Picture of Allow the Image to Fully Dry

It's critical that the image coated with the gel be allowed to fully dry, which usually takes around 48 hours. If you can wait longer, up to 72 hrs, it will be to your advantage as it will be better set for the next step.

Step 6: Soak the Image

Picture of Soak the Image
After the image has fully dried, it's time to soak it in water (as contradictory as that may seem) to dissolve the paper. If the gel hasn't fully set, the acrylic will begin to dissolve as well.

Trim the paper down to the gelled area, if necessary.

Fill a tray/dish/bucket with lukewarm water. too hot, and the acrylic is in danger of softening too much, too cold and dissolving the paper will be more difficult.

Soak for roughly 10 to 15 minutes, but not much longer or else the acrylic may over-soften.

  • a note on trays: I'm using a small photo darkroom tray. I highly recommend picking up some darkroom trays for craft use, even if they'll never see a photo. They're made of a tough plastic (or sometimes metal) and hold up to tons of use. For this one, however, you could use pretty much anything... tupperware, a baking dish, even a stopped sink. Just keep food dishes separate from this project as acrylic medium isn't food-safe.

Step 7: Gently Remove the Softened Paper From the Gel

Picture of Gently Remove the Softened Paper From the Gel

A relatively straight-forward step:

Gently rub the paper side to break up and dissolve the paper from the gel medium.

Be sure to keep working at the gel, getting all of the small paper fiber off of the back. There is usually a small layer left after scrubbing the initial layer off. If you take the time to remove every bit of fiber, the image will look noticeably cleaner/clearer. (see the close-up photo showing the difference).

You may need to empty the water if it gets too saturated with paper pulp.

Step 8: Dry the Gel Image

Picture of Dry the Gel Image

After carefully scrubbing all of the paper fibers off of the gel, give it one final rinse in fresh water to remove all paper residue and allow to dry.

I usually place the gel images on either glass or plastic. Paper fibers have a tendency to stick. And as long as the gel hasn't dissolved/melted, there shouldn't be any issues with the gel sticking to glass or plastic.

Note that it's normal for the gel to still appear milky, and won't completely clear until dry.

Step 9: The Final Product, Ready for Use

Picture of The Final Product, Ready for Use

After drying, you're left with the transferred image in the gel. It's ready to use however you chose... incorporate into art projects, paintings, etc., treat it as an object in jewelery or other craft projects, or just use it as a simple window cling: the possibilities are practically endless!


theRIAA (author)2009-07-09

hey that's cool! how does this work?

djeucalyptus (author)theRIAA2009-07-10

thanks! the acrylic gel actually grabs the ink and the first layer "absorbs" the ink into it, basically dying the acrylic/plastic with the pigment from the paper.

dpocius (author)djeucalyptus2009-07-16

I'm a bit surprised that inkjet prints don't work, unless it's because modern inkjet inks have been formulated to be water-resistant. In the beginning, one didn't print envelopes on an inkjet printer because they'd become illegible if they were delivered in inclement weather. Perhaps some research might turn up "inferior" inkjet brands that are suitable for this purpose. Perhaps low-cost refills?

rusty0101 (author)dpocius2011-12-08

It's more likely to be because there are two ways that Ink gets applied to paper in ink-jet printers, depending on the paper. Uncoated paper will absorb the ink into the paper fibers, and when you go to remove the paper from the process it removes the ink that the paper absorbed. The second issue is that even with coated paper, (where the ink is absorbed by a coating that prevents it from being absorbed by the paper itself) the coating will disolve in the water as well and take the ink with it.

Also to be considered is that most ink-jet inks are water soluble. This is why you want to use a fixer to prevent humidity in the air from causing the ink to mix with other inks, and also to protect the ink from drops of water. It's the same variety of issues that watercolor painters have had to deal with for centuries.

That said, you might try spraying the paper you are going to use with a fixative, printing to that, then waiting for the ink to dry before applying the acrylic gel medium. The waiting time may have to be more than the couple of minutes that you would normally wait as the ink should not be absorbed by the paper at all, and you will have to wait for the fluids in the ink to evaporate. You might have to do some test runs to see what that drying time is, then extend it based on the local humidity.

treymartin82 (author)rusty01012017-07-08

What type of fixative spray would you suggest for this?

rusty0101 (author)treymartin822017-07-08

If you have the opportunity, stop at an artist supply store and pick up the spray that is used to "fix" watercolor paints. That said, that's a technique for fixing the ink to the paper, and might not work well for a transfer method.

Properly treated photo paper should have a coating on it on top that absorbs all the ink that is printed to the paper, with a layer under it that blocks the transfer of the ink to the paper under it. The top layer that absorbs the ink is otherwise transparent. For this technique to work, the blocking layer under that needs to be transparent as well (rather than white opaque) or needs to separate from the top layer, which I presume is also going to bond to the gel

This should work well regardless of whether the paper is glossy or matte, however you will need to be able to tell which side of Matte photo paper is the printable side. If they are both printable, the layer that prevents the ink from flowing into the paper may be an issue here as well.

treymartin82 (author)dpocius2017-07-08

It's not that they are water resistant it's because the absorb directly into the paper. I've been suggesting to people to try glossy photo paper and immediately apply the gel and then use a hairdryer on medium heat th dry the first coat and then repeat with at least 2 to 3 more coats. Inkjet ink doesn't absorb into the glossy paper right away it usually takes a little time to dry. I haven't had the chance to do this Instructable just yet but from my background in a photo print lab/camera store I feel confident in saying so

eatplastik (author)2010-01-27

 Hmm this is interesting, i'm always into transfers and stuff.. this acryllic stuff sound a little bit like pva glue, might try that with pva glue.. since i'm poor & lazy t hunt for resources. and i don't know if you've done carbon transfers before.. there was one technique where you paste clear scotch tape over the image, pressing down air bubbles and stuff, then just run it under or dunk it in water, rub off the paper and it'd leave the image behind on the tape, and you can just stick it somewhere

treymartin82 (author)eatplastik2017-07-08

Would this Instructables process work the same with graphite?

mquinn4 (author)2011-10-19

There's a similar and faster technique for this idea that air brush artists use.

Simply lay down the image on your canvas or other medium. Then spray the whole canvas with clear coat. Make multiple coats until the picture is level to the rest of the canvas. You can also buff out the clear coat to make it more level and flat.

treymartin82 (author)mquinn42017-07-08

Could you go into a little more detail on this please?

gusphd (author)mquinn42012-02-21

Hi Mquinn4 - I'm curious about your comment - do you remove the paper from the back?

tundra2003 (author)2014-07-09

Does the image need to be printed backwards in order for it to be right side up on the piece of word or glass?

treymartin82 (author)tundra20032017-07-08

Everything I've noticed is print it right side up

But it also depends on how you are going to use it too

MarcC3 (author)tundra20032014-11-25

Yes indeed - flip horizontal before printing because you transfer the image face-down!.

jieyii23 (author)2015-01-05

Is laser toner print works on it?

treymartin82 (author)jieyii232017-07-08

The best suggestion I have been been able to come up with is to try glossy photo paper since glossy photo paper and any kind of ink take long enough for the ink to be absorbed into the paper. If you applied a coat of the gel and dried it with a hair dryer on medium heat and repeated with another two more coats you might have a better chance of the ink being attached to the gel rather than the paper

verdantbeauty (author)2009-07-13

Acrylic medium gel is truly an awesome product. I experimented with it in an art class and I ended up creating a collage on a piece of plexiglass. Basically, I had my photocopied pictures and applied gel medium to the face of the picture, then laid them on the plexiglass using a block printing roller to get all the air out. After it dried, I removed the paper by hand and with some water, and the cool thing is, you can see the picture from either side of the plexiglass. Great tutorial for beginners!


Hopefully it has not been so long since this comment was posted that you may not see it. I am trying to do some transfers on to plexiglass and am having issues, can you correspond through email and see if you can help? I am following all of the tips and instructions I can find, but can't seem to get the results I am looking for :)

treymartin82 (author)erikalynneb2017-07-08

It looks great to me. I may have some suggestions if you like that might help. I haven't done this yet but I seem to have been helping a lot of other people with their questions since the author of this Instructable doesn't seem to want to reply to any questions. Just go to my profile and drop me an email and lets see what we can come up with.

My question to you though is how did you get it to stick to your plexiglass??

peapeam (author)verdantbeauty2010-08-21

I tried the same yesterday for the first time, but then only on the back of a sketchbook (even on cardboard), but it turned out beautifully. I was afraid that it might not work with newspaper print, but it sure worked great! I can't wait to use this method in place of newspaper collage, on canvas.... :)

Maria ahmed khan (author)2015-04-23

Is it necessory that we should use gloss gel medium or any gel medium can be used for transfering the image

Gloss gel would give it a clear view the matte gel would give it more of the matte look. Which ever look you are going for would be perfect for you. YOU are the artist! :-)

Any gel medium should achieve the desired effect. Gloss just provides a finish similar to decals.

livio.ciaralli.9 (author)2015-10-08

I've used Imaging Print Film - a transparency of sorts. I wanted to use this so I could see what I was doing when lining up the text I wanted to print. I kinda worked, didn't let it set long enough I suppose. Acted like a sticker to remove it. A lot better than wiping the paper off. Final conclusion, use a very light weight paper and print your laser image. Take the time to exacto cut all the paper you can. Apply the gel and let it sit for 24 hours. Everything will transfer nicely. It's a tad tedious if you are doing text....but the more paper you can remove the better....also, apply the gel only to the image.....when dry, the gel takes longer to soak thru with water if you have it on the backside of the paper.....and that makes rubbing the paper off a little more difficult.

Another technique I have seen is using acetone ( strong nail polish remover ) to transfer the image. Haven't tried it but seems to work pretty quick with good results.

Thanks for the info.

When you used your photo paper did you try glossy paper? Also do you have a link or could you just basically explain the acetone process for me?

Could you show me pictures of what you have done and label what you used please, and thank you

MiaT6 (author)2016-05-10

Why doesn't it work when using inkjet printed images?

treymartin82 (author)MiaT62017-07-08

Inkjet printers soak the ink into the paper but just a suggestion I might try glossy photo paper because the ink takes longer to dry into those. A guy near the top said he was going to try coating the area where he was going to prong with a thin coat of elmers glue. That "might" work, don't know if it would jam the printer or not, but if it does then it would be a perfect solution especially when it came time to do the wash to remove the paper because the Elmer's glue would separate the paper easily and nicely with no issues

worthworks (author)2011-06-19

You're driving yourself crazy waiting all that time for the gel medium to dry. Just add a thin layer and dry it with a hair dryer! I set the hair dryer on low heat and hold it far back for a couple of moments then switch to cool air until the gel is dry and then add another thin layer. The hair dryer is employed to dry thin coats of layers of paint and gesso as well. I'm a professional artist and don't have all the time in the world to wait for everything to take its lovely ol' time to dry. I learned the hair dryer technique from the folks working at Disney making cartoon films before the days of computers.

treymartin82 (author)worthworks2017-07-08

We all have questions for you then, have you tried applying these to canvas and if so how do you apply them?

EmilyP55 (author)worthworks2016-05-11

Thanks for adding this, I'm going to try next time I do an ink transfer. :)

VirafI (author)worthworks2016-04-12

nice info :)

RebeccaL110 (author)2017-01-13

Does the gel then stick like a decal? Or could it adhere to fabric or canvas as well? Thanks so much!

treymartin82 (author)RebeccaL1102017-07-08

That's been my question too!

mcghost89 (author)2017-03-11

I'm making a custom board game and I wanted to save money and space on a board game pieces by making the board out of chalkboard so that we can pause the game and put it away quickly and then quickly get it off the wall and begin playing again. Will this work for chalkboards and if so can you still draw on it after you print it?

treymartin82 (author)mcghost892017-07-08

I'd get some clear chalkboard spray paint and spray a coat or two over it before I tried using chalk over it but that's just my opinion since the creator doesn't seem to be answering any replys

ChrisB852 (author)2017-04-20

Could I cover a lazered print with the medium, when its still wet press it onto a canvas, then let dry for 24 hours, then rub/get wet the paper so i would have just a print on my canvas? Basically leaving a print/outline for me to then pain/fill in the gaps in acrylic paint? Thanks

treymartin82 (author)ChrisB8522017-07-08

If you were to try that, I might try using a glossy photo paper since those don't dry right away usually.

I've never done this but that's just my experience from working in a camera store/photo print lab and listening to customers complain about smudges.

TheSciGuy (author)2017-07-06

If you use an ink jet printer, cover the area you are going to print with a coating of elmers school glue. Print your image in this area and then apply the gel to the image. The ink goes to the gel and the glue dissolves away... read it in a blog, bought the materials and am trying it this week(end). Also, the article said to use card stock.

treymartin82 (author)TheSciGuy2017-07-08

Try using a glossy photo paper also because inkjet printers and glossy photo paper together take forever to dry against each other. But let me know how yours works out with the glue, that should make paper removal soooo much easier!!

treymartin82 (author)2017-07-08

How would you apply it to a project? Would it work on say wood?

AnnekaW (author)2016-02-10

can you use glue instead of a gel medium ?

InesS10 (author)2015-10-28

I have used this system and it works well. However, when I use the final imagine and paste it on another surface (paper etc.) it does blend, I.e. it does not appear as a transfer but as if I had cut a normal paper imagine and just glued it in another!!

traybishop (author)2015-04-24

Maria ahmed khan (author)2015-04-21

Can an acrylic gel medium be used instead of gloss gel medium will there be any difference in tranfering the image plz can anyone tell me

GeorgesB (author)2015-01-06


You can count on Liquitex, cause «the medium is the message»...

Thanks for the nice Instructable. Your picts are specialy of great quality!

I remembered doing something similar a few years ago, although I may have lost some of the technique, without practice... Thanks again!

MDelnero (author)2013-08-21

What a fun process! Want to try

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