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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!



    • Beauty Tips Contest

      Beauty Tips Contest
    • Paint Challenge

      Paint Challenge
    • Planter Challenge

      Planter Challenge

    78 Discussions


    2 years ago

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

    2 replies

    Reply 7 months ago

    I want to put mine on a canvas and draw around it. I was thinking of using more gel medium as a bonding agent. I think that it might act as a solvent to the existing dried medium, so work would have to be fast.


    Question 9 months ago on Step 6

    Ive tried transfer paper and the photos seem to peel off. I know that the gel medium will work because Ive used it. Its just very faded. Is it possible to use gel medium on the transfer paper and leave the transfer paper on the fabric for the 6 hours instead of ironing it on?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 2 years ago

    What type of fixative spray would you suggest for this?


    Reply 2 years ago

    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.


    Reply 2 years ago

    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


    9 years ago on Introduction

     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

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Would this Instructables process work the same with graphite?


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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.

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

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


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

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


    5 years ago

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

    3 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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