How to transfer your photos to canvas and pimp them up with embroidery – Part I

I’ve been into creative and artistic hobbies ever since I can remember. About a year ago I started embroidery just out of curiosity – and I got completely hooked! Since I’ve been into photography for ages, bringing embroidery and photography together was only a matter of time. And it happened – I learned how to transfer my photos onto canvas and pimp them up with thread.

In this article, I’ll show you the interesting look of embroidered photos. I’ll teach you how to do everything, from preparing the image to decorating it. I’ll present you with only one of the techniques for transferring your photos to fabric, and more is yet to come. But today, let’s start with the one I learned first.

I first started combining embroidery with watercolor painting. And then it occurred to me: “I’m way better at photography than I am at painting. So why wouldn’t I try to combine my photos with my newest hobby?” Facebook heard my thoughts and advertised this course, so I discovered that photos can be embroidered, and how it can be done.

The first method I learned is the one I bring you today. It uses transfer gel and it’s great for small pieces. This is mainly because it’s relatively time-consuming, but once you get a hold of it, you can also create larger pieces with it.

You’ll need

For the transfer

  • Canvas for photo transfer and embroidery (I use muslin or twill)
  • Laser printed photo (I only tried black and white, but color works too)
  • A jar or a spray bottle with water
  • Transfer gel (I use transfer gel from Serbian manufacturer Kozmik; I think Mod Podge or anything similar will work)
  • Water-based varnish (I use Fimo)
  • Two brushes (one for the gel, one for the varnish)
  • Scissors
  • Felt (for closing the embroidery hoop if you plan to use it and frame the finished work)

For embroidery

Preparing your photo

When you choose the photo you like, you need to prepare it so that it looks good on canvas once you transfer it. First, set the contrast. You want to make the photo more contrasty than you normally would because it will look a little washed out on the canvas. Don’t forget to flip it horizontally, otherwise, it will look mirrored once you transfer it. Should I mention that I forgot this step at the first attempt?

Then, determine the size in Photoshop based on the size of the hoop you plan to use. You can draw a circle of the hoop size so you can have a reference how the photo will look like inside it. You can place several photos on one A4 document to save space and have several prints on one paper (yes, I’m that thrifty).

Pay attention: you need to print on laser paper, an ink-jet print won’t transfer and you’ll be disappointed.

My photos prepared in Photoshop

Preparing your canvas

Apply the transfer gel onto the canvas using a brush. Then apply a thin, but even layer on the print.

Place the photo on the canvas and press it down well using your fingers, a rolling pin, a bottle, or the handle of your scissors like I did. Do not rub it.

Leave the canvas to dry for 12 hours (it’s best to leave it overnight). Some transfer gels even require 24 hours; it should be specified. OR, you can cheat, like I do: use a blow dryer and get it done in five to ten minutes. Ta-da!

Once the paper and the canvas are fully dry, dampen the paper with your finger, a brush, or some water from a spray bottle. Start rubbing the paper until it starts to peel off.

Rub the paper off patiently using your fingers or a sponge. The first layer will go off relatively easily, revealing a washed-out version of your photo. But you’re not done. Leave it to dry and then repeat the process to remove the rest of the paper. Clean the photo from bits and pieces of paper and leave it to dry again.

Once it’s dry, there will likely be light paper residue still visible. But when you apply a thin coat of varnish, it will not be visible any longer. Finally, leave the varnished canvas to dry and it’s ready for the embroidery. It normally takes 24 hours to fully dry, but you can embroider in about two hours.

If you want to add some details that aren’t originally in the photo, use a heat erasable pen. Once you’re done embroidering over it, a few seconds under the hairdryer’s hot air will make the pen traces disappear.

Pro tips

Here are a few tips I learned from multiple failed attempts to do this properly.

Do:

  • Start from the middle and work your way towards the edges – this will make less chance to peel off the picture along with the paper.
  • Use your fingers or the soft side of a sponge.
  • Be gentle.
  • Be patient and take your time. It’s a boring but also kinda meditative process.
  • Wash the brushes immediately after you’re done with the gel and the varnish.

Do not:

  • Peel off the paper – you’ll peel off the picture too. Rub it off.
  • Rub or peel off the paper while it’s dry. Dampen it from time to time while rubbing.
  • Start from the edges – you might peel off the paper, which will peel of the picture. Start from the middle as I mentioned above.
  • Use the rough side of a sponge – you might damage the picture and rub it off completely in some areas.
  • Use your nails – same as with the rough side of the sponge, it will scratch off the picture.

I made a video so you can get a better idea of the whole process and what it looks like. I’m obviously not a video editing master, but you’ll get the idea.

Before we go any further, let me tell you one more thing about this technique. You can use exactly the same process to transfer your photos to wood. Although, it would be a bit difficult to embroider on it. 🙂 You can leave it as is, or decorate it with beads, colored glue, etc. But for the sake of this article, let’s stick with embroidery, which is our next chapter.

Embroidery

If you’re completely unfamiliar with embroidery, don’t feel intimidated. It’s easy to learn some basic stitches, and you can advance very quickly! You don’t have to use a hoop, but it’s helpful, especially in the beginning. Here’s a video with some basic stitches that I found very useful when I was starting out, and you can find plenty more on YouTube.

Once you’re done with embroidery, you can leave the photo framed inside the hoop or use a rectangular picture frame. If you opt for the first method, there are several different ways to finish the hoop. You’ll find some of them here, and some in the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy8KS4E4vXM

How it worked for me

Finally, here are two photos I made with this technique that I’m pleased with. One is a photo of Frida Kahlo taken by her father Guillermo Kahlo, and the other is the photo I took and thought was good for embroidering over it. I tried making one more (you can see it in one of the photos above), but I messed it up a bit so I decided to skip it.

Here are the photos first:

And here’s the embroidery:

Alternatives

If you really don’t feel like learning brand new skills and buying all those embroidery accessories, I get you. But, this doesn’t mean that you should give up on this project. You can decorate your photo on canvas with beads, sequins, colored glue, pom-poms… The sky is the limit. Also, you can turn this into an interesting project for kids and have them decorate your photos. I’d sure love to see how that turns out. 🙂

Whatever you choose to do, I think transferring your photos to wood or canvas and adding a new dimension to them is very exciting. It’s a totally new form of art, which is what I like so much about it. It also requires some new skills, and I personally like learning new stuff (hence a new hobby every once in a while). If nothing else, it’s a great lockdown project, and now is the perfect time to try it out. If you decide to do it, don’t forget to share your results. And stay tuned for Part II and another transfer technique!



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