What attracts you to a particular painting or piece of art? Quite a difficult question, as we often don’t quite know why, or we attribute it to a feeling or emotion, or even a memory – something impossible to put into words.


But If you actually try to analyse it, I find that it sometimes comes down to something as simple as ‘differences’ or contrasts. Differences create a potency and they move us. We know this because we all listen to music – whether it’s heavy metal or chamber music or anything in between – and we know that it’s the moment when a change takes place that makes us feel something: a change in tempo, the slip from a major to a minor key, a single violin coming in on top of a rumbling bass…


It’s the same in visual art, and there are lots of ways that artists can use differences to make the viewer feel something deeper, whether it be highly contrasted dark beside light, a swipe of buttery opaque paint across translucent texture, saturated colour straight from the tube beside greyed-down neutrals… the possibilities are endless.


One of my favourite ‘differences’ used by many artists who I admire is the placing of realism beside abstraction. I love the tension between tight detail and looser washes of colour and less controlled mark-making. Although I didn’t realise it when I first started combining photography with paint, I think this is precisely why I love doing it.


Black and white photography is clear-cut and striking, but placing it in an altered setting of textured layers and colours gives a nice contrast. The photo is a recognisable visual anchor from where the eye can wander and explore less familiar terrain.


Over the years I’ve tried different methods of applying the photography to paintings – screen printing, digital printing and gel plate mono-printing to name a few – and all have pros and cons depending on the look you’re trying to achieve. But by far the easiest (and most satisfying) technique is to make a photo transfer. All you need is a laser copy of a photo and some gloss medium (this is just paint without the pigment which has the appearance of school glue – water based and easy to clean with soap and water) and you’re good to go. There are already a million youtube videos describing the process, but here are a few tips and tricks after lots of trial and error!


  • for best results use a highly contrasted black and white photo and try to eliminate the mid-tones. The example here is a close up of the Finnieston Crane, a well known landmark in Glasgow. If you’re looking for a stylised stencil-type photographic image then the Notan app is good for this. Remember to ‘flip horizontal’ if you have any text on your photo, as the transfer will be a mirror image.
  • print out your photo using a laser printer or use a photocopy. Inkjet won’t work.
  • prepare your substrate (I prefer using a primed wooden panel for photo transfers). Make sure your painted surface is nice and smooth – lots of scratchings and texture can affect the transfer. You can go to town with the texture afterwards!
  • apply an even layer of gloss medium (I use Liquitex) to your painted surface, and stick your image face down. Carefully smooth it out so that there are no air bubbles, but make sure that none of the glue gets on the back. Leave it to dry completely.
  • when dry you can pour a little water on to it and you will see your image start to magically appear (my favourite bit!)
  • wet the whole area with a sponge and, using circular movements with your finger, start to rub the paper fibres away. Continue doing this, adding more water with the sponge, until no more fibres are lifting. I also use the rough side of a dish sponge for this but you have to be gentle as it can lift parts of your transfer. Having said that, the beauty of a transfer lies in the slightly weathered look – you have to embrace the imperfections!
  • when you can’t lift any more fibres, leave to dry. Once dry you’ll be disappointed to see a fine layer of white fuzz over the whole image. Don’t despair! Apply a layer of gloss medium and your image will be as clear as a bell.
  • once dry you can have fun with your paints, painting over or around your photograph, scratching, scraping and whatever else takes your fancy.
  • finish with a final coat of medium (or UV varnish if you want it to be archival), hang on your wall, step back and enjoy!


Good luck if you’re trying this for the first time, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions!


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