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art buyers are often impressed by canvas transfers, which offer the look of an original painting at a fraction of an original’s price

Canvas transfers: offer an affordable alternative: art buyers are often impressed by canvas transfers, which offer the look of an original painting at a fraction of an original’s price

Tricia Bisoux

As art and framing retailers know well, even the most inexpensive poster looks fantastic when dressed up in fine mats and mouldings. But with the right materials, retailers can take this process one step further. They can give a paper print the look of an original by transferring it onto canvas.

Because the look of canvas transfers often suggests the look of an original painting, they have garnered the attention of art buyers and sellers everywhere. “Canvas transfers have been extremely popular for us. They haven’t overtaken limited-edition prints in terms of sales, but they really come on strong,” said Matt Wysocki, son of the late artist Charles Wysocki and director of The Charles Wysocki Gallery in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. “Often, customers will reserve a limited-edition print, but when they come into the gallery to pick it up, they’ll see a canvas transfer and say, `Oh, I want that instead!'”

Greg Panjian, president of Old Grange Graphics in Somersville, Conn., agreed that it’s the look of the canvas transfers that stops many art buyers in their tracks. “When customers hold the paper print in one hand and the canvas transfer of the same print in the other, they find it remarkable” he said. “People who have seen them love them, because it brings the art back to what its original looks like.”

Whether a retailer creates them in-house or purchases them from an outside vendor, canvas transfers can be a profitable addition to an art and framing business. Not only do they encourage upgraded framing sales, but they also offer customers an attractive and more precious alternative to paper prints, allowing them to own the look of an original without breaking the bank.

Affordable and Available

When explaining canvas transfers to customers, retailers should note the difference between a giclee on canvas, a canvas print and a canvas transfer. A giclee on canvas, for example, is created when ink is applied directly to canvas using a high-resolution ink-jet printer. A canvas print is created when inks are applied directly to canvas using offset printing techniques.

A canvas transfer, however, is created when the image is literally “lifted” from a paper print, such as a poster or limited-edition print, and transferred to a canvas substrate. (See “Tips for Transfers,” opposite page.) What distinguishes a canvas transfer from other prints on canvas is its texture, which often gives it an uncanny resemblance to an original painting. In addition, brushstrokes are often added to enhance the image and mimic the look of an original painting.

A transfer can be created through a hot-transfer method, in which the image is lifted off its paper backing using a special laminate and transferred to a canvas substrate with a heat press. Or, a transfer can be made using a cold transfer method, in which the image on paper is sprayed with a solution, soaked in water, peeled from the substrate and hand-rubbed onto a canvas surface.

Haddad’s Fine Arts in Anaheim, Calif., has been creating canvas transfers since they were first introduced 30 years ago using the cold-transfer process, explained President Paula Haddad. The company does transfers of its own artists’ images and provides transferring services to outside customers as well. “We’ve always made canvas transfers by hand, with no mechanized processes,” she said. The finished product “has a shiny, varnished look to it, very much like an original oil” she added.

This original look at an affordable price is a primary reason for the appeal of canvas transfers among customers: The cost of a canvas transfer is usually only a few hundred dollars, a fraction of the cost of many artists’ originals,

But canvas transfers offer another important perk to collectors: availability. Many customers may wish to own the original of a beloved image by a favorite artist, but a truly original work can be owned by only one person. A limited-edition of canvas transfers, however, is available to many buyers, explained Wysocki.

“For example, my mother loved an image my dad had done long ago of Noah’s ark, but the original was not available,” he said. “She had a canvas transfer made for a wall at home. It’s not the original, but it looks eerily close to it.” And like limited editions on paper, canvas-transfer editions are often signed and numbered on the back of the canvas, giving it an extra cachet among collectors.

The Transfer Advantage

Canvas transfers offer retailers the chance not only to sell more posters at an upgraded price, but also to generate additional revenue by creating transfers of their customers’ own photographs and artwork. Many art and framing retailers have brought the canvas transfer process in-house to provide customers a value-added service. (Note: Because a canvas transfer can be considered a copyright infringement, it’s important to obtain permission from the copyright holder before transferring any poster, limited edition print, or professionally taken photograph not in the public domain. (See “Keep an Eye on Copyright,” opposite page.)

Charles Perkins of Charles O. Perkins Art Studio & Frame Shop in Columbus, Miss., has offered canvas transfers in his shop for the last 10 years. Buying them from vendors such as Old Grange Graphics, Perkins keeps several on display in his shop as examples to customers. “I wanted to offer customers another product, an alternative to a poster” he said.

Recently, Perkins decided to buy the heat press and materials required to begin offering the service within his store. “I’m an artist myself, so I also do printing on canvas” he explained. Moving to the canvas-transfer process seemed the next logical step, giving him the opportunity to offer his own works as canvas transfers, as well as those of local artists who might be interested in the service.

Dimensions Design Center, an art gallery and framing operation with its headquarters in Bothell, Wash., and stores in Bellevue and Lynnwood, Wash., has been offering in-house canvas transfer services for two years. Doing the process in-house requires quite a bit of square footage, so it may not be for everyone, said the company’s Gallery Director Gigi Gelfan. In addition, it takes at least an hour to transfer a moderately sized print, which adds to the labor cost. But for those willing to commit the time, space and materials to the process, it can provide a new–and steady–source of revenue.

“It’s been wonderful to have the service available to our private customers as well as to the many designers we work with” Gelfan pointed out. “Because we do the transfers in-house, we are 100 percent in control of the process.” That means Gelfan and her staff are able to do a transfer quickly for a rush order or add customized brushstrokes to the finished product–as much or as little as the customer wishes.

“At a markup of three times, offering canvas transfers allows you to sell more posters” she said. This is especially true when the economy is down and buyers are budget-conscious, she added.

“I don’t think canvas transfers take away from our original sales, but when our original art sales are down, we do really well with canvas transfers. It’s much easier to make a $400 sale than a $4,000 sale;” Gelfan said. “It’s an option that people absolutely love, and they come back again and again.”

The Look for Less

Whether a retailer buys them from an outside vendor or makes them in-house, canvas transfers are an attractive option to a growing number of art buyers.

Imperial Graphics Ltd., a publisher who creates canvas transfers of images by artist Lena Liu, has seen a rise in orders for the medium, said a company representative. “Canvas transfers have become very popular” he said. “We have seen them gain in popularity over the last two years.”

“More and more people are recognizing canvas transfers” agreed Gelfan. “It’s advertised quite heavily in the Seattle area, and people are welcoming it. They love that it looks like an original. In addition, they’re happy because they don’t need glass, and they can have a lighter weight piece hanging over the bed.”

Because customers are often drawn to the high-end look of transfers, it’s important to keep them on display as a selling tool. Simply pointing out the difference between a canvas transfer and a paper print to customers can result in their “buying up” in order to get a richer, more formal look for their homes, said Panjian of Old Grange Graphics.

“People who see it love it. They often don’t want anything else,” he said. “When people think of a Monet in the Louvre in France, they see it as a painting with a thick gold leaf frame. We can take that same print and make it look almost like it does in the Louvre–on canvas with a wide 3- or 4-inch frame. If a customer brings in a paper print to a frame shop, they buy mats and fillets, but they often buy a thin frame. With canvas transfers, framers can sell a wider, more expensive frame for the transfer.

In addition, because the canvas transfer does not require mats, fillets or glass, a framer often can complete the frame for a canvas transfer more quickly, spending less time on a similarly priced item.

In the end, canvas transfers offer one more alternative to that all-important segment of the art market: Those art buyers on a mid-range budget who are ready to graduate from poster prints, but for whom the cost of an original painting may still be out of reach.


The Charles Wysocki Gallery 877-WYSOCKI

Haddad’s Fine Arts (714) 996-2100

Hunt Corp, 800-873-4868

Imperial Graphics Ltd. 800-541-7696

Old Grange Graphics 800-282-7776

RELATED ARTICLED: Keep your eye on copyright.

Even yen though canvas transfers have been around since De late 1960s, there still is no clear definition of what a canvas transfer is: Is it a mounting technique of a separate art medium? Is it simply the application of the art to a different backing, or does it fundamentally change the art in a way the artist may not have intended?.

It’s important to note that copyright laws do not allow a retaiter to buy a work on paper, transfer it to canvas and then sell the transferred artwork to a customer for profit. This leads many retailers to believe that as long as a customer already owns a piece, a retailer can transfer it to canvas as long as the customer has no intention of reselling it.

It’s not quite that simple, explained Joshua Kaufman, a Washington. D.C., attorney who specializes in art law. “If you show a pattern of selling a print to a customer and turning around and transferring it, a court would see through that right away.” In this case, you could be found liable for copyright infringement, Kaufman explained “However, if you’re doing it on a more incidental basis–customers periodically come in and ask for the service–then it’s okay to do the transfer.”

At least one court case has found that transferring an artwork without obtaining the artist’s permission is an infringement on that artist’s copyright. In May 2000, an artist named Elya Peker sued Masters Collection, a New York-based retail store, for copyright infringement because it had created canvas transfers of three of his works. The court sided with Peker, in part, because the store did not just transfer the images to canvas; it also added brushstrokes in the style of the original, which amounted, in the eyes of the court, to copying that original image.

But although the artist won, he received a judgment for only $200, an award that was held up under appeal this September. So, although Masters Collection lost its case, the damages it had to pay were negligible.

What does this mean for retailers? Simply put: Be careful. This court decision aside, the definition of canvas transfers is still up in the air. That’s not a reason to steer clear of canvas transfers. But it’s important to follow a certain protocol when selling or creating canvas transfers.

There are many images that are free of all copyright concerns. First, images that clearly belong to the customer are perfect for the transfer process. In fact, snapshots taken by customers or prints to be transferred at the artist’s request are a big part of many retailers’ transferring business. Second, images that are part of the “public domain”–meaning they have fallen out of copyright–are safe to transfer. Works created before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain (a primary reason that so many works by Monet, Degas and other old masters are often transferred to canvas).

Works created after January 1, 1923, however, are protected by copyright laws. Therefore, Kaufman advised retailers simply to do their homework before transferring any artwork or professional photograph. “You can go online to the U.S. Copyright office ( and search by artist’s name or the title of a work. This will give you a partial answer,” Kaufman explained. If a copyright holder comes up, a retailer will know the work is not in the public domain and permission must be sought.

Certain artists and publishers believe canvas transfers to be an appropriation of the artist’s original work, and so, refuse to allow their works to be transferred at all. Therefore, it’s important to call the publisher and/or artist of a work before going forward with a transfer. If they do not wish for an artwork to be transferred, it’s best to refuse the order.

“We keep an ongoing list of artists and publishers who have told us that they allow or forbid transfers of their works, and we follow that list and respect their wishes,” noted Greg Panjian of Old Grange Graphics. “Some artists love what we do and are glad we’re buying their posters to be made into canvas transfers, and others ask us not to do it.”

If customers bring in works for which transfers are forbidden, said Panjian, staff members will explain the situation to them and politely refuse to do the transfer. Instead, they’ll suggest other images with a similar look and style that are available for transfer, which the customer might like instead.

RELATED ARTICLED: Tips for transfers.

Although wrenching an image from its paper substrate may complex, the process of making a canvas transfer is actually somewhat simple. It can be messy, said those who make the medium, but with a bit of practice and patience, one usually can achieve the desired result–a stunning image on canvas.

The most common method of making transfers is the hot-transfer method. Here, a perforated sheet of laminate is applied to the face of an art print. Next, the laminated print is in a heat press at high heat approximately 215 and 220 degrees) for about five minutes. After being removed from the press, the laminated print is soaked in water for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the laminate–with the ink of the image attached–is pulled from the original paper substrate. Next, the backing paper of the ink-laden laminate is removed, leaving only a thin layer of adhesive and the inks. That layer is laid face down on canvas and covered with sponge overlay. It is then returned to the heat press for nine to 12 minutes to complete the transfer process.

In this method, a common mistake is to set the heat in the press too low, noted Vivian Kistler, a framing industry educator based in Akron, Ohio. “You need to keep the laminating tissue very hot. Otherwise, the laminate will not attach well to the ink,” she advised.

In the cold-transfer method, an image on paper is sprayed with a chemical solution that adheres to the surface of the artwork. The artwork is then soaked in a water bath. The image is peeled from the paper backing and hand-rubbed down onto a canvas substrate.

No matter what method is used, paint can be applied to the finished product to mimic the brushstrokes of the original work and enhance the visual depth of the transfer.

To create the best transfers, it’s important to have the right equipment and the right work space, said Gigi Gelfan of Dimensions Design Center. Transfers require a table large enough to accommodate the largest print you plan to work with. For Dimensions Design, that means a 4- by 8-foot table. And because the print will need to soak in a water bath during the process, a tub of the same size is also required.

“There are really no secrets,” she said. “You just have to make sure that everything is done 100 percent. Have a good, clean work space. Make sure you clean the bath in which you soak the print well.”

Above all, it’s important not to rush the process, Gelfan advised. “There really are no short cuts,” she said.

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