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Photocopy Transfer Method: Excellent Imperfection

The Photocopy Transfer Method is an ingenious way to put text or images on many different surfaces—paper, wood, fabric, walls, and even stone.


With this method, the text or images are printed out using toner (laserjet printer or Kinkos) in mirror mode. The toner-printed paper is then laid face down on the surface to which it will be transferred and secured with masking tape. Next, the back of the paper is moistened with wintergreen oil and then burnished vigorously with a wooden spoon. The wintergreen releases the toner, and the burnishing transfers the ink to the substrate, be it a wall or piece of cardboard.

One of the great beauties of this method is its unpredictability. Before the transfer is made, you can't know precisely how it will turn out. Depending on the substrate used, how much force is used in burnishing, even the humidity of the day, the transfer might come out darker or lighter, with higher or lower contrast, more or less crisp. Even more interesting, there are bound to be imperfections within the transferred image or text. Letters or words may be broken or incomplete, images may "drop out" in certain places, small blurs or smudges can occur. 

Rather than bemoan these imperfections, I embrace them. I think they give a piece character, visual interest, greater tactility—an enhanced physicality. As a friend said about my earliest text piece installed on an art gallery wall, "It's like the wall has been run through a copy machine, a really old and malfunctioning copy machine."

I have been using the Photocopy Transfer Method for many years. I have made hundreds of transfers to various paper sources, many wood surfaces, and dozens of walls. Since that first transfer onto that art gallery wall, I have learned a lot about the process, the properties of substrates and the wintergreen oil. I have gotten much better at getting text square on a wall and learning how to use PhotoShop and InDesign to design the text (its shape, size) and compose images or groups of images. In terms of sophistication and transferring skill, my first pieces pale in comparison to my latest. Still, I won't ever (thankfully) get so good as to leave behind those excellent imperfections. 

Transfer Suit_edited.jpg

Transfer Suit

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