An Easy Approach to Image Transfer onto Clay

A simple and effective process for image transfer onto clay!

Image Transfer onto Clay

A few years back, Doug Gray was interested in incorporating his digital photography into his clay work. He tried decals, but it wasn’t the look he was after – he wanted the photos to help him create the images, but he didn’t want the images to look exactly like photographs. So he had to find another approach to image transfer onto clay.

One day he had a happy accident. He discovered that an ink jet print out, will easily transfer imagery to pottery. From there he carves in the line work and adds color with underglazes. Today, he explains his simple and kid-friendly process of image transfer onto clay. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Image Transfer onto Clay the Easy Way

The process used here works best on soft clay and can be applied to any handbuilt or thrown clay surface provided the clay is reasonably soft. In the wet state, there’s enough water present in the clay for the transfer to readily occur. No water or solvents are needed. The same process can be used to apply imagery to leather hard and even bisqueware. However, with the diminished water content of drier clay, you’ll need to add additional water to make the transfer work successfully. We will only discuss transfers on soft clay here.

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You can create computer-generated imagery with a digital camera and software such as Adobe Photoshop. The key is to print your images with a water-based ink, such as that used in most inexpensive inkjet printers rather than screen printing on clay. When developing images for ink transfers on clay, the cheaper the better. You don’t need an expensive printer and you definitely don’t want archival ink and paper. I use regular ink cartridges, all-purpose or copier paper, and an inexpensive inkjet printer. If you prefer to work without a computer, see the image below for various water-based inks and their results. Or see this article from the archives on image transfer paper for ceramics.

You’d be amazed!
From simple trays and tiles to complex constructions, Daryl Baird shows you everything you need to know to get started and stay inspired for years.

In From a Slab of Clay, you’ll find everything from the tools you need (including plans for building a slab roller) to 16 demonstrations where you can develop skills.

Preparing the Slab for Image Transfer onto Clay

Begin with a freshly rolled slab and a print from an inkjet printer. The digital photograph used here has been altered in Photoshop, reducing the image to basic black and white line and shape. Use non-archival ink and multipurpose paper in your printer to assure that the ink will bleed when wet (figure 1). Lay the image face down so that the ink comes in contact with the moist slab (figure 2). Soft slabs have a very high moisture content so no additional water is needed, but too much water can be a problem. Experiment to find the optimum water to clay ratio.



Transferring Imagery to Pottery

Rub the paper into the surface of the slab (figure 3) to eliminate any air pockets that might prevent the moist clay from coming in contact with the printed image. Allow the print to remain in contact with the slab for 30-60 seconds until the ink bleeds onto the clay surface. Peel back a corner to see if the ink has transferred (figure 4). If so, peel the paper up entirely from the slab of clay. If not, let it sit a few seconds more.

Note: If you can’t get the ink to transfer onto the wet clay, check the type of ink and paper. High-end, archival products that are designed not to fade or bleed and laser prints and Xeroxes don’t work for this process.



Setting Up

Manipulate the clay while it is still soft and pliable. If making tiles, trim it to size (figure 5).

Tip: Place the straight edge over your image as you cut, so if your hand slips, you won’t cut into your image.

Place a thin sheet of plastic over the slab and rub the edges gently with your finger to produce a consistent rolled edge without marring the image (figure 6). If you prefer to allow the slab to dry slightly, place it on a piece of drywall and cover with plastic (figure 7). Moisture will condense on the plastic and blur your image so prop the plastic on stilts to keep it from coming in contact with the surface.





You can easily carve the surface at the leather-hard stage. I use a triangular shaped tool from a mini ribbon set for most marks and a tungsten carbide-tipped sgrafitto tool for fine details (figure 8). Varying the depth of the cut with the small pointed tip produces thicker and thinner lines (figure 9).

The sgraffito tool works well for detail work. After carving, use a damp sponge to wipe the surface (figure 10). This softens the edges and removes the ink so you can get a good view of your image.




Applying Color

transfer imagery to pottery


I prefer to apply commercial underglazes after bisque firing because at this stage, the image is essentially a contour drawing similar to a coloring book. (Make sure you test any glazes or underglazes you use.) Apply underglazes one color at a time beginning with the lightest colors (figure 11) since you can cover mistakes with darker colors. Bisque fire to fuse colors to the surface.

You can fire the tile between each application of color, or in this case, I applied three colors at one time before firing. After bisque firing, apply a black underglaze to the entire surface filling all the lines (figure 12) and wipe off excess with a sponge (figure 13).





This image transfer onto clay project is a great project for teachers! What is your experience with image transfer onto clay?

**First published in 2013
  • Iron-based ink transfers will survive cone 6 provided you do NOT apply clear glaze before firing. To glaze such pieces, you’ll need to fire the piece a third time using a low-fire clear glaze, such as Duncan Pure Brilliance and firing to cone 04. I learned this wonderful technique in a workshop taught by Carol Guthro. The printer she brought to the workshop was a Canon PC 735, a discontinued model that uses iron-based ink. These printers are still available if you buy them used. After firing the transferred image, the ink turns from black to a sepia color. When preparing your image for transfer, you must stop the printer when the light is half-way across the platen. Doing this avoids the heating step that otherwise would set the ink and prevent it from coming off the paper. After the first bisque firing, diluted underglazes can be applied to add color to the transferred image.

  • Jimmy C.

    I’m jimmy from YouNeng Tech, we are the only factory in China who can producing laser ceramic toner, with high quality output colors picture to high temperature standard ceramic, enamel, glass etc. our ceramic imaging new artwork, no need plate making, as convenient as office print, high quality color output, fired onto ceramics.any question or demand please contact with me.

  • Kate H.

    I believe Andrew Gilliate does printer transfers having to do with transferring ink onto green ware and then firing it and the ink stays. There is an article by him on here somewhere. Also, I would love to know if simply mixing iron oxide into my ink cartridge would work.

  • Beth P.

    I was just commissioned to do a pot with multiple portraits on it — although an accomplished drawer and painter (as well as potter) my hands have become arthritic and I was not looking forward to setting up the basic proportions of each portrait. (I’ve never been a portrait artist, although I ~can~ do them…it just takes a lot of concentration and work, lol) This post saved me so much effort!!! Thank you so very much!

  • Nigel C.

    You can produce sepia printed images using cheap HP printers which use iron oxide in their black inks, more expensive printers use other chemicals which won’t work.. Transfer these images to either the unglazed or glazed ware as above and fire in a normal oxidised atmosphere.

  • Denise M.

    In reference to the Xerox photocopier process that uses the iron oxide content of some toners to transfer an image that will survive the firing, simply stop the copier 1/2 way through copying – i.e. catch it before it has fixed the image. Open the machine up and retrieve the paper. The image will easy smudge at this stage and can easily be transferred to clay by pressing against a damp slab much like the technique above. No solvents required.
    I think this maybe only works with older photocopiers – not sure.

  • Douglas G.

    If your printer ink doesn’t work (I hear that HP inks are more permanent and don’t bleed with water) save an old cartridge when the ink runs out and fill it with a generic or cheaper ink refill. And if you are transferring any text remember to flip the text on your computer before printing. Otherwise, your transfer image will be a mirror image of what you really wanted.

  • Jaci S.

    I’ve been doing this for a little over a year now It works great. You can also print it on newsprint paper, place it on bisque and press it lightly with a damp sponge. It transfers nicely. I then paint it with “Stroke n Coat”. My favorite is using a slip trailer bottle with a small gauge tip. I fill it with black underglaze and stipple as a pen and ink drawing. It works great.

  • Peter M.

    Bravo! A marvellous practical idea. I struggle with transferring images to my slabwork, and this is a huge help. The scribing is a lot of work, but it has to be done in any event, and an inexpensive and low-tech means of transferring complex images is a great advance. Many thanks for sharing this.

  • Tom G.

    This is a great method that I have used on sift clay for a while now. Because the pigments used in most inks is organic in nature they will not survive the firing process. As others have stated one uses the transferred image as a carving guide before firing. As mentioned in the article the type of ink used makes a big difference. For example, I normally use my Epson printer with basic Epson inks (not pigment or archival as the author states). When I tried to use my Lexmark printer with its “inexpensive” black ink it did not work well at all. Just try your own printer to see if it works!

    Thanks for this article and I hope others will try this most useful method.

  • Mark M.

    I did this same process in 1997. I was working for a potter in Kingsville, Tx. He got this order for some luminaries. The customer wanted 50. They wanted a logo put on, but it was time consuming to trace over all the lines. And then I remembered that I had been playing around with the idea as a transfer method, so I ask my boss if I could try it. It worked really well.

    But what I did not realize is what I read here.

    I had switched my printer and started using the inks that came with it, so, as you pointed out, it was the cheaper water base inks that will work. I had been using those inks in my old printer, but because I thought all inks were the same, except the price, I thought it should work. Not good and really frustrated I gave up.

    So what I am saying is, Thank You. I will try again. It is a great method of getting an image on clay and the ink burns off. I feel so dumb at times.

    I will be getting some cheap water based inks ASAP.

    Very Good article.

  • Douglas G.

    This ink transfer process is fugitive, meaning it will not survive the firing process. I use the ink transfer solely as a guide for carving into the clay surface. It is the carving that captures the images not the ink itself.

    That being said you can do iron transfers with some Xerox toners. The amount of iron in the toner differs from brand to brand but it is possible to get a ghost or sepia toned image. Note, this is a completely different process from the one spelled out above. Solvents are required to transfer the xerox ink. Water won’t do it. And if you are glazing the image you must use a iron sensitive glaze like most shinos.

  • gotcha. thanks.

    what would happen if you dissolved iron oxide in water and injected it into your black ink cartridge?

  • Richard W.

    This technique does not use high temperature transfer “inks” that will remain after firing. It uses cheap water-based inkjet printer ink that will transfer from the cheap paper to the moist green slab (or other workpiece) to create a visual template on the piece. When it is leatherhard, you must carve or impress the lines into the surface to create relief. When the piece is bisque-fired, the inkjet ink will be long gone, leaving just the impressed/carved lines. Using those lines as guides, color is added using underglazes in the usual manner.

  • Sandra L.

    how high can you fire these transfer inks ( assuming you alter / carve nothing…….) ? ( both at the green slab stage and at the already bisqued transfer stage ?) thx

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