Acetone Transfers

I was sitting here the other day, thinking to myself about how long it’s been since I’ve let my students play with toxic chemicals. I figured we needed to rectify that, so I decided to spend a little bit of time with acetone transfers.

If you aren’t familiar, it’s the process of taking a black and white photocopy, placing it face-down on another piece of paper, and rubbing acetone on the back. After burnishing the back of the original paper, it leaves a reversed image on the second piece. I had seen the process previously, but never actually done it, so I was experimenting and somewhat flying blind. Nevertheless, it was fairly easy. I’m obviously not an expert, but I thought I could share what I’m experimenting with.

Step One: Take some pictures

I used the Google App called Webcam Toy to take photos in the black and white setting, but I think any photo editing software can get you to a simple black and white image. You can choose to reverse it for the transfer.

Here’s the picture I used of Lindsey, the other art teacher in my room. We’ll be seeing a lot of it today:

webcam-toy-photo1 (1)


Step Two: Print/Copy

Inkjet printers DO NOT work for acetone transfers. Everything else does–it’s the toner from the printer or copier that transfers, so you can either print or copy the image. Make a few, because you will likely need more than one.

Step Three: Create a Background

I’m totally unsure of where I’m going with this project, so I decided to create a bunch of 6 x 7″ backgrounds on which I could transfer the images. I decided on watercolor, acrylic, marker, pastel, a book page, a map, and colored pencil.

Step Four: Transfer the Image

Your Weapons of Choice: Your image and background–obviously–along with tape, acetone, paper towels (or cotton balls or q-tips), and a spoon or other tool with which to burnish. Open some windows or get some masks; this stuff smells. Rubber/Latex gloves would be handy, but not necessary.


Tape your image face down so it does not move when making the transfer. Add some acetone to the paper towel, then begin rubbing the acetone on a small area of the image–the paper becomes transparent when the acetone is added, so you know which areas you have already covered. Then burnish the area with your spoon or other tool to fully transfer the image. Work in small sections until the whole image has been transferred.

Step Five: Reveal the Image

After you remove the tape, slowly peel of the original image. If it is stuck, which it may be, just add a little more acetone and it should come off fairly easily.

My Results

As aforementioned, I tried out a few different backgrounds with that image of Lindsey. Here’s how they turned out:

2014-04-01 12.36.00

Pastel: Solid but unspectacular. Not a lot different than just printing on regular paper, but you could easily mix colors to create a more interesting background.

2014-04-01 12.36.19

Colored Pencil #1: No. Just no.

2014-04-01 12.36.09

Colored Pencil #2: No again. I thought the first might be an anomaly, but I failed miserably a second time. I think the wax in the colored pencils offers too much resistance for the ink to transfer well.

2014-04-01 12.36.27

Acrylic: Our third no. Again, there is some resistance here, and the acetone pulled up some of the paint. It’s not gonna fly for us.

2014-04-01 12.36.37

Watercolor: This is good. This we can work with.

2014-04-01 12.35.53

Marker: Marker! Love this!!! The image transferred really well, and the acetone created some great effects in the marker to add some textured background. I went back in later with acetone on a crumpled paper towel to create more texture.


Page from a random crime novel? Yes.


A Florida map, with St. Petersburg as Lindsey’s nose? Yes again.

So, we’ve got four good images, one meh, and three that just didn’t work at all. See? Told you I’m no expert.

The question, then, is where do I go with this? I have a lot of ideas running around my head, but I’m not enthralled with any of them. I want it to be more than a two day project that kids have a lot of fun with, but I’m not sure where we can find something meaningful here. If anything jumps out at you, shoot me an e-mail or leave me a comment. I’d appreciate it :)

Other Thoughts

Webcam Toy is fantastic. There are something like 80 filters, and they’re fantastic. So many ways to alter images, it’s fun to take pictures, and there are so many projects that could come from the effects that are there. Just be warned: After you get into it, it can be a rabbit hole. It’s way too easy to waste two hours playing around taking selfies (and I hate taking selfies).

When you’re burnishing, press hard. Small, circular motions work best.

In that same vein, work small. It takes a long time to burnish well, and full-page images are maybe not the best.

Lastly, you can sometimes get a second “ghost” image by doing a second transfer, but only one good one for each photocopy. I’ll leave you with a picture of an original transfer with a second one next to it.


We’ll see where we go from here!

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