Genealogy Crafts: Create an Acrylic Gel Photo Transfer

By Vanessa Wieland Premium

Why acrylic gel transfer?

Looking for a fun project you can do on a rainy day or want to take a break from tackling your brick walls? This photo transfer craft project is an easy method of creating some family history mementos that you can hang on your wall or give as a present to a family member. If you’re a fan of gallery walls, old photos, or homemade gifts, then why not try this craft? The best part: You don’t need to have any skills with a paintbrush or any kind of crafting tools.

This might be the perfect project to do with school-age kids. Have them help you choose the old (or new!) photos to transfer and scan them into your computer to print out (this won’t work with an original photo). While you’re choosing the old photos, you can share stories about the people and places in them.


Transfer an old photo to any surface

Acrylic transfers create a kind of “skin” that you can then transfer onto another surface. This makes it great for any project that you want to incorporate your photo into, such as jewelry, a keepsake box, or another memento. If you have a black and white image, you can easily add a tint or color to your photo transfer using acrylic paints – or even paint the surface you transfer onto.

Plus, because you’re not working with originals, but rather inexpensive printouts, you can make multiple photo transfers, which means that you can prevent your family members from fighting over the only copy.

Do you want to incorporate that picture of your grandfather in his uniform into a collage about his military service? You can do that simply by layering the photo transfer onto another. You can make the acrylic skin transparent (especially if it has a lot of white space in the picture), which makes acrylic transfers ideal for layering over other backgrounds.

For the purpose of this lesson, I decided to keep it simple to show the steps. I went with two images, one of my grandparents’ engagement photo, and one of my great-grandmother, her sister (whom I’m named after) and their mom. Once you try a few of these, you may discover plenty of other ways you could use photo transfers to create great projects.

What You Need :

  • Acrylic Gel Medium
  • an old photo printed out on regular printer paper
  • canvas or other surface
  • brush or plastic palette knife
  • an old board to work on
  • a tray or nearby sink filled with water
  • optional: a soft sponge
  • scissors

Step 1: Prepare your photo and workspace

Once you’ve chosen the photo you’d like to use, print it out using a regular printer. Inkjet printers are the best option, but I have had no issues using a laser printer either.

transfer old photos to canvas using gel medium

A Note: This process is a bit messy, so it’s a great idea to use something you don’t mind staining with gel. I have an old wooden art board that I use, but an old cookie sheet or tray could also be an option. Avoid paper, though, as that will also stick to the gel and could ruin your image transfer.

Step 2: Cover the image with gel medium

There are different types of acrylic gel mediums you can use. I got two different ones from Michaels, a heavy gel gloss and a soft gel medium (which is why you see two different photos here). Both seemed to work equally well, though the heavy gel seemed like a more solid option. You can also determine if you want a glossy gel or a matte gel as well. If you choose regular gel medium, you might want to add a second coat after the first one dries.

transfer old photos to canvas

Likewise, the way you spread the gel on the surface depends on what you want it to look like. I used a brush and discovered that the bristles in the brush created lines. I don’t mind them, but if you prefer a smooth, even coating, a palette knife or sponge brush may be a better option.

There is no trick to covering the image; just make sure it’s all well-coated. Then, let it dry. It will dry clear. Ideally, you’ll want to give it 24 hours, but mine was dry enough after about 2 hours to complete the project.

Step 3: Soak the image and remove the paper fibers

Once the image is dry, you’ll want to fill a tray or the sink with water and then soak the back of your image (the blank white paper side) thoroughly.

remove paper from acrylic image transfer

Use either your finger or a soft sponge to start removing the paper fiber from the dried acrylic medium. This is the trickiest part as you learn how much pressure to apply without tearing the medium. You may need to re-soak it a few times as the paper gets dry or particularly stubborn spots. If you get a few tears, don’t worry, though – that can be part of the image’s charm. Later, you’ll be sealing the image and any tears to prevent further damage.

Once you’ve gotten enough of the paper removed to your satisfaction, let the transfer dry. Again, if it gets cloudy, don’t worry! It will dry clear. Once it’s dry, your image is ready to place on the surface of your choice.

Step 4: Prepare your canvas

Coat the canvas or surface in a good coat of gel medium.

Then, carefully place the photo transfer onto the canvas and press down, carefully smoothing out any bubbles. While the medium is still wet, you can manipulate the surface a bit to seal any tears or damage.

Photo transfer to canvas
photo transfer onto canvas

If you’ve made the image transfer large enough, you can coat the sides and back with the medium and wrap it around to cover or you can trim it to the size and shape you prefer.

Once you’ve placed the image, let it dry.


Step 5: Seal it

Once the image is set and dried, you may want to seal the image with one final coat of acrylic gel medium. Find a place to hang your new old photos, add additional paint or details if you wish, or package them up for a relative, then pat yourself on the back. You did it!

Photo transfers hanging on my cubicle wall

Here are the final canvases hanging on my office wall over my computer. I like how the tears and brushstrokes seem to add character to the images, and I still have the originals in pristine condition at home. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites.

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