Acrylic gel lift & transfer: Acrylic side up version – an alternative to an alternative process

Brady Wilks takes us through the acrylic gel lift and transfer in a step by step complete with trouble shooting.

Writer and photography / Brady Wilks

Acrylic Gel Lift / Transfer
“Tree’s End at Farmer’s Hand” Acrylic Gel Lift / Transfer from “Small Windows” series by Brady Wilks 2012


The Acrylic Gel Lift is a process with many stages, ultimately enabling the artist to apply their photographic work to a wide variety of surfaces.  The process entails the creation of a positive print, applying acrylic gel to the print, curing the gel, soaking the gel coated print, removing the paper backing, then applying the final suspended ink to a new surface.  This exercise will illustrate one of the easier, acrylic side up (also described as ink side down) version of the process that has been developed as a way to further control the paper for highlights and retain a higher level of detail.  This method is not a reversal.  It will come out in the same orientation as you print, unlike the acrylic side down version, which celebrates the old transfer aesthetic of being a reverse of the original capture.  This is a very simple way to start making gel transfers.

Much of the information is the same as the other process with a few variations in paper removal and application of the skin.  Many details have been left out in order to allow for exploration and experience with the process and the formulation of creative ideas.  Originally the full version was going to be available in book form and e-book in late Summer 2012, this has been pushed back for several reasons including format, editing and publications.  This will be revised with release dates when made available.

Supplies for Acrylic gel lift & transfer:

  • Inkjet Printer
  • Typing Paper / Computer Printer Paper (for speed, other fine art papers take significantly longer to release)
  • Acrylic Gel Medium (choice of transparent Matte or Gloss)
  • Synthetic Bristle Brush
  • Palette Knife (optional)
  • Acrylic or Rubber Brayer
  • Hair Dryer
  • Tray or Plate to soak prints in
  • Substrate Material (desired final surface for print)
  • Scissors
  • Razor knife (optional)
Acrylic Gel Lift / Transfer
“Steps to New Water” Acrylic Gel Lift / Transfer from “Small Windows” series by Brady Wilks 2012

Surface substrate options


Although it may seem redundant to transfer from paper to paper, with the wide variety of handmade and fine art papers available, this process can in fact produce dramatic results.  As can be seen through the process, the acrylic skin can be folded, stretched and creased while being applied to the substrate of choice.  These textures and anomalies of ink loss, creases, and bubbles can still be taken advantage of even if paper is the desired final substrate.  This is a similar look to Polaroid emulsion lifts.

Because many printers cannot accept very thick canvas rolls, this technique can be utilized to apply images to canvas.  Many painters and multimedia artists utilize similar techniques in their work.

Light colored woods will produce the highest contrast print, as the wood color and structure will show through the translucent areas.  However, when using wood, it is best to use a higher contrast image to compensate.  Darker woods tend to be more difficult to work with.  The wood can be oriented in a way such that the striations of the grain support and enhance the image.  This is a personal preference choice.

Suggested Species List:  Pine (all varieties), Oak, Red Oak, Poplar, Cherry, Mulberry, Bradford Pear, Apple, Lilac,  Maple (all varieties), Spalted Maple, Box Elder, Ash, and Birch.

Using glass allows for the option of back illumination.  Also, additional substrate materials (such as gold leafing, glass beading, etc.) can be applied to the back of the glass and seen without altering the texture of the transfer itself.   This can enhance the depth and dimension of the image.

Mounting to mirrors is similar to working with glass however the reflection on the underside of the skin provides additional depth, visual texture, and interest.

Sandstone tiles have a wonderful texture that, when paired with the transfer, add a unique texture difficult to reproduce otherwise.  There are also many gel mediums containing various texture materials (such as sand, glass bead, fiber, etc.) to create varied textures on a number of surfaces.

Similar to wood, the striations within various rock formations can provide interesting patterns to be revealed underneath the transfer skin.  The difference is that marble usually comes polished while most wood grain allows a relief to show through.

Similar to glass, mirrors and tile, this can have a range of reflective or shimmering qualities behind the print.  Oxidation of metals, selective burnishing, or metal etching can be utilized to further alter and support the imagery.  Like glass, mirrors and tile, the print may be easily pealed off.  Make a slightly larger print so you can stretch the gel to the backside and secure it with glue if need be.

Be sure to integrate the physical aspects of the material into the imagery as opposed to overpowering the image with the substrate.

Variations of the Transfer

One method makes use of transparency printer paper to transfer the ink into a gel-coated surface.  Once pressed, the transparency paper is removed.

Another method uses gel on paper to suspend the ink.  The paper is removed via water and the transfer is placed with the image in reverse, ink side up.  This is the process used to further manipulate and control the transfer and is described in another article.

The method developed for this manual uses gel on paper to suspend the ink.  The paper is removed via water and it places the transfer with the ink side down on the blank surface producing no inversion or reversal.  The benefit here is quicker times, slightly more detail and selective paper remove to retain highlights.

1Make a print

Using white typing paper, print the desired image using a plain paper profile with at least 720ppi photo quality resolution.  The image should be fairly high contrast.  It is important to note that regardless of the substrate being transferred onto, some details will be lost, especially in areas of shadow.  This is simply part of the process.  The darker the substrate, the lower the contrast will be in the end due to the material showing through the highlights. Let this print thoroughly dry otherwise you can smear the ink around when applying the gel.   Some prints can work shortly after they finish, but it doesn’t hurt to let them set over night.

2Coat and Cure the Print

a. There are many variations on coating the print.  This stage is extremely important.  In order to make the most of your transfer, it is important that this step is approached with patience, regardless of the coating method being employed.
b. The first method is to apply a thin coat of gel using a brush to apply gel in a single direction across the entire image.  After applying this thin coat, it is advised to use a hairdryer on a cool or medium heat setting to accelerate drying and curing time.  Do not use a high heat setting as it could damage the gel.  However, this hot setting can be used to burn in, boil, and bubble the gel skin if that particular aesthetic is desired in the piece.
c. The second method is to apply a few thick coats curing and drying between each coat.  These thicker coats take a lot longer to dry and it is important to only use the cool setting on the hairdryer.  Hot air could potentially damage and alter the gel with bubbles, cracks, and imperfect thicknesses.  This may be the desired effect however is not as predictable as with thinner layers of gel.
d. The third method is to apply a single very thick coat using a palette knife to glop the gel down on one side and distribute the gel across the image in 2-3 soft-handed strokes.  The gel will even slightly but this method could be used to get some heavy textures on the surface similar to encaustic / wax work.   Typically, it will require 8-10 hours for thicker applications to dry.  When using this method, several images can be prepared for transfer and coated at once, letting them dry and cure overnight to full transparency.
e. Many other variations can be discovered through experimentation.  A successful starting point would be 8-10 very thin layers alternating brush stroke direction and fully curing between each coat.
f. Alterations – A small amount of pigment can be added to the gel medium but should be done sparingly in order to maintain transparency.  Another alteration could be made by brushing in some texture and tracing elements of the image to produce depth and dimension.  Using textured gel at this stage makes paper removal difficult but some textured gels work very well as a final coat.
g. Before moving to the soaking stage, the image may be trimmed if desired so that it becomes borderless, without paper edges.
*Note: When using a hair dryer, do not cure the gel with the paper lying flat on a stiff surface for too long as it could create moisture pockets or “sweat” on the underside of the paper.  Instead, hold up one corner or side of the paper carefully while drying the print with a hair dryer.  If this is not done, it could result in bubbling or a breakdown of the gel when soaked in water.  Curing fully is the most important consideration before soaking.

3Soak the Print

Depending on the print size, a tray or container will be needed that can accommodate the full size of the image or more.  When working small, a simple plate can be used with very little water.
Distilled water or most well water works best.   A warm to mildly hot water temperature is best when removing the paper backing, as the fibers of the paper soften more easily.  Using water that is too hot could damage the gel or cause it bubble.  This could be used creatively but the bubbles will remove most of the ink in those areas.  Lukewarm water produces the best results.   This ranges between 98 and 105° Fahrenheit.
Soak the print, gel side down.  The water can be seen penetrating the paper backing.  Before submerging the paper, fine-grain sandpaper can be used on the back to accelerate the water penetration.  If typing paper is used, the soaking time is very quick.  If fine art paper is used, such as Somerset velvet or enhanced mat, soaking times will be much longer.  Typing paper soaking times range from 5 to 20 minutes but some paper require hours of soaking.  This process cannot be rushed.

4Release the Paper Backing

Once the print has soaked, leave it in the water and start to gently rub the paper side in an easy motion side-to-side starting in the center.  The fibers of the paper will begin to pill and roll away gently.  Once the first layer of the paper is removed in the center start to work from the center out to the edges, holding the print down with one hand and gently rubbing with the other.  This step is extremely delicate!   Be careful not to rub too hard or too much or all of the ink can be lost.
You will not want to remove all of the paper like in other methods.  This process is a little less involved as only the first layer or two of paper should be removed rinsing the print and adding fresh water once so the pulp doesn’t build up.  If too much pulp is allowed to build up, it can slip under the gel layer.  If this occurs, the pulp can easily remove ink from the surface of the image by incidental agitation.  Again, this could be used in an intentional way for further distortions and loss of details.
Once the desired amount of paper has been removed, carefully rinse gel image, removing undesired pills and fibers from the surface.  The desired amount is subjective and open to the printmaker’s discretion.   As a starting point, be sure only to remove a layer or two of paper.  Try to keep the paper pulp visible in the highlight areas like skies and light colored objects.  This will translate into a brighter highlight, especially when using darker substrates.

5Dry the skin

Drape the gel skin over a drying rack or another smooth, non stick surface that will allows air to dry the film.  Be careful not to allow the skin to become stuck to a surface or other paper materials as this could damage or alter the skin.  Alternately, the gel skin may be dried with a hair dryer on a cool setting to accelerate the process.  It may be draped across the hand or arm while drying, if small enough.  You do not need to let it fully dry before applying it to your new surface but it is recommended for consistency.

6Prepare the Surface Material

Select you new substrate.  Coat the substrate surface with an even amount of gel medium.  This layer should not be too thick or too thin. Do not allow this layer to dry before the skin is applied as it acts as glue between the substrate and the gel lift.  The lift will be applied at this time. Some surfaces, like wood, may require a couple coats of gel before the wet coat for transfer.  Other surfaces will allow the print to slip around easily.  Be sure to keep your surface in mind with solving issues regarding the permanence of the transfer.

7Apply the Gel Skin

Lay the gel skin gently on the surface with the paper side down (acrylic side up).  At this stage, purposeful stretching, folding, creasing, ripping, etc. may be carefully done.  Depending on the original coating method the skin might be very delicate and brittle.
Use the brayer to roll out the air bubbles starting in the center and working up, then starting in the center and working down.  Do this until all the air bubbles are out unless those effects are preferred.  Once the gel skin has been applied over the surface and rolled out, fold the excess over the edge of the substrate and spread some of the excess gel around the edges to act as glue.
*Note, if a high heat setting is used, air pockets and bubbles may be produced due to expansion.  This is an interesting effect but not always desired.  To avoid them, press firmly when rolling out the excess and use a very low heat or cool setting on your hair dryer.

The finishing of your work is full of options. The most important being finishing coats of acrylic gel medium along the sides to seal in the transfer. Trimming and folding edges provides a clean presentation. Painting the sides or framing the work would provide a gallery ready presentation. Bee’s wax or synthetic wax (encaustic) can be used to encase the print and offer added levels of dimension to the lift.

Problems and solutions

Some common issues occur within the process. This section will explain why it happened, how to fix it if possible, and how to prevent it in the future. You may also choose to do some of these problems on purpose for a particular aesthetic.

IMPORTANT: There is a lot of paper left on the surface after it dried.

This is the most common issue and many will have this problem first starting. If the piece dries and too much paper is left on, the surface will dry white. While the print is wet it will be hard to tell if enough paper is removed because the paper becomes translucent and less white while damp. Take extra steps in removing the paper, changing the water and removing more paper 4 to 5 times. Be very delicate as not to remove too much ink. Another option is to remove the last bits of paper with after it has been applied it to the substrate. Carefully rub off the extra paper while the ink side is still damp with a finger, gently pilling the paper up and off in a circular motion. Brush off the excess pills and repeat until the texture is mostly smooth. Again, part of the aesthetic is leaving a little texture and paper in certain areas to enhance the image. If this type of transfer does not work for you then try only removing 2 layers of paper and doing the ink side down method which is much simpler and produces more detail.

Gel dissolves during soaking:

If the print was not cured properly before the soaking stage the water will mix with the gel and turn it to paste. This causes the print to be destroyed when attempting to remove the paper. To avoid this, first let the print dry thoroughly before applying gel (allow the ink to cure from the original print). Second, apply very thin coats of gel, using the hair dryer to thoroughly cure each layer. Once again, be careful not to allow moisture to build up underneath the print. It is not uncommon for some sweat to occur, so a piece of cardboard or other absorbent material can be placed underneath the print to help absorb the moisture. Alternatively, the print may simply be handheld while drying. If a single thick coat of gel is applied, wait several hours (usually overnight or longer) for the gel to fully cure.

Gel bubbles during soaking

If the print is placed into water that is too hot, expansion bubbling may occur between the thin coats of gel. To avoid this, use luke-warm water.

Air bubbles and air pockets

Finished print
Finished print by Brady Wilks

If a brayer is not used to roll out the transfer, there is a risk of air bubbles and pockets being left behind. Later, as the gel is heated during the curing of the finishing layers, the heat of the hair dryer makes the air and moisture expand disallowing that area to stick to the surface resulting in a bubble. This can be remedied by using a needle to carefully puncture the smallest hole possible and remove the air. This small puncture can then be covered with a small amount of gel medium. To prevent this problem in the future, a harder brayer may be used and proper pressure applied. Be patient and spend a few extra moments rolling out the bubbles.

Micro bubbles during cure times

Small heat-bubbles can appear when the gel medium is applied too thin and the heat setting of the hair dryer is too high. The gel can be heated to a point of boiling expansion if not monitored carefully. This problem is not easily fixed and involves scraping off the gel before applying fresh coats. This can lead to damage of the image itself. It’s also used as a creative tool for added texture, depth and dimension..

Brady Wilks is a fine art photographer, print maker, and professor of photography. Currently showing work in galleries, selling prints, writing how-to articles, teaching college darkroom and alternative process courses and workshops in the greater D.C. area.

7 thoughts on “Acrylic gel lift & transfer: Acrylic side up version – an alternative to an alternative process”

  1. Hi Brady,
    I am trying to get as transparent a skin as I possibly can, to transfer to a piece of mica. Having the mica texture show thru is the object. Even after I remove every bit of paper, there is still a milky look. What can I do?


  2. Hi Scott,

    You can break down the image into squares but aligning them later will be quite difficult unless you incorporate that separation into the aesthetic. As you remove the paper, you stretch the skin a bit in the warm water. Each piece you make will stretch differently from another making the alignment a bit of a miss. If you can make the college part of your work it could look great as a loose hand applied grid. 🙂

  3. Hi Lara,

    Yes you can share links with a credit or byline no worries. Thanks for asking. 🙂

    Actually, I’m not sure about how feels about that though, I don’t see it being a problem if you link directly to this page or my own website.

    Thanks much.

  4. Hi Brady,
    That’s an awesome tutorial. Wondering if I can share it on my website with appropriate links of course! Please let me know. Thank you!

  5. Hello Brady!…. I’m overwhelmed by alternative printing choices…I have digital colorful manipulated photo
    images that I’d like to print on a large scale…maybe on metal or canvas .. .
    Because of limited size from ink jet for transfer process..can the image be broken down into sections and pieced all together blended with acrylic paint or pastels…?

    I considered using commercial printers to print on metal, but concerned about cost and was worried the end result would look too printed and cheap, losing a photographic esthetic… any ideas?
    I appreciate any thoughts on this matter ..Thank you.

  6. Hi Sonya, Inkjet prints on regular typing paper work great under two conditions. That you have let the inkjet print fully dry (sometimes overnight) and that the gel you are using is a good quality (I use Golden). I have found, and many others have found, that if you gel your print too early, you can smudge the colors and loose a lot of the ink when you soak the print. Also, some gels have not bonded to the ink very well.

    Now some printer brands and ink brands have problems as well but for the most part, as long as you let them dry/cure, you should be fine. Just make sure not to use any coated printer paper… use cheap typing paper (make sure it’s acid free if you want some level of permanence). I hope that helps. Let me know what you discover. 🙂

  7. Hi Brady,
    Great tips here but I’m wondering… As I’ve learned about matte and gel medium transfers, they must be done with a toner photocopy, since that is what sticks to the gel. Is that not the case if I print my image on plain white paper with a regular inkjet printer? Or perhaps it’s the nature of the gel “lift” that allows the ink to suspend itself in the gel?


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