What is a transfer?
A transfer is any process that takes a printed image, and removes it from whatever it is on, and then transfers it to another surface.
The story goes, that once upon a time, Robert Rauschenberg, the great American painter, was in his studio messing around and he spilled paint thinner onto a canvas that had a magazine page sitting on it. I think he may have let it sit for a while, but when he went to pick up the page, the image had been melted by the solvent and reproduced itself onto the canvas! Voila! The modern transfer was born, or something like that.
In 1991, when I was a freshman at PSU, I had the opportunity to study under Mel Katz. We did various abstract techniques that were very direct and fast. One of these was the transfer. We used some intense paint thinner that was only available at this obscure store. We taped magazine pages face down onto paper, then brushed on some solvent, then rubbed it with the edge of a spoon, then - bingo- the image was on the paper. This was great, we got some cool results, but my problem then and now is that I don't like poisonous chemicals. If you think you are cool, gnarly or smart, go for it. Be the romantic artist whose studio apartment is soaked in toxic garbage and breathe all of the poisonous fumes you want. You can use Goof Off, lacquer thinner, lighter fluid, or even xylene blending pens to make your transfers, I just honestly don't think its worth it. But whatever the case, this class introduced me to principles of abstraction and transfers.
I had heard about acrylic transfers but I had never seen one done before 1997 or so. The process wasn't exactly clear, and there were several different methods used. One of these is the commonly known method that involves building up the acrylic on the photocopy until it is thick and then soaking it in water so the paper falls off. This is good but it takes too long in my opinion. So I experimented on my own for a couple of years until I came up with an easy, quick method to do transfers.
gesso and acrylic transfers onto wood. Fujita '02
What makes a transfer work?
When a transfer succeeds, it is a firmly fused layer of medium that is bonded quite well to an image that consists of photocopy toner. What is it about acrylic and toner that causes them to stick together so well? I posed this question to my father, retired chemist Tom S. Fujita, and got a long and complex answer. Basically the acrylic is an emulsion, which explains why it starts out like liquid and then dries up like a flexible plastic. When it is wet, the molecular structure of the emulsion is desperately grabbing out for something and so when the water evaporates, they bond to each other or whatever is next to them. Thus - voila - your paint sticks to the canvas. So then you take a photocopy, which is made from toner, and expose it to acrylic, and they bond together. Tom felt that on a molecular level, the emulsion is melting the toner, however there are never any visible smears or blurs unless you use a computer printout which kind of works but not really. At any rate, this would appear to lend to theoretical archivability but who knows? Maybe you have a better explanation which I would be curious to hear.
Why do a transfer?
It is, in my opinion, the best way to put an image onto a surface. How would one go about putting a transparent image onto another image? You'd have to use a computer or make a transparency. What about adding an image to a painting? Well of course you could just collage it on there, but unless you use special materials its just going to look like crap and disintegrate within a few years. All of these problems can be solved using a transfer. The result is a collage effect with the physical stability of a painting.
This is a photocopy transfer drawing on printmaking paper. I used dozens of copies and gel medium and that's it. The surface is totally flat.