art projector guide

An art projector is a handy tool for artists of all skill levels. Photorealist painters traditionally used a projector to enlarge and transfer the image from their small photo onto a large canvas. In addition to projectors, there are also 2 other methods you can use: the grid method and transfer paper.

How do you decide which of these 3 methods is easiest for you? Read through these pages to compare and contrast the different methods and processes, starting with the almighty projector. Buying a projector can be a costly experience (depending on the type you want and whether you buy it new or used), so read through this page to help figure out which type of projector is best for your needs and your budget.

LED Projector

The Artograph Inspire LED800 Digital Projector is a popular, mid-range digital art projector that's well suited for all kinds of image transfer and enlargement.

  • It works digitally, which means it can project photos from nearly any digital source: computers, memory cards, digital cameras, and even smartphones. If you create murals, all you need to do is hook up your laptop, camera or memory card to the LED800 and you can project an image! The advantage of this is that you don't need to print out the image or have a slide or transparency made (like people had to do in the "old days"!). It's super-convenient. The price includes a 5-in-1 card reader, which can read files from the 5 most popular SD cards. You can even play a digital movie file and pause it to trace a still!
  • The Artograph LED800 can create sharp, clear images in almost any lighting situation, whereas other art projectors require a dark (if not pitch-black) room (which you can read about more below, when I discuss other types of art projectors). Since the LED800 can produce clear images even in a lighted room, this gives it a huge advantage over the other types of projectors.
  • You can make big projections, using its 800 lumens of brightness, which is great for mural work or super-large paintings on canvas or wood panels.
  • This projector is extremely portable (especially compared to many of the other projectors out there)! At only 5.5 inches across  and 2 inches high, this projector is easy to transport to work, school, home, your studio, or anywhere you want to take it. Plus it weighs only 1.3 lbs. A protective case is included.
The Artograph Inspire LED800 Art Projector

The Artograph Inspire LED800 Art Projector

  • The LED300 as several image functions which may come in handy, such as changing a color image into black and white, or projecting a grid over the image, with 18 different custom grid layouts to choose from.
  • The LED lamps are designed to last 30,000 hours, which means you won't have to worry about changing bulbs. If you use the projector for 2 hours every single day, it will last over 41 years!
  • The LED300 is described as "maintenance free", which means you won't have to replace or maintain any parts.
  • Artograph is a trusted brand that specializes in designing and manufacturing art projectors. I have owned one of their opaque projectors and its quality and usefulness give me confidence in the company's products.
  • A final bonus is that this art projector can be used to create a home theater or game room, because it can play sound and project movies and video games on a large scale! You can also use it to make presentations or slideshows.

I've provided links below to the relevant products so that you can easily find them on Blick Art Materials, my favorite online art supplier. I'm a member of Blick's affiliate program, which means if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, I'll receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Your purchase helps support this site and keeps it free of ads. Click here for more info.

The only real downside I can see to the Artograph Inspire LED800 is the price - currently around $650. It's not the most expensive Artograph projector (the LED1200 goes for over $1,200), but for anyone other than the most serious artists, it's what I would recommend if you're after the best (especially if you're a muralist or photorealist who wants to create large-scale paintings).

If you still want an LED projector, but can't afford the LED800, I'd suggest you take a look at the Artograph Flare LED 100 Digital Projector. It has many of the great features of the LED800 - a trusted brand, 30,000 hour LEDs, image functions, and excellent compatibility - but in a smaller, more portable package. At 4 inches wide, 1.75 inches high, and only 0.6 pounds, you can take it anywhere! Be aware that you get less brightness (100 lumens), which makes it more suitable for smaller projects. It's priced at approximately $360, which is still a serious investment. Keep reading below if you're interested in more affordable options.

Artograph Flare LED100 Projector

Artograph Flare LED100 Projector

Opaque Projector

If you plan to do a large scale painting, you could also look into using an opaque projector, which will enlarge your image so that you can trace the outline.

Here's how to use an opaque projector:

You will need a small paper copy of your photograph, between 5 sq inches and 7 sq inches, depending on the size of your art projector's opening. Place the image in the opening, turn on the machine and turn off the lights in the room. Make sure you have enough space to be able to pull the machine far back if you need to make a really big version. The projected image will appear on the wall, so you'll need to position your canvas securely on the wall, and arrange the projector so that the enlarged image fits correctly within the size of the canvas. This might take some fiddling to get it just right. Double-check that the canvas is perfectly straight and flat against the wall, and that the projector rests perfectly flat upon its surface - otherwise the picture will turn out slightly distorted. You can see the illustration below for an idea of how it all works.

You'll need to make sure that the art projector stays in place the entire time as you are drawing the image. Keep the dogs, cats and tiny children out of the room. The slightest nudge of the projector will knock the projection out of alignment, and it may or may not be easy to realign the projection with your previous tracings. You don't want to take any chances! For the same reason, make sure you have enough time to trace the whole thing in one go.

How to Use an Art Projector

Pros and cons to using opaque projectors

The pros to using an opaque projector is that it is an easy way to enlarge to a really big scale - anything over at least 18" x 24". If you plan to work on a scale that is 16" x 20" or smaller, I would suggest using one of the other methods of transferring the image (grid method or transfer paper). Also, all you need is a print-out of the image, and not a slide or transparency.

The cons to using an opaque projector are (1) the expense and (2) the need for a dark room. Let's look at these 2 points further:

  1. It's probably only worth investing in an art projector (of any type) if you think it will get a lot of use. Projectors cost anywhere between $50 for a basic one up to $650 for a really professional one. You do get what you pay for - the cheaper ones will not be able to project as much detail or produce as much clarity as the more expensive models. The more expensive projectors will produce an image that is bright, sharp and easy to trace. Keep this in mind, as it is important - it can be frustrating not being able to see all the tiny details if you need to. I've used a projector of average quality and price (around $125-150), and I enlarged an image to 16" x 20", and still some areas were blurry and needed to be pencilled in later using good old-fashioned hand and eye coordination. I suppose that if I had enlarged the image a lot more, to 30" x 40" or so, there would have less tiny detail and then perhaps the projector would have suited my needs better.
  2. Opaque projectors require a really dark room for you to be able to see the projection clearly. This can be annoying or downright difficult - although if you need to, you'll probably learn to adapt and make the best of it (which is what I did). If you can afford it, consider getting an LED projector like the Artograph LED800 (see above), which doesn't need a dark room to produce crystal-clear results and has loads of other perks as well.

The Recommended Products below are there to help you browse for art supplies, and if you make a purchase I get a small commission that supports this site and keeps it FREE! Thanks in advance.

There are a range of Opaque Projectors available, ranging from about $90 to $400+. Here's a handy Comparison Chart on DickBlick. If you're on a budget or are a beginner, I'd recommend the Gagne Projector. If you're more serious and have the budget, you should consider the Artograph Designer Projector or the Artograph Prism.

Slide Projector

The original Photorealists of the late 1960s and 70s commonly used slide projectors to enlarge their images. They would have slides made of their photographs, insert the slide into a slide projector and trace the enlarged image onto their canvas. The process is basically the same as using an opaque projector, only you will need to have a slide made of your photo. In the US, is a convenient and inexpensive way to get slides made from digital files.

You will also need a slide projector. You can acquire either new or used slide projectors from Ebay or Amazon. The used ones often sell at a deep discount to the original price. Although I haven't used a slide projector myself for the purpose of tracing the enlarged image, I imagine that a crisp, clear slide inside a good slide projector should make a really accurate enlargement that would be easier to trace than the projection you would get from of a middle-range opaque projector.

  Important Tip When Using Slide Projectors:

“When using a slide projector you have to be careful of lamp life. I once did a large drawing only to have the lamp burn out right before I was done. Trust me you can never line up the image again.”
— Emile Dillon, photorealist artist

LCD Projector or DLP Projector

Another type of projector you can use is an LCD or DLP projector that you can connect directly to your laptop. These projectors cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, so again, it's only worth investing in one if you know it'll be getting a lot of use. The added benefits of an LPD projector or DLP projector is that they can also be used to play videos or give presentations, so there is more potential for them to be used for entertainment or work purposes than a slide projector or opaque projector. However, if you have access to an LCD or DLP projector via school or work, perhaps you could use one of their machines for free. Doesn't hurt to ask!

Overhead Projector

When I was a student in school, all the teachers used overhead projectors to project their lessons onto the wall, and the images were always quite crisp and clear. This makes them an excellent candidate for enlarging reference photos!

To use an overhead projector, you will need a transparency of your reference photo. These days you can get inkjet transparencies that go through your home printer, so you can quickly and easily print them off yourself. The downside is that overhead projectors do cost a few hundred smackeroos, and there's a good chance that you may not get much use out of them, other than to enlarge your photos. This is fine if you'll be enlarging all the time, but mostly you'll be spending your time painting! I would suggest only investing in one if you would use it also for school or work purposes. On that note, if you have one at your school or work, why not ask to borrow it?

This is Page 8 of a 15-page guide explaining how to paint photorealistically.