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.

Digital Art Projectors

Digital art projectors are basically home theater projectors that have been designed with additonal features specifically for artists. They're pricey, but they're the gold standard for image transfer and enlargement because they're so versatile. They're generally brighter (so you don't need to worry about ambient light), produce a larger and sharper image, and offer image and color controls. Here's a breakdown of their most useful features:

  • They work digitally, which means they 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 projector 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 digital art projectors I recommend below all use LEDs to project the image, which last much longer and require far less than maintenance than projectors that use bulbs. The LEDs in the Artograph projectors below are designed to last 30,000 hours! If you use the projector for 2 hours every single day, it will last over 41 years!

  • LED art projectors can create sharper and clearer images than other types of projectors, which is especially important for artists tracing or enlarging very detailed artwork.

  • The LEDs in digital art projectors also provide fantastic brightness, measured in lumens, that can range from 150 to a whopping 1400 lumens! This means that you don't need a dark room to see a clear projection. Increased brightness also allows for bigger projections, which is perfect for muralists. While LED projectors are far superior to other types like opaque projectors, you can buy LCD or DLP home theater projectors that are even brighter (over 2,000 lumens).

  • LED projectors are extremely portable, especially when compared to other art projectors. Artograph’s Flare150 almost fits in the palm of your hand! Even their most powerful model weighs only 3.3 pounds!

The Artograph Flare150 LED Digital Art Projector

The Artograph Flare150 LED Digital Art Projector

  • Digital art projectors also come with several handy, built-in image functions that really elevate them above most home theater projectors. They offer flip, skew, and rotation controls, color temperature and grayscale adjustments, and dozens of custom grid layouts (such as rule of thirds).

  • The projectors I recommend are from Artograph, a trusted brand and industry leader in art projectors. I’ve never had a problem with any of their projectors, and all the models discussed below come with lifetime technical support.

  • A final bonus is that because digital projectors can play sound and project movies and video games on a large scale, they can also be used to create a home theater or game room! If that interests you, i'd recommend you buy a proper home theater projector, which can also be used for tracing.

  • If there’s a downside to digital art projectors, it’s their price. Although value for money is so much better than in the past, Artograph’s cheapest model is still over $400. When I was a struggling artist, that was definitely beyond my means! And when factoring in cost, don't forget that you might also need a tripod to mount the projector on.

  • If $400 is beyond your budget, see my discussion below about the more economical opaque projectors. If you'd still prefer a digital projector, check out home theater projectors that can be super expensive (over $2,000), but also very cheap (under $100). Those cheaper models might not be great for your home theater system, but they could be all you need for tracing.

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.

So, if you’re looking to buy a digital art projector, which model should you buy? My recommended brand, Artograph, has 3 LED projectors. As you’ll see below, the main differentiating factors are brightness, resolution, portability and price. They all cater to wide range of digital sources, and all feature built-in image functions, 30,000 hour LEDs, and Artograph’s lifetime technical support.

The Artograph Flare150 LED Digital Art Projector is what I’d recommend for most artists. As I write this, it’s available for around $420, making it Artograph’s cheapest model. It’s selling point is portability: it’s only 4.5 inches wide and weighs 1.1 pounds. It runs for 2.5 hours on a rechargeable battery (or via an outlet), so you can set it up anywhere. It offers 720p HD resolution, but because the brightness is only 150 lumens, it’s best suited to artworks of large portrait size and smaller. So if you’re a muralist or someone who wants to create large-scale paintings, you’re better off with a brighter model. Photorealists after sharp detail might also benefit from the models below. However, if you’re willing to project in low-light conditions, you can bend these limitations.

Artograph Flare150 LED Digital Art Projector

The Artograph Inspire1000 Digital Art Projector is their mid-tier model, priced at around $700. For an extra few hundred bucks you get a huge brightness bump (1000 lumens) and slightly higher resolution. Artograph recommends this model for just about any artwork up to mid-sized indoor murals. That extra brightness will also give much greater detail, which will please photorealists. It’s not as portable as the Flare150 (9.1 inches at its longest) and it requires a power outlet, but it still weighs only 2.55 pounds!

Artograph Inspire1000 LED Digital Art Projector

If you’re an outdoor muralist or just want the best specs, you need the Artograph Impression LED1400 Digital Projector. Along with an increase to 1400 lumens, you get a full HD resolution of 1080p. This means you’ll get impressive size and detail, even in outdoor conditions (although direct light can still wash out the projection). It’s not as portable as the Flare150, but it’s smaller than the Inspire1000 and still only weights 3.3 pounds. As you’d expect, this model is the priciest at around $1,100. If brightness is your main consideration, look into buying a DLP or LCD home theater projector, which can give you over 2,000 lumens.

Artograph Impression LED1400 Digital Projector

Before making a decision, I'd recommend comparing the specs on Artograph's website. If your head is still spinning from some of those prices, let's now take a look at the more affordable opaque projectors.

Opaque Projectors

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.

Opaque projectors work by shining a bright light onto an opaque object (like a photo or a sketch) and then using a combination of mirrors or prisms and a lens to focus an enlarged reflection onto a surface. 

They're not digital, so instead of using an image file, you need a sketch or a photo you've printed out. This is less convenient, but might be preferable if you're enlarging your own sketches, thereby saving you the step of having to scan them. Before we delve deeper, let's get an overview of how to use an opaque projector.

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, such as the grid method or transfer paper, which will save you some money.

Opaque projectors also require a print out of a photo or a physical sketch to be projected. While this is much easier than other projectors that require slides or transparencies, it's not as convenient as digital projectors that can utilize digital image files and even video. The print out must also be small to fit on the projector (usually 7" sq or smaller), which can be a hassle if your source image is larger.

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. While opaque projectors are generally much cheaper than digital projectors, you can still spend hundreds of dollars. A very basic opaque projector will cost you about $40, but it won't be able to give you as much detail, clarity or brightness as the professional models, which can set you back as much as $400. In the past, I've struggled with cheaper models when it came to detailed artworks. Some areas were blurry and I couldn't see the details I needed (which had to be penciled in later using good old-fashioned hand-eye coordination). So it depends partly on your style of artwork and how much enlargement you need.
  2. Opaque projectors require a 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 Flare150 Digital LED Projector (see above), which can handle more ambient light and has loads of other perks as well.

Opaque projectors also use light bulbs, which aren't as bright as LEDs, don't last as long, and can heat up, which is why some projectors come with internal cooling systems. But they do make for a simpler device, so if something goes wrong with the bulb, you can usually change it out yourself.

The recommended products below are there to help you browse for art projectors, 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. I'm not going to recommend any professional level opaque projectors because I think that if you can afford one of those, you might as well buy a digital projector, which will give you much better performance.

The Artograph EZ Tracer Art Projector costs around $40 and is a cheap, entry-level projector that's best for children or beginners. It's relatively portable, but can only enlarge photos to 2.5 to 5 times their original size. But it might be perfect if your only goal is to enlarge simple sketches from your notebook so you can transfer them to a larger surface like canvas.

The Artograph Tracer Projector is a step up from their EZ model, capable of enlargement to 14 times the original size. At around $100, it's a well-priced choice for beginners. It has a 100-watt bulb and the source image must be no larger than 5" x 5", but depending on your needs, this could well be all you need.

The Artograph Prism Art Projector jumps up to around $250 in price, but for that you get 20 times magnification and much brighter images thanks to two 250-watt bulbs. It also has a built-in cooling system and can be used with an upgraded lens for better focus and accuracy. This is a very good option for the artist that can't justify the expense of an LED projector. Check out this YouTube video from Blick Art Materials that demonstrates how the Prism projector works.

Slide Projectors

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.

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

Home Theater Projectors

Home theater projectors are quite similar to digital art projectors, although they lack many of the special features designed for artists: portability, image & color controls, grids, etc. However, they’re worth considering if you can’t afford an Artograph art projector or you know you’d like to use it to watch movies.

Artograph art projectors use LEDs, but most home theater projectors use LCD or DLP systems to project the image. These bulb-based methods aren’t as efficient, long-lasting, and sharp as LEDs, but they do offer more brightness, which is useful if you work outdoors or in a brightly lit studio.

Many home theater projectors are just as expensive as Artograph's models (or more so), but you can also find very cheap models (as low as $70), which would probably be poor for watching movies, but may be just fine for enlarging and tracing artwork. They offer amazing brightness, but they probably won’t be as crisp or clear as the Artograph art projectors. I’ve never used a home theater projector for tracing myself, so I’d recommend you purchase from a retailer that offers free returns just in case it doesn’t suit your needs.

Overhead Projectors

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 printable transparencies that go through your inkjet printer, laser printer or copier, so you can quickly and easily print them off yourself (make sure the transparency you buy is compatible with your printer). The downside is that new overhead projectors do cost a few hundred smackeroos, which is cheaper than LED art projectors, but still pricey if you're on a budget or aren't sure how much you'll use it. Check out sites like eBay where you can find great deals on secondhand models, or check if your school or work has one that you can borrow.

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