Using A Lightbox For Watercolour Painting


A Lightbox is something I have considered purchasing in the past. Not really for anything directly to do with urban sketching of course but for some other illustration work I think it could have made life easier. Leaning on a window doing my best to trace an initial sketch is not ideal.

In the last 12 months, I have taken a few Domestika courses on watercolour painting and was interested to see some instructors using a lightbox to transfer a sketch onto their watercolour paper before painting.

It makes sense as this limits any sketching and erasing unnecessary pencil Iines that could potentially damage the surface of expensive watercolour paper. 

I had never come across this before or given it that much thought.

I realised replicating a line drawing quickly without any fuss could be quite useful in my general art habits, especially for practice but also for experimentation purposes (which we know I’m all about).

What is a lightbox?

A lightbox provides an evenly lit surface backlit by LEDs to allow artists to transfer or trace an image from one piece of paper on the bottom to another piece of paper on top of it.

Artists from across the centuries have used equipment to allow them to transfer an image on to another surface. But in the 21st century, as with most things, it is just quicker, cheaper and more efficient…

What are lightboxes used for?

Lightboxes have a wide-ranging application for many art and design professionals, such as:

  • Animators
  • Lettering artists
  • Tattoo artists
  • Illustrators
  • Graphic designers

(This list is not exhaustive).

A lightbox allows an artist or designer to redraw an image multiple times, adjusting or refining it in some way each time. For example, an animator can trace the character they are drawing but then move a part of the body in a different way.

A lettering artist can refine the shape of their letters or exaggerate parts just to see how it looks. Or they can use a grid underneath their paper to ensure all their letters and words are aligned and spaced correctly.

Tattoo artists can make sure they have perfect lines on their final illustration, ready to be applied permanently to their human canvas.

In this post, I am focusing on watercolour sketching/painting as that’s what my purpose is for using the lightbox and I think my audience, i.e. those of you reading this, would be most interested in this application too.

Why is a lightbox useful for ink and/or watercolour sketching?

– you could replicate a drawing onto different types of watercolour paper and then paint the same thing on each as a test to see what the paper is like

– you could paint the same sketch in various different ways to try different techniques, different colour palettes, different brands of paint etc

– you could compose an image by tracing 2 (or more) different elements on to one page

A lightbox could be useful to an aspiring or established watercolourist for the pure reason it removes the time and issues of trying to replicate your own line drawing leaving you to purely focus on the practice of watercolour painting.

Elice Lightbox

So onto the lightbox itself.

There are many lightboxes on the market and many round-ups of which are recommended. If your requirements are hobbyist, such as mine, then don’t worry too much about all of the technical specifications. As long as it works, it will probably do what you need! But if you like getting into the technical weeds, be my guest!

I’m not really one for doing big product roundups so I will just talk to you about the lightbox I have and what I have found it super useful for.

The lightbox I have is made by a company called Elice. You can find them on Amazon here – FYI this is an affiliate link.

I have the A3 version and it costs about £30/US$50 which I think is an absolute bargain.

Full disclosure – Elice sent me this lightbox to try out, completely unsolicited and they did not pay me for a favourable review at all – so these words are entirely my own opinion. But, in short, I would not have been sorry if I had paid for this item.

I really love the simplistic and sleek design. The lightbox is slim and lightweight.

It has a USB-C input on the side which means you can power your lightbox from your laptop or from the mains or, as I do, from an external battery pack. 

A seemingly hardy USB cable is provided with the lightbox.

Plug the lightbox in, press the power button and you’re up and running. It’s as simple as that.

Press the power button again to increase the brightness. It has 3 levels. Then press once more and it’s off. It really doesn’t get much simpler.

The lightbox feels sturdy yet lightweight and is comfortable to draw on. I could not detect any flickering of the light, which I have read can happen with some lightboxes.

I traced a sketch I did of the Natural History Museum in London on to watercolour paper and could see through both sheets perfectly.

I genuinely can’t think of any negatives, apart from the fact I can’t take it back to South Africa with me when I leave but luckily my Dad loves to draw and paint and he is excited by the possibilities of this lightbox, so it will be a nice gift for him instead. 

Now I have used a lightbox and have had a taste of the ways in which I could use it, I may consider buying one when I’m back in South Africa.

Final Thoughts

I am in no way saying you should run out and get a lightbox. It is certainly not an essential item to watercolour painting. However, if you have one or have been thinking about getting one then I hope this short article has helped shed some light on how and why you may use a lightbox for watercolour painting (or any medium for that matter).

Again, the one I am using is the Elice A3 Lightbox which you can find on Amazon here.

If you would like to see me experimenting with this lightbox, check out my Youtube video here:

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