How to Paint Photos or Copy Masters Using XL Transparency

Do you want to learn how to paint a photo onto a canvas or perhaps even copy a great Master's painting, including changing any masterpiece to suit your own tastes? This article will teach you how to do so using Microsoft Excel's Transparency tool. This method involves making a reference grid as large as your canvas, in inches, so that the image's curves and shapes will be composed basically as in the original, or however you want them creatively to be.


  1. Image titled Irises Upper Rt Transparent 63 1
    Understand what you're working towards. Excel will help you create a gridline like this so that you can base your painting off it.
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    Open a new Excel workbook's worksheet.
    • From the Dock, select the green X for XL.
    • From the File menu, select "Open New Workbook".
    • Name the top worksheet "Life-size Photo Grid".
    • Save the file as your photos name, or something similar, into a logical folder.
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    Set the grid to inches.
    • Do Format Row Height 1.44" for the actual vertical height of your painting (canvas), i.e. if it is 16" high, select rows R1:R16 and then do the Format menu command.
    • Do Format Column Width 1.51" for the actual horizontal width of your painting (canvas), i.e. if your canvas is 20" wide, select columns A:T and then do the Format menu command.
    • Check these equal 1" by 1" with a ruler, preferably a bendable plastic one.
    • Adjust the Row Height and Column Width until correct -- your computer's display may vary somewhat.
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    Select cells T17:A1 by dragging the cursor over them and do Format Cells Border Boldest Color (Automatic) Full Border. This will darken the grid.
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    Mark off inch-marks along the edges of your canvas lightly in pencil. Make sure to adjust evenly for any overall disparity between what was advertised and what was produced and sold. In general practice, shortening both ends 1/16" to make up for an overall discrepancy of 1.8" is probably the best approach. Either that, or adjust your Row and Column lengths on the ends in the Excel file (but this is harder to figure out how to do correctly).

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    Get a jpg or png file format of your photo into the Preview app, or an app that can make a jpg file and copy it to the clipboard.

    • Size it using the menu tool for Adjust Size to set it to actual.
    • Export it to an appropriate folder.
    • Do Select All.
    • Do Copy.
    • Go to your Excel file at actual size and, holding down the Shift key, do Edit Paste Picture (or simply command plus P might work) into cell A1.
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    Double-click on the picture and set Transparency Tool to about 40%.

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    Image titled 000_0041
    Copy the strong lines from the photo to your canvas in light pencil, placing them as exactly as you want (you may want to keep a yardstick alongside the canvas for this purpose). Do very light shading to indicate the dark regions. Acrylic paint does not pick up pencil very much but it will pick up erasure dust, hair and other undesirable elements. Still, it's best to be light-handed.

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    When you have sufficient detail to reference the rest of the detail from, stop drawing! This is not an exercise in how well you can draw, but it how well you can paint. Painting the Masters comes with the strong warning that forgery is a crime. Make the painting your own in some fashion. Add a flower here or there, another person, a book, a building, etc., etc. Change the color key. Something to make it your own idea. Notice in the example that there are additional flowers in the lower left, an absence of detail made up for by regions of gold, and so forth -- all changes from the original photo. Notice in the Van Gogh "copies" that the types of iris are different and are differently placed, the originals are drawn somewhat differently, etc.
    • It is assumed that you know color theory, how to paint In acrylics/oils, blending and basic painting techniques, brush cleaning, etc. Some people apply 1 to 4 blended colors at a time, then rinse their palette bowl, blending tool and brushes, dry them and move on to the next color / (series). That seems to work for acrylics quite well.
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    Take progress photos along the way -- document your process and progress so that your artistic friends can help you and make suggestions, give you good ideas, etc. Soon you will have finished -- hooray, you did it!

  11. Image titled Jaclyn and Lowell's
    Image titled Jane Robertson Chile Cornfield
    Image titled Iris's
    Image titled Cathy Keating's
    Image titled Sal and Denny's
    Image titled Joe and Karen's
    Image titled Sierra's
    Try to practice, practice and practice some more. Above is the final painting and another series done via the same method.


  • It's possible to divide the grid into 1/2", 1/4", 1/8", 1/16" and 1/32" markings using colored row and column dividing lines under the photo, But be ready to do a little math and some rounding. For example, if your Column Width is correctly 1" actual at 1.51" per Excel, then dividing that into sixteenths yields .094375" -- but when you go to input .094375 as a column width, Excel responds with .1" when you re-check it; it's rounded it.
  • To solve this, you can go with the rounded number and pull your image larger or smaller by grasping the corner-point at the bottom right corner with the mouse and dragging. The absolute length of a straight drawn screen line will no longer match the absolute length of a straight drawn canvas line in that case, however.
  • Since you will no longer be able to verify canvas drawn lines against screen lines if you make such an adjustment, you will have lost a great advantage of the whole system.
  • But so long as you have the correct endpoints of a line or curve on your canvas, and you don't exceed the proper width wiggle too much, you should be fine freehanding it in general. It is art after all, not science.
  • For more art charts and graphs, you might also want to click on Microsoft Excel Imagery, Mathematics, Spreadsheets or Graphics to view many Excel worksheets and charts where trigonometry, geometry and calculus have been turned into art.
  • See the article How to Create a Spirallic Spin Particle Path or Necklace Form or Spherical Border for a list of articles related to Excel, Geometric and/or Trigonometric Art, Charting/Diagramming and Algebraic Formulation.

Things You'll Need

  • Excel, Preview, iPhoto (perhaps) apps or their equivalents
  • Digital camera, probably, or image off the internet perhaps
  • Original photo, or a painting to copy from which you can get an image of into your computer as jpg or png file format
  • Canvas
  • Pencil
  • Yardstick and plastic ruler, in inches (or centimeters if you prefer -- depends how you bought your canvas)
  • Painting supplies for acrylics or oils, or whatever medium you're working in

Sources and Citations

  • Jane Robertson, painter of "Chile cornfield", original painting (available online).
  • Vincent Van Gogh, painter of "Irises", year unknown (approximately 1889).

Article Info

Categories: Painting | Microsoft Excel Imagery