Believe it or not, putting a picture on a cake isn’t that hard! Learn how to put a picture on a cake using DIY icing sheets. This step-by-step tutorial will teach you how!
Awhile back, my bestest friend requested a Fancy Nancy cake for her daughter’s birthday. And, of course, I said yes before I gave any thought. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to put a picture onto a cake. Or whether it was even possible! I was determined to make it happen!
I started searching the Internet for ideas, and came across something called a buttercream transfer.
Basically, you trace a picture the size of your cake by piping frosting onto wax or parchment paper. Then you freeze it. And voila – you’ve got an edible icing sheet made from frozen buttercream.
Making parchment paper frosting sheets is actually a pretty easy way to put a picture on a cake. And it opens up an entire world of creativity! This method will let you make cake designs you couldn’t achieve with piped frosting, 3D cake toppers, or cool fondant designs alone.
I’ve been dabbling in cake decorating for years now. Despite this, I’d never heard of buttercream transfers before. I decided to give it a shot and LOVED the results!
In this tutorial, I’ll share how to put a picture onto a cake using the icing sheet method. I’ll use my Fancy Nancy cake as an example!
How to Put a Picture on a Cake Using the Frosting Sheets Method
Find, Size, and Edit the Picture You Want to Put Onto Your Cake
I found a picture of Fancy Nancy that I liked and printed it out.
I recommend printing two copies of the picture. You can use one to work with, and one as a reference while you work.
It’s important you print the image to be the same size as you want it to be on your cake.
Generally speaking, it’s actually easier to put an illustrated picture on a cake than it is a photo. This is because photos tend to have shadows, gradients, etc, which don’t translate as well into icing. Illustrated images, on the other hand, have clean lines and color blocks.
If you decide you want to put a photo on a cake, you’ll need to edit the photo before hand. If you know how to use software like Photoshop, you can do it in there. Otherwise, there are services that turn photos into coloring pages, which would be a great start.
This was my first time trying the icing sheet method, and I though a Fancy Nancy illustration was a good place to start.
Make an Edible Icing Sheet with Buttercream
This stage takes a bit of mental gymnastics.
It’s worth explaining how the next steps work, so you get this stage right.
In this step, you’ll trace your image onto wax paper backing and pipe it with frosting. Then you’ll stick the frosting sheet into the freezer to set. Once frozen, you’ll flip it onto the cake.
That means whatever you pipe onto the wax paper first will be on the top of the design once flipped. And anything you pipe onto the wax paper last will be on the bottom of the cake.
In other words, you need to pipe the top details of your design first.
How you trace and pipe your image really depends on how complicated the design or image is that you want to put onto the cake.
Tracing Simple Pictures to Transfer onto a Cake
For simple, one or two color pictures, tape a piece of wax paper on top of the picture. Then trace the image onto the wax paper using a dark marker.
Once you’ve traced the image, un-tape the traced piece of wax paper. Flip it over (ink side down) onto something hard and flat. A cookie sheet or a piece of glass from a picture frame works well.
You should be able to see the traced picture fairly clearly. In the next step, you’ll pipe frosting onto the back of the design to make your frosting sheet.
Tracing More Complex Pictures to Transfer onto a Cake
If you have a more complicated picture – lots of layers, colors, and details – tracing with a marker won’t work as well. Fancy Nancy fit this criteria, so I skipped the marker and went straight to buttercream.
To do it this way, I took a piece of glass out of a frame, and taped the image to the glass. The picture was on the bottom, facing up and covered by the glass. Then I taped a piece of wax paper on top of the glass.
In order from bottom to top, I had the printed image (face up), a piece of glass, and waxed paper.
At this point, it’s worth noting that I only made the Nancy figure with this edible icing sheet method. I frosted and decorated the rest of the cake normally.
I started by outlining Nancy in black buttercream. You can see the black buttercream in the Nancy picture below – it looks like a sketch. Then I piped on the white dots on her skirt and the yellow. The pink was the last to go down.
Again, you need to think a bit about which colors go on top. Put those colors down first.
Once the pink was down, I took a fingertip dipped in cornstarch and lightly pressed the design down. This is to make sure any holes are filled in.
Freeze the Picture
Once the image was traced and I was happy with it, I popped the glass, wax paper backing, and icing design into the freezer for 30 minutes. You don’t have to use glass – a cookie sheet, a cutting board, etc. will do fine if you trace the image first.
Freeze it for 30 minutes to an hour for everything to harden up enough to do the next step.
You can freeze it longer – up to a few days if needed. If you plan to leave it in the freezer for a few days, first freeze it for an hour to ensure the image has set. Then pull it out and wrap it in plastic wrap to protect it for a couple of days until it’s ready to use.
Ready Your Cake
While your transfer is cooling, you can use this time to frost and decorate the other parts of your completely cooled cake.
You need to lay icing transfer onto a pre-frosted cake, so frost the cake and try to make it as smooth as possible.
Looking at my Fancy Nancy Cake, for example, only Nancy was made using the buttercream transfer process. While Nancy was freezing, I frosted the cake with the pink and white sections, piped the pearl bead border separating the pink and white, and added the flower, heart, and bow design. I left the message until the end.
Transfer the Picture Onto the Cake
Once your edible sheet or sheets are frozen, pull them out of the freezer and remove the wax paper and icing from whatever hard surface you used to make it (glass, cutting board, etc.).
Then carefully invert the waxed paper, flipping it onto the top of your cake. Carefully peel back the wax paper backing, revealing your buttercream transfer on the top of the cake!
Ta da! Pat yourself on the back for putting a picture on a cake!
Cake Decorating Tips When Making Edible Icing Sheets
Transfer Your Frosting Sheet onto a Smooth Cake
You’ll notice above I suggest you try to make your frosting as smooth as possible when frosting the cake.
This is based on a mistake I made with this Fancy Nancy cake. If you look closely, Nancy is lying on top of the pearl bead border separating the pink and white frosting blocks. Once the transfer came to room temperature, it looked a bit bumpy from the beads lying underneath it.
Nobody noticed but me, but I think it would have been better if it had been laying flat on the frosted cake!
If I had to do it again, I would have frosted the cake with the pink and white blocks, transferred the Nancy picture onto it, and then piped on the beads, message, and other decorations at the end.
Make Separate Frosting Sheets for Unattached Parts
My Fancy Nancy design was all one piece, which transfers really well onto a cake.
However, if you have parts of your design that are separate/unattached to the rest of the design, consider making them as separate frosting sheets, or attaching them together with a base layer of frosting (the last layer you’ll pipe on before freezing).
It’s easier to transfer one single unit onto the cake. If you have multiple pieces in one frosting sheet, there’s a chance pieces will shift, and end up looking a bit wonky on the cake.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial about how to put a picture onto a cake. I made Fancy Nancy years ago and originally published this post in 2011!
I recently updated it based on requests for easier to follow instructions, and hope I’ve succeeded.
If you liked this tutorial (or my Fancy Nancy Cake!), please share it!
- The picture you want to transfer onto the cake, printed and sized to fit the cake
- Wax paper
- A marker
- A hard surface that can go into the freezer, such as a piece of glass, a plastic cutting board, or a cookie sheet
- Buttercream frosting, divided into the colors you want to use for your cake
- Any other cake decorations or embellishments you want to use
- Piping bag and tips for frosting
- Photoshop (for editing photographs - optional)
- Find the picture you want to put onto the cake, and print it out so it's the same size it will be on the cake. You may need to edit the picture to get rid of shadows and shading using a tool like Photoshop.
- Tape your image to a piece of glass from a picture frame, and place it on your workspace so the design is facing up, with the glass on top. Tape a piece of wax paper onto the glass. You should still be able to see the image through the wax paper.
- Trace the image onto the wax paper using buttercream in a piping bag. Whatever you pipe onto the wax paper first will become the top of the design once it's flipped onto the cake, and whatever you pipe onto the wax paper last will form the bottom of the design once on the cake.
- Dip a finger in cornstarch and lightly pressed the design down to ensure everything is stuck together properly.
- Freeze the piped icing sheet for 30 minutes to one hour.
- While your icing transfer is freezing, frost a completely cooled cake, making it as smooth as possible.
- Once your edible sheet of icing is frozen, pull it from the freezer and remove the wax paper backing and icing sheet from the glass.
- Carefully flip the icing sheet onto the cake, being careful to place it where you want it to sit on the cake. Then peel back the wax paper to reveal your icing transfer!
- Finish other decorations and embellishments on the cake.