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The term cartoon is derived from the Italian word cartone which means a large sheet of paper. A cartoon is a full size and usually detailed preparation on paper for a painting (in fresco, on canvas or on panel) or a tapestry.

There are different methods for transferring the composition. The composition could be traced with a stylus thus leaving a faint indentation on another surface. If the reverse was covered with chalk or some other substance, the design traced would be transferred in distinct lines. The reverse could also be rubbed with chalk and the composition then run over with a stylus, so recording the design on the desired surface. Alternatively, the lines of the composition could be pricked with tiny holes; charcoal is then 'pounced' through to transfer the design. A third method is for the outlines to be incised with a stylus without anything on the reverse of the sheet.

In some cases the compositions of cartoons for tapestries, such as Raphael's in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Royal Collection), have to be conceived in reverse because of the process of manufacture. This can also apply to engravings.