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Is it ok to trace - tips for intermediate artists

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Finished painting

Finished painting

Is Tracing Cheating

Artists have been tracing for years, they just may have been quiet about it. Many feel that if you didn't draw it from scratch then you cheated. Today it is a new world, there are many tools like projectors, apps, light pads/boxes, even your computer screen etc. to help people create art even if they don't have strong drawing skills. Always recommend people learn to draw as it will improve your paintings. But if you aren't a "techie", I want to share my manual way to get a closer likeness, combine elements from various photos, compose your compositions and be able to start painting now while you improve your drawing skill sets.

Good tracing trains you to see shapes and trains the hand to draw what the eye is seeing. Good tracing isn't just easy drawing, it is redrawing, which helps you become familiar with your subject. Redrawing means you are thinking about your subject and making conscious decisions. You are really studying light patterns, composition, color changes, and shapes. These conscious decisions continue even after you get your drawing onto the substrate.

Why Trace?

Many illustrators and artists who work on deadlines simply don't have time to spend drawing. They have become well versed in creating digital art, using photo manipulating programs like Photoshop/GIMP or other apps that help them get their subjects to paper quickly. Amateur artists might simply want to start painting more quickly.

Have tried to learn these programs, even digital art programs but there is a time curve if you don't utilize it daily. I am not the best techie person, so I developed a manual process to build my paintings.

Reference photos used for this piece. Top left and middle pic from MJ Lindo lesson.

Reference photos used for this piece. Top left and middle pic from MJ Lindo lesson.

Finding a subject

Probably one of the hardest things about artwork is deciding on just what to paint. There are many places to get inspiration, but that is a whole other article. I am working on making my paintings more complex so I am working from multiple photos, gathered from mostly royalty-free photo sites, and using selected elements to try to create a whole new cohesive piece that tells my story.

Above is a composite of the photos that I used to combine into the finished picture.

Cartoon drawing for this painting

Cartoon drawing for this painting

Creating the cartoon

How do you create the tracing paper cartoon?

You can pre-draw sketching out a piece, in your sketchbook or on other paper. Suggest you not pre-draw on your substrate as erasing can damage your substrate. When the finalized design is ready to be traced onto your tracing paper use either regular graphite on the back of the tracing paper covering the lines or something like Saral transfer paper to transfer the image from the tracing paper to your substrate.

If you just want to trace from a photo image, you will need a pencil and tracing paper. You can hold the reference/tracing paper up to a window, use a lightbox/pad, or what I commonly do - use your computer screen.

What if the size in my photo library is too big/small? (working in Mac)

1) If the photo is the correct size, you can print it out and just start tracing lines and information. However, if the photo needs to be resized drop it into a blank word document. Mostly I select the blank portrait option. Open photos (photos comes up over the doc page), now I can drag the reference photo onto the blank page, or, at the top of the blank page you can also click on the media button (your photo library will come up), then click on the main reference picture and import it that way.

2) Drag the photo up to the top left-hand corner.

3) On the right side now and you will see three tabs: style, image and arrange. Click on arrange, and go about mid-way down and you will see size. There are up/down arrows for width and height. Check constrain proportions and click until you have the size you wish. Since I am working on an 11"x14" picture, my dimensions will be around 8" wide by 11" height. You can also click zoom, at the top and pick how much you want to enlarge the photo and drag the corners to tweak to the size you need.

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4) Now I either print the new larger/smaller reference photo and tape tracing paper over the new reference photo on screen/window/lightbox and follow the lines. You can make the drawing as detailed as you wish. I still indicate features, light/dark transitions, hair clumps/direction and any other details I want to make note of. Why? Subconsciously I am making detailed decisions, getting familiar and this will help when I start painting.

4) If you want to add/subtract/change part of the reference photo you can bring your other reference photos into another word document. Size them as close as possible to your preferred main image size and trace them on to complete the picture (some times this isn't an exact science).

For instance in this picture I marked my main reference face size and shoulder position on my tracing paper cartoon. I then placed the cartoon over the photo with the jewelry. Once I matched up the forehead chin, neck area, as close as I could, I decided to change the original reference and take the hand away. I liked the cloak and how the shoulder disappeared in the jewelry photo. So on my tracing paper I drew in the jewelry and added that shoulder information that I wanted. You may have to tweak a bit, but now I had a new image to work from. As I painted these new changes I referenced back to the contributing photo to help get the details correct. Using this method I have changed heads, arm placement, provided new fashion, etc. the options are endless.

NOTE: If working large you may have to draw your cartoon from the word document in several parts and then tape it together to trace onto the substrate,

Recheck Feature Placement

I continue to use my tracing paper cartoon throughout my painting process. I have a bad habit as I paint of getting one of the eyes higher or lower or slightly larger than the other. So periodically I put the cartoon on top of the painting (make sure your paint layers are dry) and line up key points like the chin, eyebrows, mouth, etc and check to be sure that everything is on the correct line/angle. Another thing to check is the length of the mouth which often gets shortened as your paint. Remember that mouth corner should come about mid pupil of the eye. Using your tracing is a tool, not a crutch, and catching these variances early can save you hours of work and frustration. It can even save your painting.


Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on October 24, 2020:

I have used the grid in the past too, matter of fact credit that with learning how to see and draw. Working from life is terrific, but if you can't good photo references can get it done. Paint My Photo is an excellent resource with many hobby and professional photographers sharing their work copyright free. Am working right now in making more complex paintings so am trying to change up and add elements in my paintings, this process helps me get ready to do the final product.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 24, 2020:

I use a grid instead of tracing paper but it's basically the same. Good instructors always suggest you begin with good photo references and usually ones you have taken yourself so there are no copyright issues. You have good suggestions here. I'm for tracing from time to time but I like to add my own subtle changes as well.



Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on October 24, 2020:

Think this is very like using a digital app but just a manual process. I thought I could do some of the visualization process of what a photo could look like in Sketchbook pro by starting with my Photo Reference or initial cartoon And then using layers to edit it. I just haven’t gotten skilled enough to really figure out how to use that app. I do think it has a lot of some capabilities of photoshop but less complicated

Klarenz V from Philippines on October 24, 2020:

I like these tips. . I have been drawing digitally as a hobby with an image drawn first in a white paper, took a picture and place it in the canvass of a drawing app, and trace it with the pencils in the app. I've learned tips and techniques again. Thank you.

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on October 23, 2020:

Thank you for reading my thoughts and very politely coming back to me. I really figure there will be some tough comments coming as people have strong feelings.

I totally agree with you that learning to draw Is very important. The more you know about depicting And building things from scratch the stronger your painting is. Actually even starting with a tracing you end up redrawing as you paint over it. You just have better parameters to start with if you aren’t a proficient drawer. However, the practice part does take time and dedication. Not everyone has those two things together at the same time.

To me the drawing is part of the fun and challenge of creating the story. While I draw from life I don’t do it every time. The same with tracing. At times I want to get going, work on a technique, try new media or do lots of editing to a photo so I see this as another tool in my arsenal.

Dbro from Texas, USA on October 23, 2020:

I enjoyed your article very much. I teach drawing to people of all ages, and I don't recommend my students use tracing as a way to create a drawing. I think it's important for people to build their skills using traditional drawing methods. The key is practice, practice, practice! It's also vital that students remain patient with themselves as they build their skills.

I agree there are times to use the technique of tracing as a way to transfer one's work to a different ground, for example, but I believe the drawing component of a work is the most important part of a painting, print, etc. I think this component should be the artist's own creative work. Thanks for this thought-provoking article!

Ivana Divac from Serbia on October 23, 2020:

This is an interesting article. I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing!

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