How to Trace a Drawing: 12 Ways to Get Results – Fast!

In this post, I will show you how to trace a drawing, or to be more exact, how to trace any picture. There are more ways to trace than you might think. Tracing has a long history.

The easy way to trace a drawing is to tape a thin sheet of paper over a photocopied image and shine a light through the back to trace the outline. Most artists will use a lightbox, but taping the image to a bright window works too.  Alternatively, slip a sheet of transfer paper, face down under a photocopied image and on top of your drawing paper, and trace the outline.

That’s only the basics. I go into more depth, covering tracing methods and drawing tools, including how to avoid making silly mistakes. You’ll discover the best way to trace a drawing, that suits you.

But first, let’s clear away a few myths. 

(I get commissions for purchases made through affiliate links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Do Artists Trace Their Work?

You only have to look at the outline sketches posted on Instagram to realize that many of those fantastic artists, you so admire, are in fact tracing their images. 

How can you tell? It’s easy. If there is one continuous assured line drawing of a complicated subject, it’s a tracing. Artists cannot produce perfect lines with each stroke. Drawing is a matter of trial and error and choosing the best line from the marks you made is fundamental.

The question shouldn’t be DO artists trace their work, but WHY do they choose to trace it?

As I’ve said before, good artists trace very well, bad artists trace very badly. If you can’t draw, you can’t trace either. In other words, tracing by itself does not indicate a lack of drawing skills.

David Hockney got into trouble 20 years ago for suggesting in his book “Secret Knowledge” that many old masters used drawing aids to trace their work. Of course, they did, just like commercial artists do to this day.

Time is money and tracing is a shortcut to an outcome. The results matter most to the client and not the method. 

This post is highly relevant. It’s a companion post: Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating?

We have a romanticized image of the tortured artist, alone in his garret, manically painting away into the twilight hours. Hmm, maybe it happens, but not when he’s painting the neighbor’s Labradoodle, surely?

There are times when tracing a picture makes perfect sense. I can think of these examples:

  • When you’re short of time
  • The job is too dull
  • When freehand will produce identical results
  • When you’re rehashing an old drawing
  • Projecting onto a wall
  • Mixing and matching images 

These are just a few ideas that immediately spring to my mind. There are doubtless many more.

Have I ever traced? Yes, I have, and I even beat David Hockney to it. I was using an antique Camera Lucida to draw buildings, way back in 1990. That was 10 years before Hockney’s book was published. 

Let’s crack on.

This very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston is on Udemy.
He has over 73,000 students!

How to Trace a Drawing With Tracing Paper

We all used tracing paper when we were kids and you might think the tracing process doesn’t need explaining, but there are a few things that can go wrong and I’ll point them out:

  • Gather Your Materials. You’ll need, a sheet of drawing paper, a piece of tracing paper, a softish pencil, an eraser, low tack tape, and a photocopied image to copy.
  • Tape down all four corners of your photocopy so it doesn’t slide around
  • Place your tracing paper over the image and tape the top two corners so you can flip the paper
  • Trace the outline using an HB (No2) pencil. Trace the key elements that would be hard to draw freehand. Be as accurate as possible. The more you record the easier it will be to transfer and draw.
  • Check regularly by flipping the tracing paper to see if you missed an area.
  • Remove the tracing paper, turn it over, and use a soft pencil, i.e. a 3B. to draw the outlines on the reverse side.

You will be tempted to scribble all over the reverse side to save time. It works but there are two drawbacks. Scribbled lines are confusing when you try to redraw the outline onto drawing paper, and the graphite transfers to your clean sheet of paper, which is annoying. 

  • When you are ready, tape your drawing paper to a clean flat surface. Use low-tack masking tape so you can remove it safely.
  • Tape the tracing paper down as before, from the top corners.
  • Trace the outline using your HB graphite pencil. Use normal pressure, don’t press hard because you might indent the drawing paper. 
  • Check your progress by regularly lifting the tracing paper. It’s very easy to miss important lines.
  • When you’re ready flip the tracing paper over completely and start sketching over the transfer lines. 
  • Finally, remove the tracing paper and clean up your drawing paper with a kneaded eraser.

If there is any movement between your image and the paper, give up and start again. It’s so hard to accurately realign your tracing.

It’s worth mentioning that you are tracing the image 3 times over in this process. That’s 3 chances to cock it up. Let me give you an example.

I discovered many years ago that there is a tendency to trace inside the line of an image. That’s important to know if you’re drawing a portrait. It’s easy to draw the eyes fractionally too small. If you trace the same image 3 times over and make the same error each time, your tracing will fail.

No one tells you this stuff.

TOP TIP: When in doubt always draw the eyes slightly larger. Your client will thank you for it.

For simple images using tracing paper is fine but there are better and more accurate ways to do the same thing.

Do you lack confidence? Take a class and get into the habit of drawing. I found this class on Udemy, 115,028 students can’t all be wrong!

Read this post for more info: Is Udemy Worth it? Pros and Cons For Artists and Designers

How to Trace With Transfer Paper

Transfer paper is a thin sheet of paper coated in a layer of graphite on one side. It is not to be confused with carbon paper which contains wax and is difficult to remove. 

Tracing pictures using transfer paper will save you a lot of time. It’s a great way to trace. Use it the following way:

  • Make a photocopy/printout of the image to be transferred. 
  • Tape down your drawing paper with low-tack tape
  • Tape your photocopy from the top corners
  • Slide your transfer paper between the two sheets, face down. There should be no need to tape it in place
  • Use an HB pencil or a pen, to draw over the image with an outline. Very little pressure is needed.
  • Check your progress to be sure you’ve captured the key elements 
  • Remove your photocopy and transfer paper and tidy up your tracing.

You will probably see a few smudged marks where your palm has rested on the paper and the graphite has transferred accidentally. These are erasable.

Your outline should be more accurate than using tracing paper and transfer paper produces a clearer line. You can use transfer paper multiple times so keep it somewhere safe and use it again.

How to Make DIY Transfer Graphite Paper

Transfer paper is cheap and reusable, but you can improvise if you have nothing to hand. It may not be quite as delicate as using the commercial product, but it works.

You have to lay down your own graphite on the reverse side of your photocopy. I’ve done this a few times using a 4B or 6B graphite stump. It’s a messy business. 

To transfer the image do as you did before, secure both the drawing paper and the photocopy before you begin to trace the outline. In my experience, graphite gets everywhere doing things this way so be prepared for grubby fingers and graphite smudges.

You could make your own separate sheet of reusable paper in the same way. I have never done it this way but I can’t see why not, as long as you use very thin photocopy paper. 

How to Use a Lightbox to Trace a Drawing

Designers and illustrators have been using lightboxes for years, the principle is easy. The artist lays an image over a backlit surface, places a sheet of paper over the top, and traces the outline.

  • Tape a photocopy of your image onto the screen
  • Tape a sheet of thin drawing paper over the image.
  • Turn on the light and draw the outline.

Sounds simple enough but if you intend to buy a lightbox because there are things to consider, such as these:

  • Size: Lightboxes are available in 3 sizes, A4, A3, and A2 
  • Weight: Ranging anywhere from 1lb – 7lb (450g – 3kg) Portable and Studio devices
  • Brightness: Measured in Lux (illuminance of light hitting the screen) from 1100 – 6000 Lux. Higher the better.
  • Heat: Some cheap models have a tendency to get hot. This can warp thin paper.
  • Cost. $20 for a cheapy to $100 for great quality.

Unless you can find an older model, the term “light box” is somewhat misleading, “Light Pad” is closer to the mark.

Modern lightboxes are slim and similar in appearance to tablets with opaque white screens, lit by LED lights. The better models have brightness controls with an even spread of light.

The most important factor, if we leave the price to one side, is the brightness. A brighter screen will allow you to trace over thicker paper. Dim backlights are frustrating. They will not work in a bright room, you’ll have to close the curtains.

How to Use an iPad as a Lightbox

In theory, there are 2 ways to use your iPad as a lightbox, you can trace an image by disabling the touch screen or using a blank screen as a light source. I followed Apple’s own instructions to enable “Guided Access” but it didn’t work on my device.

There are apps that will do the job for you. You can download a very cheap app called “Trace Table”. It’s made for iPads. It has excellent reviews and costs pennies. You can freeze images on the screen, use the automatic outline mode, or set a white page at maximum brightness.

If you only want a white screen without buying yet another app, you can screenshot a blank page. 

How to Improvise a Lightbox

Years ago when I was just starting out I couldn’t afford a lightbox so I made my own. I used a thick sheet of clear acrylic laid across two piles of books on either end. I covered the surface with a sheet of tracing paper to diffuse the light and I shone a lamplight underneath.

It cost next to nothing and it worked. It was crap, but it worked. I had to use it in a dark room or with a cloth draped over my head. It also got too hot and warped my paper if I took too long.

Eventually, I made my own box and used a strip light built in. That was better.

At other times I would tape an image to a bright window and trace a drawing using the sun as my backlight. 

How to Trace With the Procreate App on iPad

It’s very easy to trace an image digitally using the Procreate app. Follow these step-by-step instructions:

  • Open the Procreate App
  • Create a new canvas by tapping the plus icon at the top right of the Gallery page
  • Choose a preset screen size that approximates the size of your photo
  • Tap the wrench icon to open the dropdown actions tab
  • Tap the “Add” icon. It’s two overlapping boxes with a plus symbol (+)
  • Tap “Insert a photo” in the menu and open your image library
  • Choose and tap on a reference image to add it to your Procreate canvas 
  • The image appears as a selection with the Transform tool activated. It’s the diagonal arrow within a circle
  • Use the nodes to enlarge and position your image on the screen
  • Tap on the layers icon at the top right. It’s the two overlapping squares
  • Your image appears as layer 1 and is highlighted in blue 
  • Tap the letter “N” to the right of the layer box
  • At the top of the dropdown menu adjust the Opacity slider. I usually set it at 50%-ish.
  • Now tap the plus (+) sign at the top right of the layers panel to add a new layer.
  • Layer 2 is blue which means it’s active

This is not as complicated as it sounds. Keep going to the next step:

  • Tap the Brush icon at the top to bring down the brush library
  • Choose your brush or experiment. Try selecting “Inking” and tapping “Fine Tip” or “Calligraphy” and tapping “Monoline”.
  • Using your Apple Pencil start tracing over the image (your finger is not accurate)
  • Adjust the strength and width of your line with the two sliders on the left of your screen
  • When you go wrong, tap the screen with two fingers to undo the previous stroke
  • Check your progress: Tap on the layers icon and open the layers panel
  • Uncheck the tick box in Layer 1, and your image will vanish leaving only your trace lines.
  • Check it again to reinstate the image
  • When you are ready, save the image by tapping “Gallery” at the top left

You can save the image to your iPad, export it to cloud storage, or send it via email.

  • In the Procreate Gallery menu, tap “Select”
  • Check your traced image
  • Tap “Share in the new menu
  • Choose a file format 
  • Choose from the menu where to share your file.

Written as a long list of commands this seems daunting, believe me, it’s not. The hardest part is the tracing.

Check out these posts for more info about Procreate:

Alternatively, learn Procreate basics visually with this course on Domestika I took this course myself. It’s so easy to follow and costs peanuts.

Read my thoughts here: Is Domestika Worth It? The Pros and Cons (2023)

How to Use a Projector to Trace an Image

It’s not uncommon for artists and illustrators to project an image onto a large canvas or wall and trace it around the edges. I know of a muralist who uses this method. 

It makes practical sense. It allows the artist/designer to scale up their original design easily. Why struggle and waste time? 

It has limitations of course. Even the brightest projectors will struggle in broad daylight, plus you will need a digital file. If you have a physical image, you’ll have to scan or photograph it first.

A scan is preferable because you will get an accurate image. If you use a camera you’ll have to worry about the angle and lens distortion. 

Most artists will follow this method:

  • Place the projector on a stable surface and ensure that it is centered and square to the wall, screen, or canvas. Good projectors have automatic keystone correction settings.
  • Dim the room
  • Zoom and focus the image to the desired size
  • Pencil your outline.

Your Digital Projector must be set at the optimal angle to prevent distortion. If your projector does not have a keystone function you will have to align the vertical and horizontal placements yourself.

Adjust the projector until the four corners of your projected image are all at right angles.

How to Use an Episcope to Trace Images

What is an episcope? An episcope is a device used to project nontransparent images, such as a reference photo, onto a flat surface, a wall, or a canvas. They work by shining a very bright light onto the image which is reflected back via a mirror or prism, and projected through a large lens.

The image can be focused and its size altered. 

I bought one back in the 80s and used it for a while. To be fair it was a glorified toy and got so hot that it would melt my photographs!

You can still buy an old one on eBay. I’ve just checked. These days you could probably replace the incandescent bulb with an LED alternative.

I also searched for a new episcope and discovered, much to my surprise, a German company still making a professional model, the Reflecta Episcope XL 

At this point, you might ask yourself if you should use photographs for art. I cover the subject in this post: Is Drawing From Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

How to Use an App to Trace a Drawing

There are two tracing apps that are worth mentioning, The Da Vinci Eye App available for iOS and Android, and the Camera Lucida App for iOS

Both apps function in a very similar way, have great reviews, and surprise-surprise, they both cost $9.99 in the Apple Store. 

They are hi-tech variations of the original Camera Lucida drawing aids used widely in the first half of the 1800s.

These are the basic instructions for how to use the Da Vinci Eye App:

  • Open the app and choose the Classic mode
  • Take a photo or choose an image from your camera roll
  • Ideally use an adjustable overhead swing arm and point your camera down on the paper
  • You should see the paper with the image superimposed.
  • Tap the “Move” button to adjust the size and placement of your image on the page
  • Use one finger to move the image
  • Zoom in and out or rotate the image by using two fingers on the screen
  • Tap the “Move” button to lock the image and camera together. This is to enlarge the image to trace the details
  • Tap the “Tools” button
  • Tap the “Camera” tab and adjust the “Focus Lock” on iOS to stop the autofocus functioning. Tap the “Fixed Focus” button on Android.
  • Adjust the opacity of your image with the slider on your screen and start tracing.

You don’t need a swing arm and mount, and you can rest your device on a tall glass, but there is a potential problem. The glass can get in the way and block part of your tracing.

This is what you do to solve the problem:

  • Turn the opacity down to zero
  • Slide the glass away from the drawing
  • Turn up the opacity to about 30%
  • Tap the “Move” button
  • Realign your image over your tracing using one finger
  • When the image and tracing are perfectly aligned press the “Move” button
  • With the image locked, it’s possible to zoom in using two fingers.
  • Carry on tracing where you left off. 

A very neat app that will help many people to speed up their work. 

Tracing is a timesaver but you must know how to add some sparkle. Read this: 14 Ways to Make Your Drawings Interesting

How to Use a Camera Lucida for Tracing from Life

The Camera Lucida is a portable drawing aid, invented by the renowned British scientist William Wollaston in 1807 (source)

It consists of a four-sided prism mounted on a telescopic arm and it allows the viewer to see the real world in front of them, superimposed onto a blank piece of paper.

The artist looks down through a small hole half covering the top edge of the prism and half revealing the paper beneath. The viewer sees both the scene in front of them and their drawing hand at the same time.

It’s possible for almost anyone to trace the outline of static objects and they became very popular with the gentry going on the Grand Tour of Europe. This was the time before photography and sketching were the only way to record your trip.

I first discovered this device for myself when looking through a library book, back in the 80s. I immediately set out to buy one, no easy task back then, and I eventually bought an antique brass camera lucida in a sharkskin case. I still own it to this day.

Antique camera lucida portable drawing aid.
My Antique Camera Lucida

I know from experience that the camera lucida is useful for inanimate scenes and objects, but very hard to use for portraiture. It’s a tracing tool, and even the slightest movement distorts the tracing. 

I used it to draw buildings as I traveled around Australia and New Zealand. It paid for itself in no time as the commissions rolled in. 

Now there are modern versions available. The Neolucida uses the same principles as the original Camera Lucida but with the advantage of superior optics making the image clearer and sharper. The telescopic arm is replaced by a universal bendy arm with a table clamp.

Another version by the same company, the Neolucida XL, uses a glass and mirror instead of a prism. The setup is identical, with an adjustable arm and clamp.

The object to be drawn is reflected off the back mirror and onto a semi-silvered glass surface at 45 degrees. Using an eyepiece at the top, the viewer can see their hand through semi-transparent glass and at the same time, the reflection of the object.

I prefer the prism but it takes some getting used to. The split image involves your eyes focusing on two different images and fusing them together. The Neolucida is easier to use with less eye strain, but the reflection is fainter.

How to Trace With a Camera Obscura

The camera obscura has been known for centuries. Originally, they were darkened rooms with a small hole on one side. The scene outside would appear on the far side, turned upside down and reversed.

The same effect was achieved with a pinhole camera. A box with a tiny hole at one end and a translucent screen on the other. When the artist draped a cover over the screen it was possible to trace the outline.

When convex lenses were added the image was, as brighter, and could be focused. It became possible to make a portable box with a lens at one end and a mirror positioned at 45 degrees at the other. The image was reflected onto a top glass panel which reversed the image the right way around.

The device had a hood to shade the screen while the user traced the image.

Some historians and famously David Hockney, claim that some of the old masters used a camera obscura. Vermeer is often cited but it remains unproven, and Canaletto is known to have used one for his super-accurate paintings of Venice. 

Portable camera obscura drawing aid. A tracing device
Portable Camera Obscura
By The Bearded Man – Wikipedia

Academics debate the point but as artists have always embraced new technology and formally had studio apprentices to do the donkey work, I see no reason why they would have avoided a time and money saver.

Can Tracing Teach You to Draw?

In a basic way, tracing can teach you something about proportions, alignment, and negative spaces, however, it would be a big mistake to over-rely on tracing. It’s a shortcut used by skilled professional artists to save time.

If you need some drawing classes you can check out the Proko classes below. His courses are sold at a premium but many people find them valuable.

Read this first if you are unsure: Are Proko Courses Worth It? A Review – Pros and Cons

Amateurs can use tracing to visualize the basic shapes that artists need to recognize as they lay the foundations of a drawing. It distills the overload of information and helps you to see and map out the areas of most importance.

This will help: Do You Need to Outline Drawings? Expert Advice From a Pro

Amateur artists tend to add too much detail too soon. Learning to break up the bigger shapes into progressively smaller shapes, while readjusting sizes, and proportions, as you go, is the key to making realistic drawings.

Tracing can teach you to see in another way and you can apply that to drawing from life. Only when you learn to draw without tracing will these skills embed in your brain. Tracing can assist you but it’s not a substitute for being able to draw.

If nothing else, tracing will kill your creativity., it’ll be harder to develop your own style. You’ll never be recognized as standing out from the crowd without your own art style. Your style is your brand, it’s your unique selling point and crucial if you want to succeed in selling your art.

If you are having problems finding your style read this post: How to Find Your Drawing Style: In 8 Practical Ways

Or this post: Why Artists Change Style: Should You?

How to Trace a Drawing: Final Thoughts

This is a long post and if you made it this far you should have a clear idea of how to trace a drawing in a variety of different ways. You can spend nothing or a small fortune on tracing devices.

In my experience using transfer paper beneath a photocopy of the image is the easiest way to trace a drawing. The drawing apps are possibly the quickest because you have no need to print out a photocopy beforehand. The most fun is tracing from life with a camera lucida. The new Neolucida is only $55.

Now before you go check these out:

Are you are interested in selling your art? My guide will show you how to start a business from scratch

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In the end, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. Join Sorie on Domestika and join over 100,000 students taking her sketching classes.

The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, my name’s Kevin and I’m a real person!
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy