Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating?

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

I follow quite a few artists on Instagram and almost without exception, the initial outline has been traced. The work is fantastic but is tracing art cheating? When, if ever, is it acceptable to trace your art?

Tracing images is cheating only if you set out to deceive. For most artists, tracing art is a means to an end, merely a shortcut to an outcome. Tracing has been used by artists for centuries to save time and money.

It got me thinking. No one wants to know their favorite artist traced their work. We want the romantic version of a tortured artist slaving away at a masterpiece. So what’s the truth?

  • Do artists trace?
  • Did the old master’s trace in the past?
  • Does tracing mean you can’t draw?
  • How do you trace?

There are so many questions. There is more to this subject than meets the eye so let’s start.

Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.

Why Do Artists Trace Their Art?

The obvious answer might be that the artist isn’t clever enough to do it any other way. That may, or may not, be true but it certainly isn’t the only reason for tracing art

What if you are on a tight deadline? If you have been commissioned to do some illustration work, would it make sense to take longer than you need? Would anyone care? I doubt it.

The case for tracing art gets murkier when the artist decides to trace because it’s a shortcut with no commercial constraints. Is tracing cheating if the artist knows, in their heart of hearts, that the resulting image will be identical regardless of whether it’s traced or drawn freehand?

The artist can argue that it makes no difference, but would the viewer feel the same way? Probably not.

The deceit lies in the perceived betrayal the admirer feels when the mystique is shattered.

Part of the love of art is the myth we build around an artist. We want to believe in the slightly deranged artist, alone in his studio, and working feverishly through the night to create a masterpiece.

Sadly it’s the stuff of movies.

So is tracing cheating if it’s from the artist’s own artwork? If, for instance, you’ve drawn something beforehand and need to repeat it quickly, would you be cheating to trace the outline?

If I have an old drawing I’d like to draw again in a different way should I start from scratch? My answer is ‘no’ I’ve got nothing to prove. Others might disagree.

Is Tracing Art a Technique?

Well consider this, if I have a subject drawn that might look better with a reflection, I could trace the outline, flip it over, and trace out the reverse image as my guideline. What’s wrong with that?

What if I’m adding some objects to my composition, let’s say I’m adding some birds to the scene. I might be unsure about the placement or the real scale. Why not sketch a few ideas out first and trace them before deciding where to place them in the picture?

Not such deceit is it? In this scenario, tracing art makes perfect sense.

Is Tracing Art Bad Practice?

There is an irony about tracing art. People that can’t draw, can’t trace either. The finished work will still look amateurish.

Tracing art isn’t as accurate as you might think. Of course, you must ensure that the paper is firmly in place throughout the tracing but did you know that people tend to trace on the inside of the outline?

In other words, the main features can look smaller than they are in reality.

The eyes, in particular, can be too small, and if there is one rule you should always follow it’s this:

When in doubt, draw the eyes bigger!

A competent artist will see the errors but the less skilled will miss them entirely. Bad artists can’t trace either.

Learn To Draw Before You Start Tracing Art

Tracing is expedient for accomplished draftsmen but they sure as hell didn’t learn their trade that way. You hone your skills by trial and error and the time-honored process of practice, practice, practice.

If you need some help check out the courses on Skillshare, Domestika, or Udemy

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!

Alternatively, check out my ONLINE CLASSES page.

Only when you are able to construct a drawing can you afford the indulgence of ‘cheating’.

Tracing art also inhibits the artist from straying from their reference. Happy accidents are part and parcel of making art and learning.

That opens up another minefield: Is Drawing From Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

It’s all too easy to confine yourself to copying everything you see and never taking a risk. If you’re not careful the picture becomes lifeless. I encounter this problem using grids to draw. I get obsessed with mapping every crease and wrinkle for no added artistic merit.

To combat this problem I try to limit my guidelines to the major focal points and loosely draw the rest. I find it very hard to change style but when I succeed I’m so much happier with the results.

Try some of these tricks: 14 Ways to Make Your Drawings Interesting

Can You Tell If Art Has Been Traced?

When I see the ‘work in progress’ stuff on Instagram with the tell-tale single outline I know immediately when it’s been traced.

It’s easy to tell at the outline stage. A totally freehand drawing will be roughed-in and sketchy. There will be more movement and life. Artistically it can’t be beaten.

By contrast, a pencil tracing will be stilted and crudely accurate. It’ll be a single continuous line following the most obvious outlined shapes.

It’s very obvious.

How Do You Trace Art?

#1 How to Use Tracing Paper to Transfer an Image

The method you learned in school but I doubt many artists have much use for it.

Place the tracing paper on top of the image and secure it at the top with acid-free low-tack masking tape.

Tracing paper is opaque and only the boldest contrasts will be easily visible, so draw the most important features and keep checking to make sure you get the right line.

Turn the tracing over and using a soft graphite pencil redraw the outlines on the reverse side. Then flip it back and use masking tape to attach it to your drawing surface. Use a medium-grade pencil and don’t press too hard, you might score the paper.

The tracing will be faint and fairly crude.

#2 How to Use a Photocopy to Make a Tracing

I discovered this method in Thailand many years ago. You enlarge a photocopy to the desired size and shade the reverse side with a soft graphite pencil. Tape the photocopy to your drawing surface and draw the outline over the copy.

Make sure the photocopy and drawing paper are held firmly in place because you can’t realine them if you go wrong.

You’ll get a clearer more accurate transfer than you will with tracing paper.

Clean up any unwanted smudges with a putty eraser.

#3 How to Use Graphite Transfer Paper to Trace an Image

Using graphite transfer paper (lightbox) is far quicker and less messy than shading the backside of a photocopy.

Place a graphite sheet behind a photocopy of your reference photo.

Tape the photocopy to your graphite sheet.

Tape the top edge of the graphite transfer sheet to your drawing paper using low-tack masking tape. This acts as a secure hinge allowing you to peep underneath as you trace the image.

Trace the key areas of the image with a sharpish pencil. Try using an HB 0.5 mechanical pencil for precision tracing, but don’t press too hard. You don’t want to indent the paper.

There will be some unintended transfer of graphite as you lean on the paper but nothing that can’t be erased later.

N.B. Take note that graphite transfer paper is not the same as carbon paper. Carbon paper contains wax and it’s hard to erase.

#4 How to Use a Lightbox to Trace Your Art

A lightbox is an opaque sheet of perspex with a light in the box beneath. The older commercial boxes look like drawing desks but the latest LED tracing tablets look far better.

You tape down the image, lay the drawing paper on top, and tape that too.

You can only use thin paper with a lightbox. They work well for cartridge paper, pastel papers, or lightweight watercolor papers, but are next to useless for anything thicker.

Lightboxes work best in a darkened room and the brighter the bulb the clearer your image will appear.

I found this lightbox model on Amazon and it’s very cheap.

One word of caution if you choose to make your own box when the light bulb gets too hot it will warp your paper.

#5 How to Use an iPad as a Lightbox

You can use your iPad as a convenient lightbox by locking the screen. I’m sure most tablet screens can be locked but this is how you lock an iPad.

  • Settings – Accessibility
  • Turn on Guided Access
  • Turn on Accessibility Shortcut
  • Click on Display Auto-Lock
  • Select Never
  • Open the image to be traced
  • Activate Guided Access by pressing the home button 3 times rapidly
  • The screen goes grey. Press Start at the top right
  • Enter a temporary passcode and note the number
  • Trace the image
  • When complete, triple-click the home button to exit Guided Access
  • Re-enter the passcode
  • Click End at the top left.

#6 How to Trace Using The Procreate App

In theory, this should be easy but for some reason, it didn’t work on my iPad mini 5. However this is the process. See if it works for you.

  • Click the wrench icon (Actions) top left on the toolbar
  • Click the Add button
  • Click Insert a Photo tab
  • The Photo App opens, select your image
  • To make adjustments click the Arrow icon on the toolbar
  • Click the Double Box icon, far-right on the toolbar
  • Click the ‘N’ on layer 1
  • Set the opacity slider to between 30 – 50%
  • Click the + icon in the layers panel to make layer 2
  • Click the Brush icon, at the top right on the toolbar.
  • Choose a brush and start tracing
  • To Finish, swipe layer 1 to the left. Tap Delete.
  • Click the Wrench icon (Actions)
  • Share tab
  • Choose and click the Format (jpeg, pdf, png, etc)
  • Select the destination folder for your tracing

If you want to learn the basics of Procreate, follow this course I took on Domestika. It’s so easy to understand and very cheap

#7 How to Use a Projector to Trace Your Artwork

It used to be common to project a photo onto your drawing board or canvas to trace out your image. You would use a digital projector these days.

I remember trying to rig up and stand when I first started illustrating back in the ’80s long before the digital age. It wasn’t very satisfying. I secured a projector to project the image down onto my drawing pad.

Again you need a darkened room and the projection must be at precisely 90 degrees to the projector or your image will be distorted. It was crude but effective.

I used a slide projector and a thing called an epidiascope that you placed on top of a photo and it projected the image. I had to be quick because it got so hot it melted the photo.

The big advantage is your ability to project your image onto any background, at any size of your choice.

If you need more help with drawing, then I urge you to check out
Dorian Iten on Proko. His course is reasonably priced and he’s good.

Drawing Aids or Tracing Devices

#1 Perspectograph Tracing Machine

Leonardo De Vinci invented one of the earliest tracing machines. He designed a framed glass pane secured at 90 degrees on a tabletop. The artist sat at the table looking through a small hole drilled into a wooden panel standing parallel to the frame.

The artist would draw onto the glass and transfer the image to paper or canvas.

#2 Framed Grid

A contemporary of Leonardo, Albrecht Durer used a similar device but instead of a pane of glass, his frame contained a grid made of thread with a vertical wooden needle standing in front.

The needle had to be half the height of the frame and centered exactly. Durer would use the needlepoint as his line of sight, observe the subject through the grid and draw it onto gridded paper.

This post shows you: How to Scale Up a Drawing: 4 Easy Ways and Save Time

And this post will help: Is Drawing a Grid Cheating? – Do Real Artists Use Grids?

#3 Camera Obscura Tracing Device

Perhaps the best-known tracing device is the camera obscura the forerunner of the photographic camera.

camera obscura
Portable Camera Obscura

Essentially it is a box with a convex lens at one end and a mirror held 45 degrees at the other. The light deflects onto a glass plate at the rear of the box and the image can be seen in reverse. A sheet of paper is placed over the glass, shaded, and traced.

They were used by artists from the early 1600s until the invention of photography in the 1830s, some 200 years later.

Perhaps the best-known artist to use a camera obscura was Canaletto who used a device to draw his scenes of Venice. In fact, his Obscura still survives in the Correr Museum to this day.

Vermeer is rumored to have used a camera obscura too but not the box type. He would have used a darkened room or booth with a lens on one side that projected the outside scene onto the back wall.

#4 Camera Lucida Portable Tracing Device

Invented in 1806 by William Wollaston, this is a portable sketching aid, popular with affluent amateurs keen to record their adventures on the Grand Tour of Europe.

antique camera lucida
My own antique camera lucida

It’s a prism mounted on an adjustable telescopic arm. The Camera Lucida is clamped to a drawing board or table and the paper is placed below the prism.

The user looks down through a hole positioned halfway across the edge of the prism and views the scene in front of them. At the same time, the viewer can see the paper below. With a steady hand, the user can trace the image.

This device is close to my heart because I bought an antique Camera Lucida back in the 1980s and took it on my own personal grand tour of New Zealand and Australia.

I used it to draw the hostels and backpackers where I stayed and swapped the drawings for accommodation along the way.

It takes a lot of getting used to but it’s fine for buildings and inanimate objects.

Variations of Camera Lucidas are still manufactured today and there’s even a Camera Lucida App that turns your iPhone or iPad into a hi-tech version!

Talking of which, I’ve just discovered the Da Vinci Eye App

#6 Da Vinci Eye App Art Projector

This is the modern equivalent of a tracing device and it’s ingenious. The device allows you to trace any image on your phone to scale.

The setup involves using an anchor image to set the scale and placement before you start tracing but instead of me trying to explain it, watch the video.

Tracing Art: Final Thoughts

The problem faced by artists in the digital world is the relative ease of making amazing imagery without traditional skills. The wonder of craft-based art has been somewhat diminished.

I don’t think most people are concerned with the process, at least it doesn’t put many people off. If they like the image they will buy it anyway, no matter how it was done.

Personally, I draw using a grid over a photo. It’s the halfway house between drawing freehand and tracing. I get the accuracy but I still have to use my skills to get it right.

There is no shame in wanting quicker and easier results, and if it’s your living then time is money, right?

So is tracing cheating? Well if it was OK for Leonardo, I think you can trace art with a clear conscience.

Lion pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Lion Country’ by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

Artists trace their art to save time. So, if you want to make money you have to get serious. This guide will show you what to do, step-by-step!

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

Psst…it’s only $12.99!

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Tracing Art - Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating and Is It Ever OK?
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
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

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