Is it Cheating to Trace your Art? Is it Really OK?

Is it cheating to trace your art image of hands tracing a picture

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

There are no rights and wrongs in art, only integrity. It’s how you present yourself to the world that matters. It’s only cheating if you set out to deceive.
For most artists, tracing is a means to an end, merely a shortcut to the desired result. In times past it was an indispensable part of the commercial art world, less so now in the digital world where traditional skills aren’t needed.

It got me thinking.

  • So when is it acceptable to trace and when is it not?
  • Is tracing that much easier?
  • Are there any tracing devices?
  • Did the great artists of the past ever trace?

There is more to this subject than meets the eye.

Why Trace Your Art?

The obvious answer might be because the artist isn’t clever enough to do it any other way. That may or not be true but it certainly isn’t the only reason someone might choose to trace.

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 gets murkier when the artist decides to trace because it’s a shortcut with no commercial constraints. Is an artist a cheat if they know 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 what about tracing your own work, is that cheating? If you have drawn something beforehand and need to repeat it, would you be a cheat to trace the outline?

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 just a Tool?

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 a deceit is it? In this scenario, it is only a tool.

Is it Bad Practice to Trace Your Art?

The irony about tracing, for people that can’t draw, is they can’t trace either. The finished work will still look amateurish.

Tracing 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 transfer as pinched and 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 error but the less skilled will miss it entirely. Bad artists can’t trace.

Learn to Draw Before You Start Tracing

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.

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

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

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 a grid 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.

Can You Tell if The Work is Traced?

When I see the ‘work in progress’ stuff on Instagram with the tell-tale single outline I know immediately that 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 tracing will be stilted and crudely accurate. It’ll be a single continuous line following the most obvious outlined shapes.

It’s obvious.

How do Artists Trace a Picture?

Tracing Paper

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.

Use a Photocopy

I saw 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.

Use a Lightbox

I 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 tablets look far better.

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

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

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

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

Use a Projector

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

I remember trying to rig something up when I first started illustrating back in the 80’s long before the digital age. It wasn’t very satisfying. Again you need a darkened room and the projection must be at precisely 90 degrees to the projector or your image will be distorted.

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

Drawing Aids

Perspectograph

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.

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.

Camera Obscura

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 at 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 which projected the outside scene on to the back wall.

Camera Lucida

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 which turns your iPhone or iPad into a hi-tech version!
The App uses an image stored on your phone which appears on the screen at the same time as filming your hand beneath. You can adjust the transparency of the image and trace anything you like.

Conclusion

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 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?

Anyway if it was OK for Leonardo it’s OK for everyone.


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