Today I want to talk about tracing and the entire can of worms that opens up when it’s mentioned. Although I have discussed various methods used by artists: Isn’t That Cheating? I feel like revisiting this issue due to various discussions I have been seeing in art groups.
As discussed before, artists have a number of tools at their disposal. I began using the grid method years ago when creating my work. Can I free hand? Yes. However, when I want to be absolutely certain I have proportions correct and things in the right places, I use the grid. It is a much faster and more accurate way for me to get the initial sketch down on my surface.
Have I ever traced? I can say yes to this as well. Recently I purchased some Artist Trading Cards which are very tiny. I knew it would not be efficient for me to grid the card in order to get my initial sketch. I took the advice from one of my favorite artists and decided to trace. I opened the image on my phone to the size I needed then I gently taped the card onto my phone. Using light strokes I was able to trace a rough outline of the fox image and stone.
All the tracing did for me was get a general idea of size and position of the fox and stone. The rest, color placement, direction of fur etc I had to do free hand. Tracing did not produce an exact fully colored copy of the image I was using. It was simply a very basic tool I used in order to save time on the initial placement.
Yet, time and time again I am seeing new artists being questioned about tracing. People ask them if their finished piece was traced, as if tracing would somehow devalue the piece. Then I find some artists bragging about the fact that they never trace ( or use tools such as grids and proportional dividers) because they only freehand. All I can do is shake my head.
Free-handing is something most artists are capable of doing, but it’s not the “end all, be all” to being a true artist. It frustrates me when people, artists and others alike, question someone about tracing or using any sort of tools to get a more accurate initial sketch. Why? Because for centuries artists (including many of the old masters) used tools for accuracy that were available to them.
There is debate over the educational benefits of tracing. Some say that it does nothing to improve your skills. I don’t believe that a bit! Repetition is proven to help someone learn something. If you trace a subject, over time you are training your brain to understand the correct proportions, dimensions and locations/landmarks of what you trace. For example a portrait artist using the tracing method over time will train their brain to know the correct location of eyes, nose, mouth and ears.
For those non-artists who feel it is somehow cheating to trace I have this challenge. I challenge you to trace an outline of a subject and then finish the complete work. Do this along with an artist friend. Which image turned out the best, yours or your artist friend? Odds are, your artist friend has made an incredible rendering of the image while yours may be a hot mess. Why? Because tracing is not the end product and does not dictate how the image will render. The real art begins AFTER the initial sketch is on the paper, regardless of how that sketch got on the surface. Once the sketch is there the work begins and the true skills of the artist come into play.
Tracing can be an extremely valuable tool for the beginning artist as well as an accomplished artist. Beginners will have a more accurate beginning image to work with which will help to build their confidence. That’s a good thing. Like using a ruler for a straight line or the drafting tools architects use, tracing is just another tool.
Accomplished artists use tracing as a time saver. I was recently surprised to discover several amazing artists use the tracing method. Many use it specifically for commission works where accuracy is of the utmost importance. It saves them time so that they can dive into the time consuming details. Artists who do constant commission work and use the tracing method, can book more commissions per month, thus adding more to their income.
So please, for the love of art, stop asking if someone traced something! It’s irrelevant to the finished piece of art. Traced or not, many hours have been spent by artists honing their skills over the years to achieve their current the level of excellence. Simply enjoy the finished piece.
As for me, will I use the tracing method on future projects? Now that I’ve tried it, I most certainly will. I was incredibly surprised by the amount of time it saved getting the initial sketch. Will I use it exclusively? Probably not. It’s simply another tool available to me in my artist box.
Until next time,