Is It OK to Trace in Art?

Is it ok to trace in art
Creative people are usually passionate people. Passionate people are usually opinionated people. So, it’s no wonder that creative people are opinionated.

And when it comes to tracing or transferring images, every artist has an opinion on whether or not it’s appropriate to do so. Some are very passionate and vocal about their feelings.

Some feel that it’s actually “cheating” to transfer or trace contour lines onto a canvas or a drawing surface. But is it?

Tracing or transferring images has been a technique used by artists throughout the years to save time and ensure accuracy in representational art. It is used by more artists than you may realize. Are all of these artists “cheaters”?

Is It Cheating To Trace?

Let’s first examine the opinion of those in the “cheating” camp. Why is it that these folks believe that tracing is cheating?

Argument #1 – Learning to draw requires the refinement of observation skills. We learn to see as artists and make marks to reflect what we observe. This process requires practice and trial and error. As we practice, the accuracy of the marks that we make improve and our drawings become more precise. Drawing gradually becomes intuitive.

When the artist traces the subject, this process of improving is hindered. Tracing does not directly improve our observational drawing skills. Tracing is not the path the artist should take if improving drawing skills is the desired result.

Argument #2 – When you learn to draw, you learn to observe and translate what you observe into lines, shapes, values, textures, etc. When the artist traces, the translation of the lines are not made by the artist. Instead, they are simply transferred to a surface.

Because the artist did not translate the observed contour lines, some believe that this is cheating. If the artist does not translate the subject completely, then the work must somehow not be completely the artist’s interpretation of the subject.

These are valid arguments and it’s clear that tracing should not be the regular practice of an artist that is just learning to draw.

Why It’s Not Cheating To Trace

As I mentioned before, many artists throughout history have used some form of tracing to create works. Many artists today also use tracing as part of the process of creating – more than you may realize. Clearly, these artists do not feel that it’s cheating to trace. So, when might tracing be appropriate?

For many artists, the product of the finished work of art is most important. The quality of the work outweighs the process. Patrons, art directors, etc. often don’t mind what process the artist uses to arrive at a successful piece. If tracing is a part of that process, then so be it.

Speed also plays a role. Most professional artists need to produce art quickly. For commercial artists, time is money. And if art is your business, then making money from it is clearly important. Any tools or processes that save time, without sacrificing the product, are utilized. Tracing saves time. If the artist is a professional, then drawing skills are likely already developed. If the artist wanted to draw the contours accurately, they could do so. But this would slow the process and not affect the finished result.

Therefore, tracing becomes a tool of the professional artist. And it does not make sense not to use a tool that saves time.

Those that feel that tracing is cheating sometimes do not fully understand the full process of drawing and painting. They may feel that if the contour lines are traced, then “the hard part” of the drawing process has been completed.

Tracing may be used to establish the contours, but the task of completing the work is far from over. Skill is required to complete the piece. The “hard part” of completing the work is still ahead of the artist, even if some form of tracing has been used.

“Tracing does not aid with any of these aspects. If the artist is not skillful, it will be painfully obvious in the final work.”

Let’s assume that an artist lays out the subject on canvas in preparation for finishing with acrylic paints. The artist uses a graphite transfer to do so – a method of tracing. While the contour lines may be established through tracing, the work still must be finished through skillful application of paint. The artist must be knowledgeable of light and shadow, texture, form, color mixing, and application of the medium. Tracing does not aid with any of these aspects. If the artist is not skillful, it will be painfully obvious in the final work.

This applies to any medium that the artist may use to complete their work. Every medium requires a level of skill to finish. It is never a process of simply “coloring” a traced outline.

Artists That Trace

Most artists that use or have used some form of tracing are clearly representational artists. For most, the accuracy of the subject is important. Portrait artists, working on a commissioned piece, must be sure that the work looks like the subject. And while tracing does not guarantee that it will, it certainly helps in the beginning stages of the work.

A short list of artists “accused” of tracing…

Artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco researched artists throughout history and concluded that many used some form of tracing to develop their work. Published as the Hockney-Falco thesis, their findings led them to believe that the following artists also used some form of optics to trace…

Is It Right For You To Trace?

So then, what should you do? Should you trace the contours of your subject or should you be “pure” about it and avoid using this controversial tool?

I think that it ultimately depends on where you are in your artistic development and how you view the process of creating.

“Drawing is fundamental and you should be studious about continuing your development, no matter what your current skill level may be.”

If you are still developing your drawing skills, it is my opinion that you should avoid tracing. Focus on pure drawing from observation. Draw from life as much as possible. Once your drawing skills have developed, then tracing can become a tool that saves time. One that you do not have to use.

If you have developed your drawing skills and have the ability to draw the subject accurately, then tracing ultimately doesn’t affect the resulting work. Be cautious that tracing does not become a “crutch”. Reserve it for subjects that require the upmost accuracy.

And even if tracing does become a tool in your artistic toolbox, your drawing skills should be practiced and honed continually. Drawing is fundamental and you should be studious about continuing your development, no matter what your current skill level may be.

If you view the act of creating to be more about the process, then you are likely to believe that tracing is some form of cheating. However, if the product outweighs the process in your mind, then you’re likely to view tracing as an acceptable part of the process. So your perspective and feelings about art will influence what you personally believe.

I’ll love to have your feelings on the subject.  Let me know how you feel in the comment section below…

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  • Vincent Wolff

    the amount of redrawing I need to do after the trace is quite sizeable—–I wind up redrawing a good portion of the contour lines. The projector trace allows me to get to the shading so much faster.
    Many artists of old used the camera obscura to achieve this goal

  • ronald1216

    i trace to get the images done faster then redraw it to make it fine and smooth and then do the shading. though people call that and grid cheating are those who cant trace at all.

  • Nancy

    I was a commercial artist for thirty years. Today I am retired and enjoy watercolor. I often trace, but not always. I agree that for the sake of time tracing is acceptable, however, I enjoy the process of drawing as well as painting. I don’t think it’ “cheating”. If your kills are inferior it really won’t improve the painting’s outcome that much, anyway.

  • Christine Robinson

    This is a good article, I think I was in the mind set of tracing is cheating, I am a student artist studying Matts courses so I wouldn’t because as he says I’m still a developing artist but it’s interesting all the same, I’ve also read somewhere that some even think the grid method is cheating but I don’t having used it for the 1st time on a drawing I did for my friend of her two dogs,she asked me to do it and she took a photo and sent me it.
    Because of accuracy which is important because I knew she would want it exactly I decided to use it for 1st time and I thought it was brilliant because in the past I’ve had trouble with the initial layout and sizing.

    I saw this method in one is my lessons on secrets to drawing on here and gave it a go and I don’t think it’s cheating because outlines, your contour lines are very much the beginning and to look at these you can clearly see that yes they are important as say like our building blocks, the skill is the shapes,values,textures,contrast etc are all that make the artwork truly artwork.
    Plus as a beginner at the start it helped me break it down into sizeable chunks that were not too overwhelming which is very important as sometimes you look at your reference and it looks a bit scary.

  • Hollistic Vybe

    I too think this is a very good topic & I had also wondered the same thing. I have used a light box or my computer to trace the “outline” of a couple of images that I have incorporated into art. One of my grandson which depicts his true inner essence, something I would never have achieved if I hadn’t. I use this technique at the beginning of a piece as a “guideline” and the finished product changes & evolves from there. I have not studied an art course, but I DO live my life with the strong internal urges to create things/paint things. Is it “acceptable” for an artist to use a pot lid or a compass to create a circle? Or is that cheating too? They are all tools. My opinion is create whatever your heart desires, no matter how youve achieved it, because it makes you happy & coz lifes too short to be worrying about little things like this.
    Here’s a picture of an elephant I created using the tracing technique. And my grandson whose nickname is Buddha. I traced a Buddha image, I traced my grandson’s image & created a synergy of both.

  • Jessica

    I have always wanted to learn how to draw but iv never been able to so when I was little I would trace everything in fine little details but I stop cause I always thought it was silly and that it was cheating now I know it’s not cheating I may get back into it but I still want to learn how to draw

  • Susan Massey

    I find it easier to trace/outline the person that I am going to draw. I have a difficult time with proportion, so this saves me time and hair pulling. After I have the outline traced, I erase the border and start my drawing. I’ve received many compliments on my art and no one knows the difference. I look to make quality work and some facial features are difficult for me to get accurate. The nose, especially.

  • The_Raven

    Nancy, I don’t believe that you’re being fair in your comment:

    “If your kills are inferior it really won’t improve the painting’s outcome that much, anyway.”

    Just because some, if not a lot of, people trace doesn’t mean that they are inferior to anyone else. If a person needs that to ensure complete accuracy of a drawing or painting, then “what they DO after the tracing is the most important part of what they’re doing.”

    It’s an insult to past famous and present artists who have/do implement this. To call them, “inferior, and it really won’t improve the painting’s outcome that much, anyway,” you might as well slap them in the face. That shows a lack of compassion and encouragement to the greats, beginners, and children who want to explore Art. You’ve set them up for failure before they even get a chance to believe in themselves.

  • The_Raven

    Jessica, you go for it. Good for you.

  • bryan

    yeah right,tracing is just a tool… as you develop your drawing skill then tracing could be less valuable except in some delicate subject.. what i do is i draw lines then put in on screen and see if it placed correctly then if not i removed it from the screen and draw again and repeat the process not literally tracing..

  • Si Wikeley

    I think you may have misunderstood her. I read it as if your skills plural meaning even if you trace you won’t be much good at the rest of the piece including shading, paint etc. Resulting in the finished piece not being good. I don’t think she meant if you trace give up she even saidshe uses it sometimes herself. I could be wrong but that’s how it came across to me.

  • I think tracing is just another tool to use and helps get to the painting process quicker if time is an issue. I’ve used both tracing and free hand methods. Personally, I do feel more satisfied with the paintings that weren’t traced, just as I feel better about using photo references I’ve taken myself rather than another photo source.

  • Julie Conkling Babb

    As I newbie to the art world, I use the grid method. Is that cheating also? I don’t think so. It is very time consuming but it helps with proportional accuracy. I traced a house once for a water color & by the time the painting was complete any thoughts of cheating were long gone. But still, I am reluctant to do it.

  • Treena Joyo Davis

    I feel the same as you. Although I do enjoy drawing and I am learning how to improve my skills (I am a beginner) I also enjoy colouring and painting so sometimes I trace the basic outline of an image onto watercolour paper, then get out my paints and very much enjoy adding all the details. =)

  • Seira

    If you only trace the face and body then edit it to your design is it really bad??

  • James Lyttelton PHIPSON

    I work in a n art studio and it is absolutely atrocious how much tracing i see my co workers doing! One of my so called best friend Oscar Jenkins is the biggest abuser of art tracing. He will take credit for photos that aren’t even his and trace photos right onto photoshop! This astounds me that his moral levels are so low that he would even consider tracing other people’s artwork. What’s more he earns money in art galleries and exhibitions when the artwork isn’t even his. One time he even stole some work from me!- In conclusion is it not ok to trace artwork!

  • Артём

    Did you ever told him that? Talking about moral and then dropping real names haha. Also if everyone is doing it maybe you are the problem.