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.
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