art · art techniques · discussion

Tracing is cheating! …Or is it?

A short time ago I was describing how I get such detailed rough sketches to someone on Facebook, when an ill-informed person commented on the post with an outcry of “Tracing is cheating!” I thought that this would make a good topic to talk about in this article.

“Hmm tracing…why don’t you draw it out yourself rather than cheating?”

Is tracing cheating? When I was fifteen and still drawing anime and cartoon dragons (which, to be fair, I still draw!), the answer was a vehement YES. For me and many other teens this was an inflammatory topic. In the environment that I grew up in, both at school and on the internet we were repeatedly told that tracing was cheating and you are not a real artist if you trace.  You are a dirty, dirty cheater!

In truth, the only time tracing becomes cheating is when you trace someone’s art, without their permission, to steal it and claim it as your own work. And it is cheating for a very good reason – because you are breaking copyright law. As a result of this fact being pounded into people’s heads in online art communities and in real life, many people make the somewhat illogical jump that all tracing is wrong, and this opinion has somehow become entrenched.

It was many years later, when I got into realism, that I finally changed my mind.

I’ve learnt that when I am creating highly realistic artwork for pet portraits I need to be sure that I have every little detail perfectly accurate, every patch of fur and every pattern in the right place, or the outcome will look nothing like the owner’s pet. Tracing is a basic skill that many realism artists use. The reality is that it’s the end result that matters – not the way you do things.

Artists who trace are not photocopying machines like the aforementioned commenter on Facebook claimed. All tracing involves is getting the outline down onto the paper quickly and efficiently. Tracing doesn’t do all the work for you. You have to have a good understanding of shape, colour, lighting, texture, how your art tools work and most importantly, you have to have experience. A novice tracing out their rough sketch will result in the finished artwork looking nothing even close to the end result of an experienced artist’s work, no matter how good the novice’s trace was. They simply just don’t have the drawing skills.


“Optical devices certainly don’t paint pictures.”

– David Hockney

That said, tracing is an excellent way to learn how to draw. Only drawing freehand, especially when you have no one to go to for critique, can result in you making the same mistakes over and over again. Tracing is a good way to counter this and greatly improve your freehanding skills. It forces you to see shapes as they actually are, not how your brain thinks they look. A great example of this is a rose – when you look at a rose your brain only sees the overall shape and colour – it won’t break it down into smaller segments unless you train it to. When you trace, breaking objects down into shapes becomes a lot easier. You train yourself to see each rose petal as a combination of curves, triangles and ovals.

Hyperrealists, who spend upwards of hundreds of hours on their work rely on tracing -because if even the tiniest little detail is in the wrong place it will throw the whole painting off. Even Leonardo Da Vinci and many other old masters traced by using camera obscura -an optical technique that projects scenery onto a wall in a dark room from outside. Camera obscura was the forerunner for the invention of photographic cameras.

Even Leonardo Da Vinci and many other old masters traced by using camera obscura -a box of mirrors that projects scenery onto a wall.

One final thing I would also like to add – many photos provided to me by clients of their pets are low quality, in bad lighting, and/or lacking in detail. In most cases this can’t be helped due to the pet sadly passing away or the client being unable to get photos of a friend’s pet for their top-secret gift. It is the job of the artist to turn that into a detailed, realistic and beautiful bespoke piece of artwork that immortalises the client’s loved ones. Tracing doesn’t do that work for you especially when the photo provided is poor – often I find myself having to guess parts! Here’s one such example:

pet portrait graphite commission dog reference photo examples
Only the photo of the dog on the left is pin sharp. The photo of the english bull terrier is slightly blurry and its right eye is half closed. The german shepherd cross on the right is completely out of focus, has motion blur, and lighting coming from behind her head obscuring a lot of her face! There is also next to no detail in her eyes. I also had to guess what their fur would look like without their collars as I did not wish to include them in the final piece.



So that was my stance on tracing. If you are one of those people who is vehemently against it, then don’t trace! I am not forcing you or anyone else to use this method. My aim when working is to produce beautiful, personalised, accurate representations of clients’ pets. If tracing allows me to achieve that while also taking me considerably less time than sketching freehand or using a grid, then I have no issues with it. This is the way that I do things. There is no such thing as the wrong way in art, and in my opinion suggesting otherwise is a little close-minded.


12 thoughts on “Tracing is cheating! …Or is it?

  1. Tracing is done by many artists, particularly with parts of portraits. If you don’t get the nose and eyes in the right place to start with, you might as well not bother going on with it. The projection of images is sort of tracing too and that’s been used for many years. Tracing is not cheating so long as the artwork is original

    However, with copyright issues rearing up more frequently, I don’t think you should trace someone elses work (including the photographer) without permission and never sell the work as a result.

  2. It is no more cheating than using fancy materials to obtain special effects in your painting, as we are often encouraged to do. It can only be cheating if you set out to deceive. I imagine that artists who trace do so to save time, not to hide their incompetence.

  3. David please don’t use the word Incometance…. Just because someone can draw DOES NOT mean they can paint or sculpt! Everyone has a different talent and please don’t belittle any artist. Art is the finished product whether it be realism, abstract, or impressionistic.

  4. I usually make a composite of many photographs, even for just a facial portrait, to get the pose and all the details the way my customer wants them, and some customers want multiple pets in one portrait whose lives never overlapped. I used to sketch that out, now I do the compositing in Photoshop, and then trace that.

    Some will say that using Photoshop is cheating too, but I’ve also been a commercial artist for 35 years and I’ve used Photoshop for 25 years; with my skills, my Photoshop use is at the professional level, something an amateur also could not do along with creating a professional-quality piece of artwork from outlines traced onto a drawing surface.

    1. I agree with you. For me, it is the end result that counts. I use Photoshop when I want to do a composite drawing with many cats in, print the result and then grid it so I can reproduce it at the scale I want for the size of paper I have. When working with colour pencils, it is difficult to erase or correct mistakes. Unlike gouache, acrylic, oil paintings, it is very unforgiving. And each drawing takes a very long time to complete so why draw free hand when using a grid guarantees the proportions will be right and your subject where you want it? One of the drawbacks with photographs though is that many will be slightly distorted (fish-eye effect) so tracing or using a grid from photographs is not a full proof technique. I wish I could draw from life but my playful kittens are just too fast for me ;-).

  5. This was refreshing to read!
    I recently did my first pet commission of an unusual cat breed. I will always try to draw something freehand but my brain just couldn’t register the placements because of the breed and the pose so I just traced the eyes, nose and basic lines and the rest I painted myself. I was very happy with the final product, and so was the commissioner but there was a part of me that felt a little bad for tracing as everyone makes out it should be avoided like the plague, but you’ve made me feel a little less bad. I also wanted to make sure the likeness was just right!
    Similar to you, it’s helped me learn! I tried to draw a panther and I was having a hard time. I traced it and realised the eyes are actually considerably smaller than I had originally drawn. I drew a dog with no tracing whatsoever and although I’m happy with it, the eyes should’ve been slightly smaller which I would’ve realised if I’d traced, but it still looks good! 🙄 Like you said, tracing something can cause a lightbulb moment in your brain and make you look at something more accurately in future.
    Also, I can’t believe your art teacher frowned upon reference photos! They don’t even have humpback whales in zoos! I think most artists would be lost without them. Art in school is so restrictive.

  6. This is encouraging advice. I think Lisa over at Lachri Fine Art also offers advice on tracing and explains how it can help our observation skills.

    I also think the execution is where the artist’s skill comes through too. Hand a traced drawing to an artist and a non artist, then ask them to produce the art. The non artist won’t benefit from a traced line drawing anymore than a person who for example has no athletic skill could out run an Olympic sprinter. It’s the ‘doing’ that is the skill.

    I get more grouchy about artists who use stock photos and word their works in progress posts to imply it’s a commission….

  7. Thank you for this post! I agree 100% . Especially as a self-taught older artist – meaning, I’m just starting out at 56 years old, and it’s so hard to find the time to spend hours a day drawing spheres and body parts to get them down! I usually find a real life subject (meaning, not a drawing or painting, etc.), take a picture of it myself, and then simply trace the outline for proportion, etc. I then use my different art tools to embellish and enhance. I feel like I’m learning so much, even though I’m not spending as much time erasing my mistakes and starting over! Thank you again for this post!

  8. I appreciate your perspective and time taken to share insight into the origins of tools used to create accurate depictions. I will share why I despise art created with projectors, grids, tracing etc. Yes, you are right that masters used these tools to create their art. But first, we have to address the utility of art at that time. Since there were absolutely not cameras, there was no other faster way to create accurate depictions. So fine, I can forgive them for using such tools. Today we have photography, art is utterly useless as far as necessity is concerned; we don’t need drawings to remember or know what anything or anyone looks like. Okay. So…to absolutely rebut all the people out there who want to use tracing to sped up, I say, well why? Why not just learn to draw as well as possible, go slower with one piece and charge more for that piece as opposed to learning to speed up and mechanize your work? I’ve no desire to be a machine. Some of my drawings and paintings can take months to complete and hundreds of hours. All right so that’s my thought on time. Now…my pride and ego. Gotta address that. Okay, I started drawing seriously when I was 13, I took the time to learn to render, became very skillful and later took a couple of classes to hone in on that skill. Now, you take the work of someone like me, and compare it to someone who can only or only chooses to trace, whose work do you admire or appreciate more? It’s the same as appreciating the mathematician who can calculate in his or her mind as opposed to the one who is dependent upon the calculator. We aren’t on the same playing level. It irritates me to no end when I do all this work and someone shows me a hyper realistic drawing they didn’t even draw out themselves. I did one one time and I hated it because it wasn’t my work, it wasn’t my brain, I could t take credit for saying that I drew it because I did not. My deal is this, I’d rather take 50 to 100 hours longer, say it is all my work from my hands, my eyes, my brain, than succumb to tracing. Also, when children stop by my booth and gawk at my work and ask, “did you really draw all of this?!” I can look them square in the eye and tell them with a big grin, “yes, I did!” And if you keep practicing, you can learn to do this too! #melissalovestodraw

  9. Obviously, tracing other photos without written permission from those who own the images and are copyrighted is wrong and will get you in trouble. But if it’s just for practice and exclusively for personal use, it should still help you with where you want to go, right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.