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.
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:
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.