When you’ve just started out drawing, or even have been drawing for some time, you may wonder if tracing isn’t a faster way of improving your drawing skills. You may even have heard fierce arguments for and against tracing.
The answer to the question of whether tracing can improve your drawing skills is a difficult one and will depend on what kind of tracing you mean. For example, do you mean that you are doing tracing as an exercise or whether you are tracing someone else’s art or somewhere in-between? Therefore, the answer is both “yes” and “no”.
Below we will look at the times when tracing can improve your drawing and times when it doesn’t as well as some tracing exercises you can try for yourself. We will also look at tracing and copyright.
When Tracing Can And Can’t Improve Your Drawing Skills
Tracing can be a great tool in your art arsenal as long as it’s used to learn how to draw and use your tools and not to take the place of drawing.
Tracing can help you “feel” the lines of the drawing that you’re making, giving you a chance to learn, for example, specific shapes, angles of a face, etc., but can’t take the place of practice.
When tracing doesn’t improve your drawing skills is when you use it not as an additional way of learning, but the way in which you make your art, full stop.
For example, there is a difference between tracing things every now and then and the rest of the time doing freehand drawing (or using the tracing and freehand exercise that we explain below) and always tracing your artwork.
Tracing artwork is most of the time not meant to be malicious, but to “make up for” the lack of practice (note we didn’t say “skill” or “talent”!) that you have.
It’s all too easy to see the great artwork of others on, say, Instagram, and wonder why your cat looks more like an elephant and then rather turn to trace your artwork in order to appear a “better” artist.
Unfortunately, the truth is that if you only trace all your sketches and artwork, that you will either learn very little or nothing at all when it comes to drawing on your own.
However, it is also important to remember that tracing other’s work and working solely from that will, instead of letting you spread your wings and getting the hang of your own art style, rather cage you in into slavishly following someone else’s style.
Working From References And Tracing Isn’t The Same Thing
But wait, you might say — what about all the artists who work from photos or figure studies to make their art? Isn’t that tracing?
The thing to remember here is that, if you’re using something as a reference, you’re going to copy a part of the image — say a hand, a gesture, an expression — for your final work, but you’re not actually going to sit and trace it.
In fact, in this case, the photo will take the place of having a model sit for hours on end for you in the correct pose and working from that. (Also not really the scale you are going for when just making the odd sketch for your enjoyment!)
The finished sketch will also be redrawn to the scale and layout of the finished artwork. A photo of a few inches tall may become a poster and vice versa.
To trace your own artwork onto canvas, onto a wall for a mural, or for whatever medium you need it, for example, may be tracing, but in this case, it’s not tracing to learn but to copy original artwork into the correct dimensions that the end product will be.
However, there are ways in which tracing can help, and that is through tracing exercises. We’ll look at three of these exercises next.
Types Of Tracing Exercises To Help Improve Your Drawing Skills
There are various tracing exercises that you can use to help improve your drawing skills. Two of the main ones that we’ll cover in this article are:
- Tracing exercises to learn how to use both traditional and digital art tools
- Using tracing and copying to learn how shadow and light work
- Using tracing and freehand alternatively
How To Approach Tracing Exercises To Get The Most Out Of Them
When you first set out to do tracing exercises, you need to have an idea of what you want to get out of them before you start doing them. For example, do you just want to try out your new tools? Or do you want to learn how to draw something specific?
The tracing exercise or exercises that you do will depend on what you want to achieve. By looking at the different kinds of exercises below, you can get a good feeling about which of them will help you with your next project.
Using Tracing To Learn How To Use Both Traditional And Digital Art Tools
Learning how to use new tools — whether a new brush, pencil, or stylus — can be quite tricky, and you’ll probably find that even using a new or another brand’s pencils can pose some difficulties when you first start using them.
To ensure that you know the ins and outs of your (new) tools, once you get to making the actual artwork that you want to create, you can do various exercises, including tracing exercises.
The tracing exercises will, in some ways, be the same whether you’re using traditional or digital art tools.
Exercises For A Digital Stylus And Pencils Or Pens
Picking up a stylus when you’re used to using a pencil (or vice versa) can make you feel as if you can’t draw at all. However, you should remind yourself that it’s only a matter of using different techniques to get the same look.
To start, you can try tracing easy shapes from a tracing sheet you can easily find online. Circles, triangles, squares, cubes, spirals, even a squiggle — the sky is the limit.
Tracing these will give you a better idea of how hard or soft to press to get the desired look, while also finding that “sweet spot” where you know exactly the kind of line you’re going to get before you make it.
Be sure to trace the lines with intention — do you want them light, dark, soft, or hard? Getting the pencil or stylus to give you exactly the result that you want is your first step to drawing better.
Next, you can fill the shapes with shading and hatching to also get a feel for these skills. You can also use some shading exercises if you want.
Learning How Shadows And Light Work Through Tracing and Copying
Learning the ins and outs of shadow and light and how they influence your chosen subject matter can also be taught in elementary fashion by using traced exercises.
In this case, you will not copy the parts in light or in shadow through tracing this from the exercise as well, but rather do this yourself from copying the light play in the example on the exercise page.
Even learning how shadow and light work together in figures, faces, and landscapes can be learned through this tracing method:
- If you’re just starting out, find a photo with very definite areas of light and shadow or, if you feel up to the challenge, find a photo with less defined areas of light and shadow.
- Trace the main outlines of this photo onto paper (actual paper or digital).
- If you’re starting out, also trace the areas of light and dark onto the tracing that you’ve just made.
- If you’re just practicing your shading, don’t add these areas when you’re making the tracing.
Next, start shading the sketch but pay special attention to the ways in which the light source influences the way in which the light and shadows interplay on the subject that you’re drawing.
Remember that shadows aren’t arbitrary; they depend on the way in which the light shines to form in specific areas.
You can try out this exercise in grayscale first and then move on to color or even different color palettes.
This exercise is also a great way to try out different color palettes on the same sketch without having to take too much time to sketch out the subject each time, leaving you more time to work on the final piece!
As you can see, in this instance, the tracing of the photo is not so much to learn how to draw the subject, but to learn the shading from a specific angle or type of light source.
Tracing the photo only aids in getting the “base layer” there so that you can concentrate on the shading instead of on getting the sketch 100% correct.
Using Tracing And Freehand Alternatively To Improve Your Drawing Skills
One of the best ways to use tracing as part of learning how to draw is by alternating tracing and using freehand to copy a specific image or sketch.
- After choosing which image/photo or sketch you want to copy, make an initial freehand sketch of it (that is to say, draw it yourself, without tracing it)
- Once you’re done, instead of just seeing (perhaps) that it’s wrong, focus on why you think it’s wrong or what the areas are that you can improve in.
- Now it’s time to trace! Taking a separate sheet of paper (whether real or digital), trace the image or sketch that you want to copy. While tracing, make sure that you focus on those areas where you are struggling and, instead of simply tracing, make sure that you focus on every line that you’re making and how they relate to the whole of the image.
- Once you’re done tracing the image, take a third sheet of paper and draw the same image freehand again. This time, pay attention to the parts that you previously struggled with. You should find that, this time around, the freehand sketch is a lot closer to the initial image/sketch than the first freehand sketch.
- You can repeat the tracing and freehand sketch a second time if you like or just keep on refining your second sketch.
It’s important to remember that everyone starts with a sketch made up of a number of lines before one specific line is chosen to be part of the final sketch — yes, even seasoned artists! So, if you find that your first or even third sketch isn’t perfect, don’t lose hope. Practice will be the thing that will improve your drawing skills.
Tracing, however, is not only seen by many as being unethical in some of its uses, but it can also be seen as an infringement on copyright and could land you in hot water.
Next, we’ll look at tracing and copyright and what you can and can’t do when publishing your work when it — or elements of it — has been traced.
Tracing Images And Copyright
Tracing and copyright is a veritable minefield when it comes to whether or not copyright is being breached through certain artwork.
Copying one of the great masters to the “T” and trying to copyright, say, the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s sunflowers won’t, obviously, work. But, when we look at copying, tracing, and fair use, the waters become a bit muddier.
That’s why we decided to have a look at the legal ramifications of tracing artwork — or an already published image — and then publishing it (yes, even on your personal site on the internet).
When it comes to copyright and traced images, we found that the following applies to artwork, according to Kiffanie Stahle of The Artist’s J.D.
To find out whether you can or can’t use an image to create your image, you need to keep in mind that the source material:
- May be protectable under the Copyright Act, and
- May infringe on the copyright of the image that you are tracing.
This leads to the legal concepts of “misappropriation” and “fair use”.
The two parts to misappropriation are, one, the source imagery, which you copied, are protectable elements of the work. (It’s important to note that copyright doesn’t protect things in the public domain, facts, and ideas.)
The second part of misappropriation is “looking at what the intended audience would see”. For example, would a person who looks at the artwork think that that source image (the image you traced) and your image are substantially the same?
This sameness is the work as a whole as well as “concept and feel”. You can see where the waters get very muddy when it comes to things like fanart!
It is, however, important to know that “fair use of a copyrighted work is not copyright infringement” and, when you trace sources, there are two factors that are very important in the question of whether it is copyright infringement or not.
- The amount that the source image was transformed, and
- The impact of your work on the market for the source image.
Fair use also considers whether you, in tracing and thereby copying the image, transformed it and added value to it when you made your artwork. Basically, the more an image is transformed, the greater the likelihood is that it has been used fairly.
In the end, what you need to remember is that you can’t trace and copy another person’s artwork and then, for example, sell it printed on T-shirts (which, unfortunately, does happen often).
When in doubt, always say what your source image is and who the artist is that took the photograph you traced, for example. After all, you want to enjoy your art and other’s art and isn’t out to make a quick buck on a copy!
Conclusion: Practice, Practice, Practice!
In the end, you will see that the thing that makes the most difference in improving your drawing skills isn’t tracing, but practicing your craft as much as you can.
Rather than being something you pick up in a day, drawing — whether with digital or mechanical means like pens and pencils — is something that you will take a long time to learn.
However, each time that you put pencil to paper and you draw (or draw, trace and redraw), you will find that you get better and better at understanding not only your tools but also what you are drawing.
Soon you will find that the lines that make up the whole, as well as shadow and light and even color come to make sense so that you start to work instinctively.
And isn’t that so much better than having to trace everything that you work on, making it truly your own piece of artwork?