I love getting questions from readers (what blogger doesn’t?) The readers who ask questions also love getting answers. It’s long been my practice to answer each question as I receive it, personally and directly.
But some of the questions are so good, I know other readers are wondering the same thing. Those types of questions deserve a public answer.
When drawing a portrait in coloured pencil, be it animal or human, do you start with a tracing or freestyle? What is commonly preferred?
That’s a great question, Jo!
The short answer to the question is “yes.”
Most of the time, I begin portraits by creating a detailed line drawing using the grid method for drawing, a method I’ve used for almost as long as I can remember. For simpler compositions and most landscapes, I freehand a line drawing without using a grid.
And sometimes I start by making a tracing directly from the reference photo.
So, as I said, the answer is yes.
But the question leads naturally into another question that is almost always guaranteed to generate vigorous debate.
I used to believe tracing was cheating. I truly did. Since I was charging good money for portraits of horses, I felt duty-bound (not to mention honor bound) to make every pencil and brush mark with my own hand, unguided by anything but what I could see in a reference photo. Somehow, I’d be cheating clients if I drew the line drawing by tracing.
Interestingly enough, I had no qualms about tracing my line drawing onto the canvas or drawing paper. Somehow, that didn’t seem like the same thing. Maybe it was because I was tracing my own work.
So Is Tracing Cheating?
I no longer think of tracing as cheating, and here are a few reasons why.
Tracing Isn’t Easy
Most people think that making a drawing by tracing is easy. A snap. A trained monkey could do it, because it involves no skill whatsoever.
I confess that I used to think this way. But I’ve traced enough different things enough times to know that if I hurry through the process or am careless, the traced line drawing is no better than a carelessly drawn freehand drawing.
Hand control and pencil control are no less important when tracing a drawing than when drawing with the grid method. Either way, I need to be able to get the pencil to do exactly what I want it to do.
Sometimes, I think it takes more skill to accurately follow a pattern than to draw freehand (maybe that’s why I never picked up the sewing habit.)
Tracing is Not a Silver Bullet
Tracing your subject to create a line drawing doesn’t guarantee a successful piece of art.
You still have to layer and glaze color, you still have to know enough about color theory to know which colors to use, and you still need to know how to shade in order to make that line drawing look realistic. In other words, you still need to know how to draw.
Tracing is a Good Way to Improve Drawing Skills
Tracing something repeatedly—horses or cats for example—is a good way to teach yourself to draw so long as you’re using good photographs. Photos that don’t have a lot of distortion in them. Especially if you’re learning how to draw a new subject, you can benefit by tracing the subject several times, then drawing it freehand.
I’ve always been an equine portrait artist. Horse people paid me for portraits of their horses.
But horse portraits don’t always mean just horses are in the portrait. Sometimes tack is involved, and sometimes mechanical equipment is also involved.
For this oil portrait, I drew everything by hand using the grid method. Everything.
But the racing bike never satisfied me, and I had special problems getting the wheels right. So after several attempts to get the curves right freehand, I made a couple of tracings of that part of the reference photo.
You can see the wheels still aren’t as rounded and balanced as they should be in the finished painting, but tracing them a few times did improve my ability to draw the curves with a brush when it came time to paint them.
Tracing is a Good Way to Get Accurate Drawings
If you’re doing portrait work in which the subject you draw must look like the subject you’re drawing, tracing can be a life-saver.
Take this line drawing, for example. I can draw a horse in almost any imaginable position or posture, but technical drawing of any kind is a major struggle. So I drew the horse in both views, the bridles and equipment on the head study, and the landscape elements. Then I traced the racing bike and the driver to make sure they were accurate.
I’d learned my lesson from the oil portrait, you see!
So what I recommend now is to trace something a couple of times to get a feel for the shapes, then try drawing it freehand.
If that doesn’t work, there’s nothing wrong with tracing that part of the composition as part of the line drawing.
Tracing a Reference Photo Simplifies It
Let’s face it. Sometimes, a reference photo shows too many things.
Or maybe the edges get lost because colors or values are too similar.
You can clean up the composition by making a careful tracing first. You can, of course, use that tracing as your final line drawing, or you can use it as a reference from which to make a line drawing.
Even if you chose to create your line drawing directly from the reference photo, a carefully drawn tracing can be a good benchmark against which to compare your final drawing. I have used tracings in this way on quite a few more complex compositions.
Tracing is a Time Saver
I spent two or three weeks on each of the line drawings for the portraits above. Tracing the original line drawing could have saved a considerable amount of time on both, not to mention personal frustration, and having to rush things at the end of the process to meet deadlines.
So is tracing cheating?
Not in my book. At least no longer.
But I also understand that it’s as much a personal preference as anything. If tracing violates your conscience, don’t do it.
Otherwise, make use of it just as you would any other tool in your artists’ toolbox.