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.
Got a question? Ask Carrie!
Thanks for such a informational artical!! I enjoy your articals and learn something new with each one.
You’re welcome. I’m glad to help you. That’s one of the reasons I do the blog. When I started drawing with colored pencils, there were no blogs, so I had to learn everything by trial and error. It worked, but if I can help you avoid some of my mistakes, I’m glad.
Well said and explained Carrie. I agree with you here. Thanks for sharing the answers to these important questions that many beginner artists are asking me as well.
Make sure to tell those who ask you about tracing that it’s not an end to a means, it’s just another tool. No artist should be reliant upon it, but it is a good way to learn new skills when combined with freehand drawing.
I absolutely agree, this is exactly what I say:) Cheers!
I agree with you, as long as it is your own photo reference or line drawing. I don’t agree if it is someone else’s photo or drawing or painting.
It doesn’t help you learn to draw, it teaches you how to trace.
I agree with you on the photography. Using photographs taken by other people without first getting the photographer’s permission is risky no matter how the artist uses the image. Photography is an art form in the same way oil painting and colored pencil drawing are art forms, so copying a photographer’s work is no different than copying a painter’s work.
Also, just because an image is on the internet does not mean it’s available for use. There are websites designed for nothing but providing high quality images for artistic and commercial use and I wrote about some of them for EmptyEasel in an article titled Looking for the Perfect Reference Photo? Here are 5 Websites to Help I use some of those sources myself when I don’t have a personal image that’s suitable.
As for copying other people’s art, that’s also a no-no under any circumstances when it’s presented as original work. It’s okay to copy other artwork as a learning tool, but should never be identified as the artists own work or offered for sale.
We shall agree to disagree on whether or tracing is a teaching aid for the simple reason that I’ve seen my own drawing abilities improve (especially with mechanical drawings) when I combine tracing and freehand drawing. Tracing something a few times sharpens my eye to see what’s actually there and the repetitive motion teaches my hand and arm muscles the right motions to make to get the desired result.
Thank you for reading the article and for your comments, Kathy.
I love to paint but hate to draw, if I cannot paint without tracing then there’s only one person suffering- me! So I will continue to trace and produce pictures I’m happy with, for my own pleasure, and if other people like them good. If someone does not consider what I do as art that’s their problem
I was very impressed that you admitted to doing some tracing. I am by no means an artist but feel I do have some artistic talent and sometimes just have to trace something. A case in point, was when I needed a bunch of grapes on an old wine bottle. After getting the grapes in correct proportion by tracing, I was able to paint them very impressively. Made several of these wine bottle lamps after getting over my being intimidated at first.
Thank you and you’re welcome.
Tracing has come to be just another tool to me, like a yardstick, a t-square, or a pencil sharpener. I use it when it’s the best tool for the job at hand.
I disagree with your comment that you are “by no means an artist”. The fact that you painted grapes proves that you are an artist!
In fact, you then made lamps out of those wine bottles, so you’re more of an artist that you know! I wouldn’t know how to begin turning a wine bottle into a lamp!
I admit I trace…. I used the grid method for years, but then diecoverd I could trace the line drawing, enlarge my drawing to the desired size on a copy machine, then trace it onto my actual finish drawing paper. Of course the finale detail is then drawn in free hand.
In other words, I basically use the tracing to “block” in the basic size and shape of the drawing, and finish everything free hand. I find for me it’s a huge time saver and I’m happy to see other professional artists agree this is a legitmate means to an end.
Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment.
I still use the grid method of drawing too, as well as drawing without any aids at all. But I cannot draw perfect squares for the life of me, even with a t-square and rule, so I make mine on the computer, then print them out. Since I also make a grid on a digital reference photo this way, I can make the line drawing any size I want and know it’s in proportion with the reference photo!
Thanks for sharing!
Thank you – I appreciate reading your perspective on this controversial issue. I am not a great artist , not even mediocre but I love to play with the pencils. Kids love what I do and I often transfer to fabric to incorporate into sewing projects. Just having fun. With your help I am doing much better.
How cool! I’ve always said that if I could draw my clothes, I’d be fine, but I can’t sew much beyond putting on a button or darning socks (yes, I do that!) so it’s very cool to discover the articles I write are helping someone else sew great things!
Would you please explain your grid method for this beginner?
The grid method of drawing is very simple.
You divide your reference photo into sections by drawing horizontal and vertical lines on it. You can divide the photo into thirds, quarters, fifths, or in any other way you wish. I usually set mine up with 1-inch squares.
Then you draw the same type of grid on a piece of paper.
Then you draw what’s in each square.
The reason I started using this method of drawing was to help me get proportions correct. It broke the composition down into sections and I was better able to focus on one section at a time.
There are several ways to draw a grid on your reference photo.
You can draw directly on the photo itself if it’s a print. I don’t recommend this but have done it a time or two. Just make sure to get a second print so you have something to work from that doesn’t have the gird on it.
You can draw the grid on clear plastic film or tracing paper and tape that over your photo. The clear plastic film works best. Try a photo album page or plastic sleeve.
You can draw the grid on a digital image using a photo editing program like Photoshop. I use Photoshop 7.0 on a Mac, but any version of Photoshop on any platform will work. I imagine most other photo editing programs would also work.
If you want to learn more, here are a couple of articles I’ve written on the subject. They explain the process with a digital image in much more detail.
Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo
How to Draw with a Drawing Grid
I’ve not yet written about putting a grid on an actual print photo, but I’ll have to give that some thought. We get so accustomed to the idea that everyone has a computer and uses it for art that we forget not everyone works that way!
Thanks for your question! I hope that helps.
Carrie, your email lessons are excellent and so helpful. But your equine art is among the finest anywhere. Our daughter bought a quarter horse/thoroughbred but then decided to join the Navy. So her horse became our horse. I wish we had had the excellent photography equipment we have now to photograph this wonderful, though too inquisitive sugar and coffee addict of a horse. We loved her so much but eventually sold her due to changing boarding circumstances. But we have a few photographs and the many stories I wrote of her antics. In fact, those stories got our daughter and her friends through 12 weeks of boot camp. Thanks again, Carrie.
Thank you so kindly. It’s always a delight to hear such personal stories. Thank you.
I never had a horse growing up, but loved them anyway. I grew up on a dairy farm and while Holstein cattle don’t usually have the character of horses, there were a few whose antics stick in my memory. Like the cow who could open the barn door and get into the grain bin.
Or the one that came running every time I entered the pasture and parked herself beside me to have her back scratched.
I quite agree about wishing I’d had good photography equipment “back in the day.” I think that’s way I enjoy picture taking these days.
Thank you again for sharing.
Carrie, we had a Jersey calf when I was growing up in a rural area who never had to be tied, though I did put a lead on her. We were great friends and she stood outside the hallway window in the warm months so she could hear me practice the piano. Several times when she was still small I led her through the back door, through the kitchen and into the hallway where my piano sat against an inside wall. She was more well-mannered than a lot of my piano students were 40 years later. She never doo-dooed inside and loved the music all of her life. We did not eat her. But we did eat her daughter.
Jerseys are so cute! My sister and her husband had a herd of them for several years. They opted for Jerseys over Holsteins because of the butter fat. Jersey milk contains a higher percentage of cream than Holsteins and back then, dairy farmers were paid a premium for the higher butter fat.
But the calves were so fragile. It seemed like all you had to do was look at them wrong and they’d get sick. Very finicky little creatures.
I’m going to have to look for some cow reference photos, now. All these trips down memory lane have me wanting to draw one!
I rarely trace but like you with the wheels on the horse “buggy” I sometimes need to just to make them look right. I recently had a drawing of a young boy on a bicycle that his father bought for him, a classic old Schwinn with banana seat & high handlebars like his grandfather always wished he could’ve had. I couldn’t seem to get the tires/wheels looking right. But instead of tracing, I found some plastic cups similar in size & used them to “trace” around. It was kind of tricky because I had to squeeze the cup & hold it in the more oval shape while I traced around it but it worked out fairly well. But I have actually traced some tough to draw outlines of tough to draw images and since I draw the rest freehand I feel less guilty.
I had to chuckle while reading your comment. I tried using templates for those pesky wheels. My husband has an engineering degree, so he has all kinds of templates. French curves, squares, circles, ovals, all kinds of things.
I tried the circle templates but realized the wheels were really elliptical. None of the oval templates were the right size or angle and I must have tried most of them.
The one thing I didn’t think of was using a foam cup. What an ingenious idea!
In the long run, though, it would have taken me just as long to do that as it had already taken me to draw and erase through several revisions. I can just see all the broken cups lying around the drawing table because I squeezed them too hard (it really was frustrating!).
Thanks for sharing that unique idea. Just goes to show that most of us have “artist tools” all around the house!
I used to think that tracing was cheating too. But I soon realized that you need to know how to draw to make that tracing look good and not like a kindergartener drew it! So even if you get a good tracing, it doesn’t guarantee a good outcome! I personally don’t trace but use the grid method. I used to make a drawing on some drawing paper and then use tracing paper to trace my work and then transfer that to my final drawing paper. Now I like to make my drawing on the good paper with a grid. I don’t like the traced look anymore. To me the lines can be askew at times. So I draw it from start to finish just like you used to do.
I still draw with a grid method or totally freehand (usually landscapes) most of the time. I trace only when drawing mechanical elements that can’t be drawn with a straight-edge or drafting template or when I need to finish a complicated piece in a hurry.
But you are right about having to have the eye-hand coordination in order to make an accurate tracing, and that starting with a tracing is no more a guarantee of success than starting with a coloring book page is.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
For us rank beginners….how do you trace pictures?
The way I trace a picture is to lay a sheet of tracing paper over the drawing or reference photo and redraw on the tracing paper the shapes on the original drawing or reference photo.
I use tracing in a couple of different ways.
The main way I use it is in refining a drawing. My drawing process usually begins with a rough sketch using the grid method. I then refine that drawing until it’s as perfect as I can make it. To do this, I trace the original drawing onto tracing paper, then work it through several phases during which I make refinements on the front of the paper, then on the back, then on the front again.
When the drawing is satisfactory, I trace it onto a fresh sheet of tracing paper, which I then use to transfer the drawing to good drawing paper using either transfer paper or a light box. I explain the entire process in more detail here.
It’s a time-consuming process and if the composition is very complicated, it can take up to two weeks to get the line drawing right. Especially those pesky mechanical details!
If I need to do something quickly, or find myself taking too long to get the mechanical details right, I lay a sheet of tracing paper over the reference photo (which I almost always print), and make a tracing of the parts I’m having trouble with, then fit them into the other parts of the drawing that I’ve drawn by hand.
Sometimes, I also make a tracing after the line drawing is finished and use that as a comparison tool. If something doesn’t look right on the drawing, I lay the tracing over it. If I’ve strayed, I can see where and make corrections. If I haven’t, then I’m not making useless–and often counterproductive–changes to the drawing.
Hope that helps.
Thanks for the question.
Really helpful. I’m just beginning with graphite and colored pencils. Tracing has helped me understand complex flowers.
Does printing a reference photo in gray scale help get values right in a colored pencil drawing?
Yes it can. I often convert digital reference photos to gray scale or sepia tones in order to see the values more clearly.
Hi. Just want to thank you for this article even after long time it’s still up to date to me. After all I read I started do little research myself and I found that even old masters were using tracing to speed up the process. They were using all diferent tools like camera obscura, camera lucida. To me it’s like a building anything by following blueprint. That need a lot of skills. On top of that you need even more knowledge and skills to decorate it and personalise to make it stand out and unique. . So I am very grateful for this article. It just made me thinking and opened variety of new tools for me. Thomas
You’re welcome, Thomas. I’m glad to have been able to help you.
I’m even more delighted to learn that this article spurred you on to doing your own research!
HIGH CARRIE, INTERESTING SUJECT ON TRACING. I HAVE NEVER USED IT.
I HAVE ALWAYS USED THE GRID METHOD AS I ALWAYS MAKE MY PAINTING/DRAWING 50% LARGER THAN MY A4 REFERENCE PHOTO.ON MY REF. I DRAW 10mm SQUARES ON MY FINISHED PAINTING /DRAWING 15mm SQUARES.
I GOT THIS IDEA FROM YOU BY THE WAY WHEN I STARTED ART +_ 8yrs ago.
NO TRACING IS NOT CHEATING NIETHER IS THE GRID.WHAT ABOUT PRO ARTISTS WHO USE OVERHEAD CAMERAS.GOOD QUESTION.KIND REGARDS COLIN.
Thank you for your thoughts and comments! I’m glad to hear from you.
I’m glad to hear that the grid method of creating line drawings works for you. I used it for years on large pieces and small pieces and it works like a charm if you have a way of accurately drawing the grids.
Overhead projectors and any other similar piece of equipment is the same (in my opinion) as tracing. There’s just an extra step in the process and that is the projector or camera. But they are a great way to enlarge a drawing and can be especially helpful for large projects like murals and monumental art.
It all comes down to what works for each artist and the artist’s personal philosophy. If an artist thinks all work must be freehand, then that artist needs to do all their line drawings freehand.
Thank you again for taking the time to leave a comment!