Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

There are some questions that guarantee a heated debate in the art world. Tracing is one of those topics. Is using a light box cheating is probably another such topic. We’ll soon find out, won’t we?

Here’s the question to get the discussion started.

When I started using colored pencils I used a light box. I still use one. I can draw without it but it takes so long to draw freehand. I have used the grid method but it does not work as well. Do you think that it would be better to wean myself from the box? I am 69 so taking shortcuts helps. I enjoy your help.

Thank you for your question, Jim. I think I can put your mind at rest.

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

The short answer is no. Using a light box is not cheating. A light box is just another drawing tool.


Using a light box is no different than using a camera to “sketch” a subject instead of taking the time to draw the subject from life. Using solvents to blend could also be considered a form of cheating if an artist considers using a light box to be cheating.

You might also look at it this way: Is it cheating to use a calculator to tally up your grocery bill as you shop, or should you do the math by hand?

Is using a light box cheating

We could take the comparisons a lot further. For example, is using a cell phone to contact family members cheating or should you write a letter? Or is using a car cheating when you can walk?

But I think you get the point.


For the longest time, I thought all tracing was cheating. I believed I had to draw every drawing by hand. I called it freehand, but I actually used a grid to create my line drawing. (Is a grid cheating?)

I also used transfer paper or a light box of sorts (large windows) to transfer the drawing to the painting surface. Was that cheating?

In the end, I came to the conclusion that none of those art-related tools was any more a form of cheating than using my calculator to keep track of purchases while shopping. I had no problems with the calculator, so why did I feel differently about art?

Does that Mean You Don’t Need Freehand Drawing Skills?

Not at all.

It’s always good to know how to do things the old-fashioned way, by hand, whether you’re working on your next drawing, or basic math. Knowing how to draw well frees you up to draw and sketch wherever you are, whether you have an electronic device or other tool or not.

It’s not a bad thing to practice freehand drawing skills, too, because that does give you an additional drawing tool.

But it’s absolutely all right to continue using your light box.

The Bottom Line

What it all boils down to is personal preference. Some things really are written in stone and are always right or always wrong. If you jump off a cliff without a parachute, you will fall. (Even with a parachute, you’ll still fall; you’ll just fall more slowly.)

This is not one of those things. If you believe using a light box is cheating, then you shouldn’t do it. Doing something that you perceive to be cheating diminishes your pleasure in the creative process.

If you have no problems using a light box, then make the best use of that light box that you possibly can and enjoy making art!

There are, however, a few guidelines you should follow:

  • Never copy someone else’s art and call it your own. That’s not cheating; it’s stealing.
  • Using a light box doesn’t guarantee a perfect drawing every time. You still have to do all the layering, blending, and shading. So keep up with those skills.
  • Take the time to work on freehand drawing skills by sketching either from life or from photos. You won’t regret the time you spend in that activity.

What do you think? Is using a light box cheating?

I’ve shared my thoughts on this topic. Do you agree or disagree?

Our goal here is to help one another learn in order to find the best solution for their individual needs, so keep it friendly!

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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  1. Susan

    I’m not sure that “cheating” is the word for using a light box, or tracing. And certainly people have every right to use whatever tools or techniques they choose. Personally, I just don’t think works produced using such tools are art. It’s not really different from coloring or painting in a coloring book.
    What has happened to using the imagination? Drawing from life or from a memory? To me, the cherished comment of “wow, it looks just like a photograph!” is just sad. There is no “right” or “wrong” to this discussion, of course. It’s all a matter of personal opinion, and that is mine.
    Thank you.

    1. Susan,

      Thank you for reading this post and for taking the time to leave a comment.

      You are absolutely right in concluding that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Like so many other parts of drawing, it’s a matter of personal preference. I know of many artists who use nothing but colored pencils in their work and reject the use of other tools such as solvents and mixed media.

      There are also artists who think working from a reference photo is not art or that life drawing is the only way to make “real art.”

      There is a place for all of those artists, just as there is a place for all types of art.

      Speaking for myself, I find a great deal of satisfaction in creating realistic artwork. When I was doing portrait work, my goal was always creating a portrait that looked like it could take a breath or blink at any moment. When a client told me the portrait I’d painted looked just like their horse, that was high praise. High praise indeed.

      So all of our goals are different, and the tools we use are also different.

      Thank you again for taking the time to comment, as well as read, this post.

    1. Graham

      Having just started pencil sketching I do have a light pad from time to time. I see it as a learning tool to get proportions right until skilled enough do without it. Normally I use YouTube tutorials step by step which are a very useful tool. As a senior over 70 I as pleased with my results so far.

  2. Cheryl Nelson

    Using a light box, or any device, to rough in the basic line drawing in proper perspective doesn’t take away from the artist’s necessary talent to get the final work to the point of completion. That’s my humble opinion. Using another Artist’s work as a reference is fine as long as it’s not “duplicated” and marketed as one’s own original work in any way. Not all artists are able to accurately and with a lifelike result portray a subject from the mind alone often due to the difference in perception in each individual. This is my humble and personal opinion. If the completely from the mind eye impressionist or abstract pieces that require much observation and imagination to comprehend the image presented are art then the above methods are as well. Give an individual who doesn’t draw the same supportive tools and see how far they get. It all takes a certain talent to complete a piece pleasing to the eye. It all takes work, time, effort, and talent. These are my personal beliefs. To each their own and no one is the definitive “correct” and only authority. Isn’t it said that art is in the eye of the beholder? This is so fun!

  3. poussibet

    For my own, I make a first drawing with graphite and then I copy my lines with a light box.
    I like to make this first drawing to observ nearly details in shadows and expressions. I draw portraits, I can not let place to imagination, I must be very true! Generally, my graphite portraits are good…. but it is often different with colored pencils ! The difficulties are somewhere else !
    I think there is no matter to use a light box but that don’t make you a good or bad artist!
    You can draw very well and color very bad or conversely or the twise!

    1. Michele,

      Thank you for leaving a comment! I’m glad to hear from you.

      You are so right that using a light box doesn’t make a person a good artist or a bad artist. It is, after all, a tool, and the line drawing is only the beginning of the process. After that comes layering, shading, and blending and all the rest. Without those skills, the best line drawing will not produce great art!

      Thank you again for reading and for commenting!

  4. Ana Cristina

    Hola, soy Ana y novata. No me parece que sea trampa. Habrá ocasiones en que utilizas esta herramienta como puedes usar también un lápiz cómo referencia de medida. Son todo herramientas a disposición del profesional y del aficionado. Gracias por sus publicaciones, Carrie. Un saludo desde España.

    1. Ana,

      No habla espanol!

      Not much anyway.

      But I did translate your comment and it appears here, for those like me who don’t know very much Spanish. Pardon any mistakes in the translation.

      Hello, I’m Ana and a novice. I don’t think it’s cheating. There will be times when you use this tool as you can also use a pencil as a measurement reference. They are all tools available to the professional and the amateur. Thank you for your posts, Carrie. Greetings from Spain.

      I quite agree with you! If we were to make art without using any tools, we’d be drawing with our fingers in the mud, and even the mud and our fingers could be considered tools!

      The tools an artist uses are up to the artist and are personal choices.

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post and to leave a comment! Greetings to you in Spain!

  5. Gail Jones

    I grew up doing a lot of arts and crafts but didn’t think I could pursue drawing and painting (outside of paint by number kits) because I couldn’t draw freehand like my best friend who just drew amazing stuff out of her imagination. A dear older lady corrected that thinking for me when I was around 54. At that point I just took off with drawing and painting and never looked back. All that to say that sometimes the tools; like a lightbox or grid method can make the difference between drawing and not drawing for someone like me who struggles sometimes with a basic line drawing. (I am working on my skills in that area too). But I agree with all said here. A lightbox is not cheating. It is a tool that sometimes can free up more creativity and open a door for someone to do art.

  6. Terry

    My opinion: Art is in the eye of the beholder. What matters is “what it looks like” not “what it is.” How the artist arrived at the final destination is not necessary for the enjoyment of the art. Go ahead and brag that you never use a projector, a light box, a grid, a ruler, a photo reference, etc. If the final work is not appealing, it doesn’t matter. If the final work is appealing, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. Those tools are not visible when your work is hung on the wall.

  7. Lala LaRue

    So I’m thinking of getting one to trace my own drawings to create animatics. It’s really hard to get the positioning exactly right, and I feel like it’s just like digital artists reusing backrounds. I haven’t decided yet. But it is my own original art and I don’t feel like for me that would be cheating.

    1. Thank you for your comment and your thoughts on the subject.

      It really is personal decision.

      The only time using a light box, or any type of tracing, is absolutely wrong is when you trace someone else’s art and pass it off as your own. Since you’re not doing that, you’re good to go.

  8. COLIN


  9. Galonia

    For me there is no question, it is definitely not cheating! I have this outdated way of thinking from before and know so many claims and what you should and shouldn’t do that it took all the joy out of painting away from me. That’s the only way it’s right, and you’re allowed to do that, you’re not allowed to do that, blah blah. When the most famous cellist plays a concerto from sheet music, no one asks him: Did you play it from your head or “just” from sheet music? Ultimately, it is template retrieval. Whether the template is in your head – or behind the glass, or the light box, or chewing grass in the meadow, it is a template. And the brain needs templates, otherwise you can’t get it out of your head! If you’ve never seen a bird in your life, neither in nature nor anywhere else, you can’t paint it straight from your head. I’ve also been asked in the past: did you draw it from your head or “copy it”? I like to say: my hands drew it, my eyes saw it, my head processed it – it is a work of mine! I find it very devaluing when you compare drawings using a light box with coloring in picture books like in kindergarten. But just: these are old conditioned patterns, some retain them, others don’t. In the end, it’s ONLY about the interpretation of the respective artist, regardless of whether it’s architecture, cooking, painting, music or anything else! Because there is nothing that hasn’t already existed, so everything would be a huge cheat, wouldn’t it?

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