Trace, The Final Frontier?

So, I was participating in a discussion about tracing this weekend on a Web forum. This comes up from time to time, it’s just the first time I’ve been active in such a discussion online. I’m not even going to get into the penciller vs inker debate, that is a tangent discussion. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m strictly talking about tracing photographs. The usual camps formed:

  1. Tracing is evil and wrong and you are evil and wrong for tracing!
  2. Tracing is okay for practice, but real artists don’t need to trace.
  3. Tracing is an acceptable art form.

I’m firmly in the #3 camp with a caveat that I will get to in a minute. For beginners, I think tracing is good practice. When you’re initially studying art, and anatomy in particular, you will waste a lot of time drawing a lot of wrong things if you don’t trace a little to get yourself used to where things go. Part of learning how to draw is learning how to compose a complex illustration from simple strokes on the page. If you start by tracing you will simultaneously enhance your brain’s ability to see the composition in smaller parts, and your hand and arm will get used to the motions so that it feels natural to you.

Think of a golfer learning to swing. You can go in there and pick a club and just start swinging… but you can’t really see what you are doing and you will waste a lot of time tiring yourself out swinging incorrectly before you accidentally do it right a few times. Most golfers will watch other people swing and try to emulate that at first. You can even have your swing analyzed by a computer or hire a personal trainer. It will still take a lot of practice to get good at golf, but you cut the initial learning time dramatically by using all the available helper tools that you can.

So, now let’s say you are a good artist and don’t need to trace anymore. Why would you do it? Well, now that you know how to draw and you can do it… tracing is still useful. You can do the work much faster by tracing even if you don’t need to do it. Can you draw a straight line without a ruler? Can you draw that same straight line a lot faster, and probably cleaner as well, with a ruler? Would you refuse to use a ruler just to keep purity in your art?

I was at the Raleigh Comic-Con last year as a guest, and I was doing small sketches during the show. At one point I was going to draw Captain America’s shield. The artist next to me said, matter-of-factly, that he wouldn’t dare draw a circle freehand and that I was brave to try. I was sketching my circles on a quadrant so I really was only drawing four connected arcs to make my circles. This allowed me to be pretty fast at sketching and create reasonably good circles. Truth be told, though, he was absolutely right. I could have drawn the same circles much faster and cleaner with the right tools. I know how to draw circles and I can draw them with a little patience… but there’s nothing to be gained from refusing to use the right tool for the job.

And now comes the caveat. In my opinion there are only two unacceptable practices in tracing. First, I believe you should not try to pass off your work as if you didn’t trace. Own the practice, own your creation! If you traced some photographs to make it better or finish it faster, embrace it and don’t run from it. Second, make sure you are using photographs in the public domain or ones that you take yourself or otherwise have obtained the rights to use in your art.

If you embrace it, have permission to do it, and it makes your art better… I say trace all you want. Embrace the trace!

Meanwhile, as part of that discussion thread… people started posting their version of a trace of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool from a movie still photograph. I didn’t want to feel left out, so I took a stab at tracing the photograph myself and am posting it here on my blog. I colored the clothing and accessories, but stopped there as the purpose of the exercise had been served at that point for me.

What was interesting, and perhaps surprising to some in the discussion, every person’s trace of the exact same photograph came out looking differently… which means even when we trace, our personal style is coming through in the final product.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool WIP


11 responses

    1. Hey… thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked it!


  1. It’s the passing off aspect that sends non artist consumers into a frenzy. Your example re circles – 1960s comicbook artists would have french curves and you name it lined up near their drawing board- other than the tech level, it’s the same principle as computer assistance or wacom etc. today.

    In terms of photo reference I agree with you too. I usually photoshop a reference first- frankenstein something up then use that as the reference. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment, and welcome aboard! I have at least one french curves set somewhere around here, just not currently with my main tools like it ought to be.

      I agree, too, that sometimes the Internet blows up over things in a way that makes it seem like someone did something worse than they actually did. I think sometimes the process can get a bad reputation if it is abused by people who aren’t forthcoming about what they do. Also, a lot of people don’t know that tracing is a legitimate part of a lot of artists’ process.


      1. Tracing is legit, and the masters of the craft in particular used it to devastating effect- Herge’s studio and his building and vehicle specialists in particular started from “tracing” and then worked and worked until it was part of a process to create innumerable images- then sometimes made models of the newly minted image as in the case of some of the ships.

        At the point where you make a model of your original drawing and not its reference- any question of tracing being “unoriginal” or a “cheat” etc. becomes absurd.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Absolutely. At the beginning of the conversation a lot of people were saying how easy tracing was and how anyone can do it. Technically, that’s essentially true. Anyone can trace just like anyone can draw or play basketball or any particular thing.

          By the time a bunch of different people had posted their tracings, it was immediately obvious how each of us had brought something unique to the page. That kind of shot some holes in the “tracing isn’t art” part of the discussion… which is a good thing!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Followed to its illogical conclusion the “no tracors suxzor” argument implies that de limine art is somehow wrong- in other words following a line closely- whether under another sheet of paper or out your window- is somehow not preferable to the chaotic nightmaare obliquity caused by a Lovecraftian inability to draw a representation of a regular solid 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I should probably admit that while I’m supportive of the practice and how many artists use it… I have really tried not to do it myself. Only really recently have I finally grown wise to how much time I’ve wasted and frustration I’ve caused myself by resisting something that I’ve said it was perfectly ok for others to do! I’m my own worst enemy sometimes.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Simple reductionist argumentum: what if it’s your own work you trace? For animation or repetitive panels what earthly alternative is there? 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        5. Exactly… In fact, for some of my comic strip work I’m not tracing… but I am reusing things I have already drawn. Stuff I would have to constantly redraw on paper I can copy/paste and tweak a little if necessary.

          Like in Hollywood… they start a new show, it’s expensive to build all the sets… but if the show goes to a second season and they keep the same setting, they save a ton of money not building new sets for season two!

          So, why draw and re-draw stuff I’ve already drawn before? If I’m doing a live sketch in front of or for someone… sure… but the rest of the time? Efficiency is the name of the game. Work smarter, not harder. I am slowly learning these things!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. […] back in February of this year I wrote a blog post about tracing entitled ‘Trace, The Final Frontier?’ It had spun out of a conversation I was having on the Digital Webbing forums with many other […]


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