Why Learn to Draw When You Can Trace?

Can tracing help you develop your drawing skills?

Learning to draw well is difficult. It can take years of practice and good instruction and even then, there are no guarantees. We make sure our students understand this before they begin learning with us, and most are eager to accept the challenge. But once in a while, someone will point out an obvious alternative. It usually goes something like this:

Omg, why don’t you just trace a photo instead? That’s what I do, and it’s way easier! Lol!”

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of response as naive or just somebody trolling. But if you’re interested in drawing by observation without tracing, it’s a question you should be able to answer. If drawing is so difficult, why not just trace?

This is not a new question. It’s been speculated that artists throughout history, including Norman Rockwell, Thomas Eakins, Johannes Vermeer, and even artists from as far back as the 1400s, have incorporated tracing into their drawing process. These artists used lens devices to help them better understand and capture what they saw, yielding some of the world’s great masterpieces. Today, the practice of tracing photographs has proliferated throughout the representational art world as a quick and convenient alternative to the challenges of drawing well.

So, if lots of artists are doing it, and have been for centuries, can tracing really be that bad?

If you’re familiar with what we do here at Vitruvian Studio, you already know that we prefer to draw by direct observation informed by measurement, without the aid of tracing or grids. There are, however, some legitimate uses of tracing when learning to draw, if only in a few specific contexts. In this post, we’ll tackle the tracing issue head-on, and look at the pros and cons of tracing as a learning tool. Can tracing be used to teach you the fundamentals of drawing or will it prevent you from reaching your full potential? You be the judge.

Here are five ways tracing can help improve your drawing skills.

What Can You Learn About Drawing By Tracing?

Benefit #1: Tracing Can Help You Get Accustomed to Drawing Processes and Materials

If you’re just starting to learn, the act of drawing can seem overwhelming. Something as simple as holding a pencil and moving it appropriately on the page can be difficult and frustrating. Tracing an image can help you focus on the physical demands of drawing without worrying about whether you’re getting it right. It can help you develop hand-eye coordination and muscle memory that are important for controlling the materials of drawing.  It’s like a kind of rehearsal for your future drawing development.

This kind of exercise is also useful for learning to make decisions in the first stage of drawing. We typically begin by “blocking-in” the major masses of the subject with simplified, straight-sided shapes. Students sometimes struggle with this concept. Typically, we try to include too much detail early on. Tracing references is a convenient, inexpensive way to practice blocking-in. By tracing along the longest, broadest sweeps of the contour, you can learn what to ignore when establishing the biggest shapes.

It’s important, however, to use the pencil in the same way that you will when you’re not tracing. When drawing “freehand”, we tend to start with light, soft and temporary lines while we get our bearings. Tracings, however, tend to yield a sharper, harder and continuous line that results in a flat and cartoonish look. If you trace to get used to the act of drawing, try to do it as if you’re not tracing.

Trace when learning to draw

An example of tracing a figure drawing by Prud’hon. This kind of exercise can help novice students practice blocking-in challenging subjects and learn to simplify complex shapes.

Benefit #2: Tracing Can Help You Understand Anatomy and Structure

An instructor at the New York Academy of Art would sometime prescribe a tracing exercise. For those of us struggling to draw the figure, he would photocopy a master drawing and tell us to trace it. He told us to pay particular attention to the curvature of the contour. Observe where it is more rounded, where it is flatter, and where it overlaps other contours. Consider the anatomy of the figure while you do this and try to understand why the contour changes the way it does. Even draw the bones and muscles and try to relate them to what’s happening on the surface. Then, once the tracing is complete, draw the figure again – but freehand this time, and at a larger scale.

This exercise packs a one-two punch. Tracing an example helps you learn about how a master artist represented the human figure. It focuses your attention in a way that merely looking doesn’t quite accomplish. It’s the visual equivalent of reading aloud while studying for a test. Reproducing that drawing at a larger scale provides an opportunity to practice, and also demands more input from you. Since a larger drawing will require more description than you can see clearly in the smaller reference, you’ll need to improvise a little.

This kind of tracing exercise provides a way of closely studying another artist’s work, and squaring it with your own knowledge and ability. It’s an effective way to discover what you need to work on when learning to draw the figure from observation, or even from imagination.

Benefit #3: Tracing Can Help You Understand Foreshortening

Trace when learning to draw

This figure from Michelangelo’s “Separation of the Earth from the Waters” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling has both arms outstretched. The arm on our left, however, is extended toward us in a foreshortened view. Note the dramatic difference in the shape of this arm relative to the one on the right. Novice students tend to underestimate such differences

“Foreshortening” is the word we use to describe how an object looks when viewed on end. For example, if you were drawing a figure with an arm stretched out toward you, it would appear “foreshortened”. We typically struggle with foreshortening because the outer shape of the object we’re drawing is not what we expect. We think of limbs as being long and skinny and tend to draw them that way, even when they appear quite different in a foreshortened view.

Tracing can be an effective way to study the effects of foreshortening. Try drawing an “envelope”, or a rudimentary block-in, on top of existing images of figures in various foreshortened views. Doing so can starkly illustrate the difference between our expectations (limbs are long and skinny) and what we’re actually seeing. This kind of tracing can help free you from your preconceived, and incorrect, assumptions about what figures look like.

Benefit #4: Tracing Can Help You Understand Linear Perspective

Trace when learning to draw

Basic principles of linear perspective, such as the location of vanishing points, can be made clear by tracing over photographs to see where receding parallels intersect.

Linear Perspective is a challenging subject for students learning to draw. It often involves measurement and calculation and can seem a little too much like math. But having at least a basic understanding of how perspective works is important for conveying 3-dimensional space in drawings.

Tracing images can be an effective way to explore how vanishing points work in perspective. A “vanishing point” is the hypothetical spot where parallel edges receding away from the viewer appear to converge. Any two or more parallel elements in a picture that recede back and away from the viewer will share a common vanishing point. Students are often skeptical of this principle when drawing from life. Our brains simply aren’t wired to notice things like this. But tracing on top of a photograph to see where receding parallels intersect can provide convincing evidence that vanishing points are real and should be taken seriously when drawing. Can tracing teach you the fundamentals of drawing or will it prevent you from reaching your full potential? Click To Tweet

The Pitfalls of Tracing

All of these instances show how tracing can provide an effective way to learn specific skills or concepts when learning to draw. But too much tracing can hinder your development. Here are some reasons why:

Pitfall #1: Tracing Doesn’t Encourage You to Analyze Your Work

Drawing well is ultimately about making good decisions. It’s about observing your subject carefully, understanding why it looks the way it does and recreating that appearance on the page with an effective method. A successful drawing is the product of analysis.

But tracing is often done mindlessly, with no analysis at all. Tracing doesn’t require you to study your subject or examine your choices. If you’re just copying lines, you don’t have to ask questions or solve problems. When you trace, do you consider the light source? Do you think about where the shadows are? Do you think about the underlying structure of your subject? Are you thinking about perspective? Do you plan your composition? Do you consider alternatives to how the image you’re tracing presents the subject? The answer to these questions is usually “no”. In other words, when you trace you probably don’t truly understand what you’re drawing, or why you’re drawing it that way. In our opinion, this diminishes the overall drawing experience.

Pitfall #2: Tracing Can Result in Flat Drawings

Trace when learning to draw

Tracing is often done with one continuous, curvy line. This lends a flat, cartoonish look to a drawing, like a chalk outline at a crime scene.

Paper is flat. But when drawing observationally, we normally seek to create the illusion of volume and space on the page. In other words, we want our drawings to appear 3-dimensional. Achieving this kind of illusion requires you to think in a particular way about what and how you’re drawing, considering carefully the various 3-dimensional characteristics of your subject.

When most people trace, however, it usually results in a very flat, cartoonish drawing. The tendency is to trace contours with a continuous, unbroken outline that appears to sit uniformly on the same plane – like a chalk outline at a crime scene. Even if the shapes are basically correct, it can be needlessly difficult to make such a flat-looking drawing appear 3-dimensional and lifelike in the end.

Pitfall #3: Tracing Can Become a Crutch

Tracing is one thing, but drawing freehand is something else entirely. Being good at one doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be good at the other. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself clinging to tracing because you’re afraid to try drawing without it – or maybe you do try, and the results are disappointing, and you go back to what feels better.

But there’s no need to be afraid of drawing from observation. While learning to draw freehand is challenging, and will definitely push you out of your comfort zone, it will also empower you. Just like any skill, there are many small steps to take along the way, each of which provides its own reward.

Pitfall #4: Tracing Doesn’t Guarantee Good Results Anyway

We live in a photographic age. Every day, we are bombarded with hundreds of images that are derived from some type of lens device, and we tend to accept them as truthful. This is a state of mind known as being “camera conditioned”.

But photographs aren’t truthful. Instead, they distort reality in countless subtle ways. Lens effects, exposure settings, compression artifacts, software biases and more can have a dramatic impact on how any photograph appears to us. Yet we still often point to photographs as the ultimate manifestation of accuracy in imagery. “Wow! That drawing looks just like a photograph!”

Tracing a photo may seem like the quickest route to accuracy in drawing, but if that’s how you approach it, the distortions you fail to notice in your photo reference will carry over into your artwork. That, combined with the tendency mentioned above to trace simplistically, in a 2-dimensional way, can yield some pretty weird looking results. This can be quite discouraging, especially considering that tracing is supposed to be easy.

Check out our Drawing Basics course to acquire your fundamental drawing skill set.

Pitfall #5: Tracing Doesn’t Convey Your Unique Point of View

The final argument against tracing concerns who is really in control of your artwork. Part of what makes drawing by observation difficult is the sheer number of decisions you have to make while developing a drawing from start to finish. The relative success of your work depends to a large extent on how you choose to solve problems as they arise.

But this is also what makes drawing interesting and endlessly variable. Put ten master artists in a studio together, all drawing the same thing, and you’ll see ten different results. Each drawing will capture the subject faithfully, and yet each one will be unique because it is the product of an individual mind. Each artist will choose his or her own way to tackle any given problem, yielding different results. This is how individuality can shine through in artwork, even in the context of strict realism.

When you trace your work there is a huge number of decisions that you don’t get to make. Things like scale, placement, proportion, structure, and perspective in your drawing are all determined by whatever image you’re tracing. With so many decisions made for you, you don’t get to find out what your drawing would look like if you were to work those things out for yourself. In this way, tracing is restrictive. Instead of sharing what you see in your own unique way, you’re copying another perspective, whether that’s the camera or someone else’s eye.

Drawing by observation is always an act of revision and editing, correcting and refining. We make our own decisions based on how we perceive the subject and the page, which in turn creates an intimate view through the artist’s eye. It’s why we enjoy looking at the diversity of work in museums: to better understand the world those artists occupied, as they saw it, and to feel a kinship, an empathy, and to relate to the artist’s point of view and their place within history.

Our Final Word on Tracing

While we acknowledge that tracing has its place as a learning tool in specific contexts, we encourage you to challenge yourself to learn to draw without tracing. Being able to observe a subject from life, and make decisions about line, shape, scale, placement, proportion, perspective and curvature is difficult… but can also be gratifying. While tracing can be a tool in your toolbox, don’t allow it to become the only tool that you use.

Over to You

Do you ever trace when making your work? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

Don’t forget to download this list of five ways tracing can help improve your drawing skills.

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Comments

  1. Rhonda Blender

    This is an awesome article! I’ve done watercolor in the past but recently have taken up drawing as I like it and also think it will improve my painting. I’ve never taken a drawing class so I’m trodding along doing the best I can. I have used some tracing paper a few times but you are so right regarding it resulting in a cartoon effect! However, yesterday I tried drawing an eye freehand but using a grid. It still didn’t look right! So I took a piece of tracing paper and did the eye over my original. OMG. I was totally off in my freehand but I can’t figure out why!!! I told myself to just keep at it but I wish I knew why I was so off!

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      Rhonda, you’re in a situation that lots of students experience while learning to draw: seeing that your drawing isn’t right, but not knowing why, or how it got that way. Keep working. With practice (and some good instruction), you’ll begin to recognize mistakes you’ve made before and correct them… or even pre-empt them.

  2. Gihan Zohdy

    David thank you for this very incisive blog post, tracing is a sensitive and complex issue. I am personaly hostile towards tracing in order to create, the hand shpukd take orders from the brain and tap into the emotional side. I trace my own work when in the drawing phase in order to look through it, turn it upside down, add and subtract for compisitional purposes and colour scheme. Otherwise drawing is a skill to be learnt the way dancers practise at the gym and even better honed when relied on memory.

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      I think we agree, Gihan. Tracing has its place in studio practice – just not as a shortcut around the difficult business of developing drawing skills.

  3. Jonathan Gaetke

    David, Tracing is possibly like performing a “cover song” musically – your basically copying someone else’s decisions, although it can serve a purpose as you pointed out so well in your article.

  4. ronald

    im a professional tracer
    and its not how you get the thing on paper but how you blend and shade it

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      I’m not sure I’m with you there, Ronald. The linear stage of a drawing is where we consider many of the structural characteristics of the subject, which in turn impacts how we develop values later. IMO, a well-considered line drawing results in more successful light and shade development, and ultimately a better drawing.

  5. Ernest Treagus

    Why bother learning a skill when one cansimply cheat!

  6. sang lee

    Tracing is possibly useful in some way. For a long time ago when humans are only tools copying other drawings, I could say necessary work, but nowadays we have a camera. I know some people print out image and paint over the picture.
    Drawing is to extend human senses. That is why we need to spend a lot of time for practice .
    It could be the same as learning any musical instruments. We can trace the lines, but we can’t trace emotions.

  7. Judy Demchuk

    Thank you for writing this great article. I trace when I’m stuck on a part of my drawing. I use tracing as a problem solving tool. I will return to my drawing when I’ve figured out a soution. I prefer to draw freehand because it is a way for me to continue to develop my drawing skills.

  8. Red

    Thanks for posting, David. Tracing is something I have practiced for years as a professional artist. While saving time and energy tracing does have pitfalls and your article articulates them nicely. Thanks for the reminders.

    Wouldn’t an antithesis subject be fun? Ask how drawing and the practice of good drawing skills help one’s tracing?

    I often find that drawing skills benefit my final piece when my reference falls short.

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      Great point, Red. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but your ability to trace well, when the situation calls for it, is pretty much defined by your ability to draw. I consider the use of photo references in a similar way: using photos is fine, but you’ll use them more effectively if you also have plenty of experience drawing from life.

  9. Peter E Godfrey

    David, a great article. Another use that I have discovered is to use “tracing” as a check of a freehand drawing. Sometimes, a drawing just looks off and I can’t figure out why by measuring. I use a clear piece of acrylic and a grease pencil to outline the major reference points and then I can identify the problem.
    thanks again for the insights and the wonderful self study courses

  10. George D. Britnell

    Tracing is only part of the process of drawing. What you do after the outline has been created is what matters most. If you’re not an accomplished artist in whatever medium then the outline won’t help you much. Many years ago it was looked down on to use photographs for reference. The feeling was you weren’t an artist if you couldn’t come up with a piece from your mind or from a sketchbook. Today with digital cameras reference pictures are almost the norm. But here again as with tracing if you use the photo entirely for your work then it’s not creating but if you use them as a reference for your composition then that’s a different matter. I can create from my mind but for the sake of time I will use a tracing as a quick guide for my work.

  11. Anthony Waichulis

    David may I share this article on my Smartermarx site?

      1. Anthony Waichulis

        LOL! How could I be any other way? 😛
        Seriously though, it’s a great article with some excellent points. It will be shared in that light.

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