Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly averse to some forms of artistic “cheating”. But, a week or two ago, I was watching an old Youtube video by an absolutely excellent drawing teacher called Shoo Rayner and he started to talk about tracing.
He was quite emphatic that tracing isn’t cheating and he provided some fairly interesting arguments to back up his ideas (and he has another, more interesting video about tracing here). It’s worth watching these videos just to hear his views on the subject and to make up your own mind. Even so, I have to disagree very strongly about this whole subject.
I believe that tracing is one of the worst ways that an artist can cheat herself or himself when they are learning how to draw.
“Cheating” your audience in order to impress them (eg: by creating the illusion of a complex background with just a few lines, digitally editing your art, using watercolour pencils instead of actual watercolours etc…) is perfectly acceptable in most circumstances, but you should never ever cheat yourself.
You can never become even fairly competent at drawing if you cheat yourself and skip over some of the basic skills that every artist should learn. Simply tracing something bypasses all sorts of useful skills which you should really practice and learn as much as you can.
Yes, tracing will show you the basic actions which you need to perform in order to draw something. Yes, you will have a very precise copy of another picture at the end of it. If you’ve very lucky, you might even pick up a few drawing techniques by simple repetition and copying.
Tracing isn’t a completely useless way to practice, but there are much better ways to learn how to draw through copying.
I am, of course, talking about copying things the really old-fashioned way. I’m talking about looking at a picture and copying it by eye, without using tracing paper. Yes, this is a lot more difficult than just tracing something – but, well, tracing wouldn’t be cheating if it was difficult, would it?
Yes, copying things by eye takes a lot more practice to get right (and, for heaven’s sake, don’t get discouraged by your early attempts at it). But, once you’ve eventually learnt how to do this, you’ll be able to draw anything. You’ll be able to draw still life pictures, you’ll be able to look at several reference images and draw something new from them.
Although I’ve never really had any formal art classes (apart from three years of pre-GCSE art lessons in secondary school), this is probably why art schools teach life drawing rather than tracing.
Not only that, copying things by eye forces you to actually think about what you are drawing. It forces you to pay careful attention to the proportions, the shading, the detail and the shapes in the picture you are trying to copy. Not only will you be copying a picture, you will be studying it and learning from it.
In addition to this, copying more complex images (like photographs and old paintings) by eye also makes you focus on the most important elements of the original picture. It forces you to simplify the original picture as much as you can, without losing the essence of what it looks like. If you are in any way interested in drawing comics, cartoons, caricatures etc… then this is probably the most important skill you can learn.
Yes, your copies will never look exactly the same as the original picture either, but this is a good thing. It allows your own art style and individuality to shine through. It allows you to learn more about your own artistic style and preferences. You won’t get any of this if you simply trace another picture.
Best of all, although your picture will still be a copy – it will be your copy. Your unique interpretation of the original picture. To put it another way, it is like the difference between a band covering a song in their own musical style and a band simply miming and lip-synching to a recording of the original song.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you plan to sell (or possibly even just publish) anything you’ve copied, then make sure that it’s either a copy of something that has gone out of copyright and/or it fits into whatever “fair use”/”fair dealing” laws you have in your country. And, yes, current copyright rules are unfair as hell and need serious reform – but that’s a subject for another article.
To give you an example of what I mean by copies being your own interpretation of a picture, here is Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s “The Laundress” (taken from here):
Now, here is my copy of it:
As you can see, the two pictures look slightly different from each other. Yes, they are both versions of the same picture, but my “cover version” of Lautrec’s painting is in a slightly different style to the original. I’d never have been able to do this if I’d just traced Lautrec’s picture.
So, although tracing might be an easier way to learn how to draw things, it really isn’t the best way to learn.
Yes, copying things the really old-fashioned way is a lot more difficult and you’ll probably fail quite a few times before you get it right. But you will learn about ten times more from every one of those failures than you could learn from a hundred “successful” traced copies of something.
Tracing is cheating. And the only person that you are really cheating is yourself.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂