Tracing: what’s your view?


Today’s photo is of a coloured pencil drawing I did of shadows on a piece of bark, from Lake St. Clair, Tasmania.

In all my years at Art School in Hobart, I can’t remember any reference to tracing in our drawing studies. The thought of tracing and art didn’t come together for me then, and they still don’t today.

Making art is about your personal interpretation of an idea, object, image or message. Tracing is reproducing (imitating) something already there. You can’t show your style when tracing and surely art is about personal style. It’s your style that differs you from all other artists. Your way of seeing the world is unique to you and you should strive to be as individual as you can.

 Sure, traced artwork looks great, especially if it’s accurate, but is this merely imitation. Is imitation really art? Is this what illustration is all about? Is it craft? People love accuracy and detail, but how original is the idea? I have no problem with artists tracing drawings they have already made to another surface. The hard work has been done, why do it all over again? Michelangelo traced his drawings onto the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for a good reason and he did a great job too!

 I often use a grid when blocking out my work. A grid is not tracing, it’s an accurate way of scaling up (or down) your work. This method is very handy when the right proportion is required. I set up objects and photograph them, manipulate them on my computer and print them, usually to A4 size, then grid them up. I choose my own colour schemes and surfaces to work on. I also draw from life and from  my imagination.

 From what I’ve seen on the Internet from across the world as far as coloured pencil art is concerned, is the popularity of photo-realism. Why is this so? Why are so many, fixated on clinical accuracy? When the coloured pencil “look” is “lost” and it resembles flat paint, what is this saying? Is coloured pencil a poor medium to work with? Of course it’s not! Shouldn’t coloured pencil look like coloured pencil? Is there an inferiority complex here? I hope not. We do not need to “compete” against other art mediums.

 For those requiring an income from their art, market forces often dictate what they create. This is sad as it often sees artists paint what is popular, not what they would really like to paint.

 As an art judge, what do you do when you think a work has been traced? I must admit, I get concerned when I see every part of every wave in a seascape fitting together like a jigsaw. It’s perfect, too perfect.

 There are no doubt many artists who will strongly disagree with my views on tracing, who see it as a justified way of creating their art and I accept that. I suppose I am more interested in art that grabs my attention not for its realism, but for its style and personal way of expression. What do you think?


About artkleko

artist, art curator, art teacher, art judge, art critic
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9 Responses to Tracing: what’s your view?

  1. Belinda says:

    I am wondering whether you have been thinking about this from my post this week which is in regards to tracing?

    I disagree with your point that tracing is merely imitation, but i suppose it depends on the artist itself and how they use the trace. If you trace an photo and work exactly to the photo then yes i suppose you can share this viewpoint. But if you are composing your own photographs, utilising your other drawing skills and experience to use the trace as a positioning point or for porportions … (if you like the same way you are using a grid as way to reference one point to another ) and then ontop of that are changing and altering the trace as you go along then i see the tracing technique the same as a tool much like a ruler or grid or any other device to use as a reference. as you go along in the artworks progression you are constantly changing the tracing lines and working over them especially in coloured pencil. You need to know how things are in a 3D form with light and shade and contours etc. this information you cannot get from a photo or a trace.

    i dont think all coloured pencil work should be in the realism style but i think the medium lends itself to that in a certain way because of all the layers and techniques typically used as well as time it takes to do. i think this issue is just not indicative of coloured pencil artworks it would happen in many other mediums.. just because someone can paint in oils with great skill doesn’t mean the make a great artworks … it means they can paint well 🙂

    i believe that there are many tools along the way many artists use…just because some tracing is used in artwork does not mean that the artwork is void of artistic style or skill or that is simple imitation … there is much that goes into it. to view all artists who trace as such it think is a limited view.
    that’s just my view point 🙂

  2. Yvonne says:

    After thinking about this long and hard, I am not in favour of tracing a photo and then painting it. Why not become a photographer instead of an artist? I half agree with Belinda, in that it’s a means to an end, so long as the work does not mimic a photo. I recently saw some lovely paintings in an exhibition, but they were just too perfect! for my liking.
    I don’t like the thought of artists not trying to use their drawing skills just because it’s easier to trace.

  3. Ann KUllberg says:

    Well…I have all sorts of comments, but I’ll limit it to this one…

    Having taught gobs of Colored Pencil Portrait workshops over the last 15 years, I’ve learned that tracing is the farthest thing from imitation! In workshop after workshop, I have my students “trace” the provided line drawing onto their drawing paper. Never have I seen a “perfect” tracing, or perfect replica of the line drawing. Never. Having seen literally hundreds of portraits drawn from the traced image, I can tell you that there have never been two identical portraits drawn. Everyone infuses themselves into the tracing, pure and simple. A tracing, in fact, is as personal as a drawing.

    So with no worries at all that it is mere imitation, I have no qualms about tracing.

    Well…and on top of all that, I have never understood those who question any artist’s methods. It just seems so very “anti-art” to me! 🙂

  4. I agree with Ann. Tracing is a great way to begin working with a photograph to design a piece. (my work is in fiber). In tracing you can establish basic lines, but the quality of the line is entirely personal. also the choices as to which details you trace, and which you ignore. Once you have the tracing, then you can put away the photo and develop ideas from the tracing, cropping, distorting, layering, duplicating with a freedom that is difficult to achieve if you’re focussing on a free drawing. From one tracing I have often developed several different designs.
    In my workshops too, I start everyone with tracing and observe from that in how many different directions they go.
    Tracing is a great tool to help us step away from being overly realistic!

  5. Martin says:

    I have only one serious argument against tracing: it is EXTREMELY boring !

  6. Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a bottle of beer to the person from that forum who told me to go to your blog 🙂

  7. Pirsey says:

    Not that I’m impressed a lot, but this is more than I expected when I stumpled upon a link on Delicious telling that the info is awesome. Thanks.

  8. evelyn says:

    I believe in flexibility and individual choice so if tracing is useful for speed, developing confidence, as a starting point… whatever that is OK. I have seen some of my students develop confidence and improve visual perception and attention to angles and proportion (thus drawing ability) through tracing. However I have also seen this as a limitation to progress and a crutch that is hard to throw away. It all comes down to the individual and the teacher who is guiding them …. and the purpose for their art.
    Your point about coloured pencil looking like coloured pencil prompts me to share and interesting observation over the past few years. On more than one occassion I have heard on photography “isn’t that photo wonderful, it looks just like a painting! …. and about a photorealistic painting “isn’t that amazing, it looks just like a photo!”.
    I hope my paintings look like paintings. although I don’t mind my photos looking a bit painterly.

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