More thoughts about drawing, tracing, grids

Yeah, I have a lengthy, windbaggy post about tracing and grids on my main site (here).

I stumbled upon some other blogs which talk about this, and thought I’d bang out a bit more about this topic on my blog. Just because I feel like it.

As I say on my main tutorial site, getting into the habit of tracing photos (instead of getting proficient in freehand drawing) can be something that an artist can regret later. Or, they’ll always feel a bit on the defensive about it. It’s controversial. Each time I see a debate online about it, we have some purse-swinging, butthurt, argumentative people, on both sides of the aisle.

Why is that? Well, I think a few reasons.


First, I believe that there is an ingrained instinct in many of us to dislike a faker, a poser, someone who is passing themselves off as something they’re not. And whether it’s intentional or not, that’s what a lot of “tracers” seem to be doing. They show some artwork with beautiful accuracy, and onlookers are so impressed and call the artist “talented,” and exclaim, “I could never draw like that!” But the artist didn’t draw it! They may have shaded it, colored it, and those things are worthy of admiration too. But they didn’t get the proportions accurate themselves. But they never admit that, and keep on letting everyone gush to them about how well they “drew” it.

Surely it’s obvious why this rubs others (artists and non-artists) the wrong way, especially when it’s clear that the tracing artist knows what others are thinking, and does nothing to correct their misconception.


So, a lot of people say tracing is okay, it’s a time saver, and a lot of the greats (like Norman Rockwell) traced. Some will say that tracing can be used as a learning tool, to help understand anatomy. And that all can be true. So okay, it’s not a horrible evil sin to trace something, to get the job done as quickly as possible. But I find it problematic when you can tell the difference, in quality, between an artist’s traced work and their freehanded work. If one is easily spotted over the other (everyone can tell when you traced it vs. when you freehanded it) then you have a problem. How come you can’t get it right on your own? You say you trace to just save time, but it’s not just time you’re “saving.” You’re getting “accuracy” through tracing that you cannot get when you freehand.

Yes, it’s true that Norman Rockwell did trace many of his illustration projects. But Rockwell had an excellent education beforehand, and was very proficient in drawing and anatomy already. Can many of the artists who rely a lot on tracing say the same?


Many exemplary teachers (in particular figurative or portrait artists) strongly believe in working from life. In order to benefit from their teaching, attend their workshops, you have to be up to working from life, which means drawing—freehand! And you have to do it pretty quickly, too. No grids or agonizing over the drawing.

A while ago I witnessed this in person, when I attended a workshop taught by a wonderful figurative artist. Naturally, he wanted us students to work from life. Some of the the attendees of the workshop, while undoubtedly accomplished artists in many ways, struggled with the drawing portion of their work. Clearly they hadn’t practiced freehand drawing enough beforehand, and so instead of being able to receive more in-depth instruction on other aspects of figure/portrait painting (like values, edges, colors, etc) they spent an inordinate amount of time simply trying to get the drawing right.

I personally viewed this as a pity, because what a waste of time and money getting “Drawing 101” instruction from a teacher who had so many other amazing (and far more unique and advanced) things to share!


Let’s face it, I think a main reason for the “controversy” over tracing (vs. freehand drawing) is that freehand drawing takes practice and can be viewed as tedious.  So, when an art teacher or a fellow artist convinces someone that it’s okay to trace, there will be those who jump on it and don’t ever want to go back. They tell themselves that there’s no downside to tracing and “everyone does it” or something along those lines. So when some argument or controversy comes up about tracing, these artists get butthurt (pouty or petulant), because they don’t want to hear it! They’ll tell themselves that critics of excessive tracing are just snobs and purists, and there’s no real legitimate reason to censure it and that those who encourage freehand drawing are old stuffy fuddy-duddies. All sorts of arguments and excuses come up, and lots of butthurt is displayed. 😉

Yeah, sorry not sorry. I don’t want to sound mean, but the issues I bring up here are real, and eventually many artists will confront them. No, it’s not always considered okay to trace instead of getting better at drawing.

But, if you want to do it, do it loud and proud! Don’t get butthurt, and don’t be a faker. If you’re not ashamed, then don’t act defensively when it comes up, and don’t hide it. And, if you are ashamed, then ask yourself why?

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