Learn to draw by tracing a drawing, it’s not cheating!

drawing tracing

People often think that tracing a drawing is cheating and that it’s not an acceptable way to learn how to draw. Many people believe that tracing is a form of copying someone else’s work and that it doesn’t allow for any creativity or originality. 

Tracing can be a very helpful way to learn how to draw, as it allows you to focus on the actual act of drawing without worrying about whether you’re getting it right. By tracing a picture, you can slowly deconstruct the drawing process and figure out how to recreate it yourself.

Many professional artists use tracing as a way to study other artists’ work and improve their skills. So don’t be afraid to grab a sheet of tracing paper and give it a try! You may be surprised at how helpful it can be.

What is tracing and why do people do it?

Tracing is the practice of drawing on a transparent sheet of paper placed over an image to capture the lines and shapes of that image.

Tracing is often used as a drawing exercise to help improve skills and understanding of form, line, and shape. It can also be used to create a quick sketch or copy of an image.

Tracing has gotten a bad rap in recent years, with some people claiming that it doesn’t allow for any creativity or originality. 

I believe it is ok to trace as long as it is used as a learning tool and not your go to method of drawing.

The benefits of tracing

There are quite a few benefits to tracing drawings but I will call out the 4 main benefits below:

  • You can learn to draw faster by breaking down the image into its individual shapes.
  • Tracing helps improve your hand-eye coordination.
  • You can learn how another artist puts an image together and how the individual components fit together.

Is tracing a drawing cheating?

No, drawing is not cheating. Cheating would be if you were to trace an image and then claim it as your own original work.

If anyone says that tracing is cheating then they are either an immature artist or lack the experience to realize the benefits of tracing a drawing for learning purposes.

Tracing is a great way to learn how to draw. It can help you understand the construction of an image and how the different elements fit together.

Once you have learned the basics of drawing from tracing, you can start experimenting with your own ideas and methods.

Is tracing OK in drawing?

Tracing is actually ok in drawing, but as stated earlier it is best and most accepted as a learning tool or when you want to try something quickly.

Is tracing still considered art?

Tracing is still considered art, especially if you significantly transform the original artwork that you have traced. I find tracing to be no different from making photocopies of artwork and then using the resulting image in a collage piece.

Tracing can also be considered art if it is used as part of an homage artwork to an artist you like or for an artwork you like.

Is tracing art stealing?

No, tracing is not art stealing. If you trace an artwork and then sell it as your own, that is art stealing. But if you use tracing as a drawing tool to help you create your own unique artwork, then it is not art stealing.

Should I feel guilty about drawing by tracing?

No, you should not feel guilty. I learned how to draw by tracing my favorite cartoon characters and then favorite artworks over and over.

I used to struggle with drawing hands and the naked female form when I was a teenager and I overcame this limitation by tracing the works of artists I loved.

I did it so much that I could draw in a similar style without needing to trace an image anymore.

In fact, there is now an argument that many famous artists have used tracing to produce their famous artworks. One of those is my favorite artist, Vermeer. In this article, they claim that “recent research shows that he may have been tracing his paintings all along”.

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How to trace for the best results

There are a few things you can do to make sure you get the best results when drawing by tracing.

Use a lightbox: A lightbox is a tool that will illuminate the original drawing and help you see the image you are tracing more clearly. This is especially helpful if the image you are tracing is small or has a lot of detail.

When I was a kid I could not afford a lightbox so my artist hack was to tape a drawing to a glass surface like a window or sliding glass door and then overlay my drawing paper. The natural light coming through the glass allowed me to trace the drawing quite easily and cheaply. It worked so well I didn’t buy a lightbox until I was in my late 20s!

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Use graphite transfer paper: Graphite transfer paper is a great way to get the perfect lines when drawing by tracing. The paper is placed between your drawing paper and the image you are tracing. When you trace the lines of the image they are transferred to your drawing paper through the graphite on the transfer paper. This is a great way to get clean and accurate lines.

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Use tracing paper: Tracing paper is a thin paper that you can place over an image and trace the lines. This is a great way to get accurate lines when drawing by tracing. Tracing paper is also known as and sold as vellum.  I find vellum paper to be much thinner and finer than ordinary tracing paper.

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Vellum paper below (Amazon)

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Use a projector: A projector can be used to project an image onto your drawing paper. This makes it easier to see the lines of the image and trace them onto your drawing paper.

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Use a camera obscura: This tends to be an expensive and complicated tool that allows you to trace a real world image onto paper by projecting an image through a lens over a drawing surface which you then trace over. I managed to find quite a few cheaper examples that worked quite well.

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Trace the outline of the image first, then trace the inside lines and details second. Some artists like to trace all the lines from top down or from left to right but that does not reflect the way we naturally draw and by doing so we do not teach our muscles to develop that drawing memory. If you draw the outline first, you are training your brain to draw properly.

Tips for improving your tracing skills

There are lots of simple tips to help with your tracing skills. Some require simple and cheap tools that can be found around your home or easily purchased in a store or online.

Some simple tips for improving your tracing skills are:

  • Use a lightbox: A lightbox is a great way to improve your tracing skills. A lightbox is a tool that emits a bright light, making it easier to see the lines of an image.
  • Use suitable drawing tools: There are various drawing tools that can be used to trace an image. These include quality pencils, pens, markers, and even crayons.
  • Use a ruler: A ruler can be used to help you draw straight lines when tracing an image.
  • Use graph paper: Graph paper can be used to help you keep your lines straight when drawing by tracing.
  • Use a mirror: A mirror can be placed under your drawing paper to help you see the lines of the image and trace them.
  • You can trace a digital image directly from a computer or laptop screen. Find the image you wish to trace. Size it to your needs and then attach a piece of paper over your screen using a soft light pencil, and trace your digital image.
  • If you are a digital artist, you can trace drawings using various apps such as GIMP and Procreate. These applications allow you to upload your source image and then you can apply a new drawing layer where you can trace the original image onto the new drawing layer once you are done you can delete the origin drawing layer, leaving you with the traced image layer.

Tracing drawings wrap up!

So, is drawing by tracing cheating? No, it’s not. Cheating would be if you were to trace someone else’s drawing and then claim it as your own.

But if you are using tracing as a tool to help you learn how to draw, then it is perfectly acceptable. In fact, many professional artists use tracing as a way to create new artworks based on old ones. So go ahead and give it a try! You might be surprised at how helpful it can be.


Tracing paper and pencils – every hotel room should have them” by photojenni is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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