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Is tracing cheating in art? | Multimillion-selling artists weigh in

Have you ever heard people saying tracing a drawing is bad? Telling you you shouldn’t trace because you’re not going to learn how to draw for real this way? Well, let me tell you: they are wrong.

Tracing is not cheating in art. In fact, a lot, if not most professional artists trace when it comes to professional work. Even the old masters did it and their work sells for millions. However, there is an important note: tracing becomes a bad habit when it replaces the skill needed to create art.

Keep reading to find out exactly when tracing becomes a bad habit, and when it’s totally okay to do!

Is tracing a good practice?

Tracing becomes a good practice when it teaches you how to draw things correctly. This can be done through studies. After you draw from a reference picture you trace that picture. Then, you compare your free-hand drawing to the traced drawing.

This way you learn from your mistakes and improve next time. How else are you expecting to draw certain subjects? By just drawing and hoping for the best?

The only way to know you accurately captured a subject is to trace that subject. You do this by taking a photograph and tracing it. You then look at your linework and can notice new things:

  • What are the actual proportions of the subject?
  • How does foreshortening play a role?

A side-by-side comparison leads to identifying your mistakes. Write them down and keep them near you next time you draw this subject.

How to trace an image

An image can be traced in a number of ways:

  • Tracing by creating your own transfer paper
  • Using a drawing tablet
  • Using a projector

You can easily trace by hand with supplies you already own. All you need is a pencil, your canvas, and the image you want to trace. That’s it!

A drawing tablet, like an iPad, can be used with drawing software like Procreate. Simply add the image you want to trace, and create a new layer. Lower the opacity of the image and trace on the new layer.

A projector is most commonly used on big canvases or when you draw murals. You can find special art projectors specifically made for these situations.

Is tracing considered stealing?

Tracing is considered stealing when you trace an image a photographer has taken. A photograph is thoroughly thought over. Not only the lighting has thought behind it, but it might also have cleverly placed subjects. Creating a composition is a skill that can’t just be copied.

The photograph may have even been altered digitally to reflect the photographer’s vision. This way you steal the photographer’s concept if you trace it.

Unlike what most people think, the actual skill of painting or drawing isn’t only in creating outlines or a sketch.

Creating visual art exists out of 3 components:

  • Ideation: coming up with ideas that tell a story
    • Skill requirement: fantasy
  • Visually write down those ideas to create a concept
    • Skill requirement: Conceptualize
  • Executing the concept
    • Skill requirement: Sketching/Drawing/Painting/Shading/Etc.

Copying one of these three components is a no-no. However, if you do it for educational practices I personally think it’s okay. As long as you don’t share it with anyone else. Keep it to yourself.

Famous artists who trace

Did you know there are world-famous artists who (allegedly) traced?

Here are 5 famous artists who (might have) traced:

  • Albrecht Durer
  • Johannes Vermeer
  • Andy Warhol
  • Thomas Eakens
  • Da Vinci

It’s of course impossible to straight up ask them whether they traced their paintings or not. Even if someone at the time did ask them, most likely they would’ve denied it.

There are some scientists that are currently trying to discover whether or not some famous paintings have been traced. This controversial question has been going around for quite a few years inside the art community.

Reasons, why great painters like Da Vinci and Vermeer are thought to have traced, include:

  • Some paintings are incredibly realistic
  • A lot of people represented in the paintings are left-handed

Camera obscura

Vermeer’s portraits are incredibly realistic. So realistic one wonders how he achieved this. In his time, camera obscura may have been the answer.

Camera obscura is a dark room with a small hole in the wall. The small hole lets in the light which comes from the outside of the room. The light then projects the scene behind the small hole onto the wall opposite of the hole.

camera obscura is tracing cheating

The image a camera obscura creates is upside down and mirrored. When a painter places their canvas right where the image is projected, the scene can be exactly traced.

This is why it’s believed that painters might have used camera obscura to trace people. Whilst it’s easy to trace an upside-down image (just rotate the canvas after you’re done), you can’t mirror the image.

This results in right-handed people being portrayed as left-handed.

Are famously (traced) artworks still worth millions?

The paintings of the old masters are still incredibly well done. Sketching or drawing the outline of a subject is only part of the painting process.

The choosing of colors, mixing, composition and rendering includes a lot of different skills that can’t be achieved by tracing. Most likely the artists could’ve done without tracing anyway.

But why go through all of this work when buyers won’t know it anyway?

Do you still think it’s bad to trace?

Is it OK to recreate art?

It is typically not okay to recreate art. However, recreating art is a fantastic way to learn how to draw or paint. The key thing is to only recreate art for improvement’s sake. It’s important to keep this to yourself and not to post your recreated work anywhere.

After all, you only ”own” the part where you execute the part. The other 2/3rds of the process was done by somebody else, and that credit should remain theirs.

Is it okay to trace in digital art as long as you keep to the rules. In fact, tracing digitally is one of the easiest ways to trace.

Is tracing in Procreate considered cheating?

Tracing in Procreate is not considered cheating as long as you don’t claim to have made the artwork from scratch. Tracing to save time is perfectly acceptable. It’s a lot more educative than most people think.

Here’s an article that explains how to trace in Procreate in 3 simple steps.

When tracing is not cheating

Here are 3 reasons why you might want to trace an image:

1. You want your messy sketch to be transferred to a blanc piece of paper

Watercolor paper is very delicate. If you’re a messy sketcher like I am, you’re going to have to erase a lot of lines to get clean line-art.

Going to town with an eraser on watercolour paper is not a good idea. The rubbing of the eraser will cause damage to the paper.

You won’t see it right away, but as soon as you’re going over it with watercolour you can see the paper will not take the paint very well. It will leave white spots.

2. You are learning a new medium

When learning a new medium, it’s a good idea to focus on the medium itself. If you eliminate the distractions of having to draw something intricate, you can focus on your new medium.

This way you also know that if it doesn’t look right, it’s about how you’re handling your technique and not your drawing abilities.

3. You want to know how to draw something

Tracing over reference pictures is actually a great way to see how things actually are. Often people make mistakes by drawing what they think they see, rather than drawing what they actually see.

Example: Lots of (beginner) artists tend to draw eyes very big. They do this because eyes are such an important, if not the most important part of the face we recognize, we tend to draw things bigger.

By tracing a face you can compare your drawing with your reference. Now you can notice the things you did wrong like proportions and shapes.

Current contemporary artists who trace

Did you know that professional artists often trace? I once heard a successful professional portrait artist say she always traces her portraits. She often shows her process on social media by posting sketches and studies.

But when she receives commissions, she traces. 

It’s not about proving yourself.

At first, you might think this sounds scammy. But think about it. Commissioned art isn’t about proving yourself.

Drawing the outlines of a portrait is incredibly time-consuming. Why do all of this work when you know you have the skill to do it? 

The outlines of a portrait are merely guidelines and often won’t show in the final result. It’s only a part of the process, not the outcome. A lot more goes into rendering the drawing.

Then why are there so many people telling you tracing is bad? Well, they are talking about people who take credit for something they didn’t draw.

A lot of time goes into developing drawing skills. It would be unfair to claim you can do something so many others struggle to learn.

As long as you’re honest it’ll be fine

Finally: if you don’t have the skill to draw something yet, just trace it! Who cares?

The most important thing is don’t take credit for something you didn’t do. Don’t lie to other people, but most importantly: don’t lie to yourself. 

Be confident enough to say: I don’t know how to do this yet, so I did it with some help. I lack the skill as of now, but I will learn how to do this one day. 

So, next time you see a comment under a Pinterest pin that says: ”It’s not fair, the people in the pin are tracing a drawing, so it doesn’t count!” you can shrug it off because you know better.

Remember: art has to be fun. Why else do it? It’s not only about getting the best results, it’s about having a good time!

♡ Laura

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