The Problem with Tracing:
more and more as we continue our daily streaming, Dave and I are approached for opinions regarding a clearly divisive topic in the world of illustration. The topic, if you haven't guessed, is that of tracing in regards to finishing work. I say 'finishing work' and not 'studying' because, once you're mindlessly mapping lines to a referential cheat sheet, you stop learning altogether, and become a mere copier and slave to whatever reference you happen to be using. this might sound like extreme language at first, but trust me ill back it up with some real world reasons why this idea is so dangerous to the developing artist. bear with me as I go through a small list that highlights the dangers and pitfalls of adopting tracing methods too early in ones career, as well as dispelling some myths others use to try and back up why this method of working is 'harmless'.
***for the record, before we begin- tracing an image you've done from canvas to canvas, or blowing it up from sketch to painting, is not a trace. this is called transferring, and it is completely ok.
1) Tracing and the student
This response to tracing(and our hatred for it) spawns almost entirely from an educational standpoint. if an instructor tells students who listen to him that tracing is acceptable, he's creating a large problem for several reasons. the first, of couse, is that by definition the instructor is above the student in terms of skill and knowledge. their tracing might be used after years of supplemental anatomy and form study, and they may truly know how to execute a piece of human form well with or without the direct reference. a student, who hears this is an acceptable method, will then adopt it, but far too early, before gaining any real knowledge or skill in rendering the human figure, and it will thusly become a crutch to them instead of a time saving tool. it should be clearly understood that in art one only learns by maiming mistakes, learning to see around them, and remedying them in later work. tracing defeats this mentality by offering the student an illusion of success- a near perfect line drawing of whatever his subject matter may be without all the meaningful trouble of screwing up, fixing, and learning fundamental knowledge. once this is accepted as commonplace illustration behavior, the student will then begin to use it for more and more things, essentially freezing his growth as a draftsman and making him a slave to whatever photographic base he can find for his work. understand that, when your method's core is rooted in photographs, your work becomes a direct product of the photos quality. if all you could find was a grainy piece of ref on google, then your final render will subsequently suck in direct correlation.
2) The Deadly Illusion
Next, im going to address a real world scenario ive seen happen several times in the industry. when it does, the artist responsible is almost always ashamed and sometimes even laughed at by his peers, and it creates a severe stigma against them professionally. This unfortunate outcome is the product of what vie decided to call the deadly illusion- a facade of quality laid over ones portfolio through tricks and cheats to gain quick, and fake, results. when desperate for work and developing, artists who trace heavily undoubtedly feel they have an edge over their competitors. after all, why wouldn't they? theres no room for error when you're copying reality, right? unfortunately, there is, and its been the cause of several ruined careers and useless portfolios over the years. lets say, for example, that you've just gotten your big break. the job of a lifetime has finally come and its time to step into the world of real life illustration! the prompt is in hand, the art director has guided you in terms of whats expected, and its time to render. you sit down, buckle up, and begin the dig for reference. your cameras ready, you're pumped up to begin, and then you realize- you don't know anyone 8 feet tall with rippling muscles and a stern but caring shaved male head. the fear begins to set in. your portfolio was all directly traced material- it was crisp and without many flaws, those 3/4 face drawings were spot on! you simply cant get the same results without the same working materials! so inevitably, only 2 things can happen. you buck up, try your best, and inevitably disappoint your art director (losing you your big shot)- or, you dig an even deeper hole, sink into google image search, and find your perfect model. both are bad, but one is far worse. for the sake of the story, lets continue down this path and show you just how bad it can get.
your google image tracings were spot on! the art director loved the characters face and features, as well as his accurate musculature and well drawn form. in fact, he loved them so much he wants you to do 10 more illustrations of the same character- after all, you really nailed it. so obviously you're the man for the job! frantically you run back to google. wheres the model? what was his name? you begin to sweat and type and search and panic and slowly you begin to realize you'll never find pictures of that same man again. hell never be in new poses, hell never be making new faces, and you'll never be able to recreate the quality of that first illustration. its pretty easy for your AD to piece it together from there. you're no longer the man for the job. this is how tracing becomes a crutch, and not a tool. this is how it destroys careers. this is how it ruins students.
3) But didn't the masters do it?
Yes and no. mostly no. allow me to explain.
The mythos of masters like da vinci tracing or pinning to complete their imagery is an incredibly flawed view of what was really the case, as is the view of todays illustration masters using the same techniques. in reality, artists like leonardo were apprenticed under master painters early on as children, and learned day and night how to better their skills in anatomy, light, color, and form all the way into adulthood when they were allowed to leave their masters care and tutelage. what this means is that before learning the tracing techniques they may have used, they had already grown past a point of needing to rely on them. they were no longer students, and could draw as well with a reference as without one. at this stage, tracing becomes a means to an end, a shortcut to a quicker deadline, and a way to satisfy an unrealistic amount of customers within a realistic deadline. all the horror and fear of what we discussed in the deadly illusion no longer apply, because the trace is no longer necessary to guarantee a uniform quality in ones work. In the modern day, the same is true, and on an entirely new scale with the advent of the camera. one of the most frequent defenses for tracing we encounter is the norman rockwell myth- namely that he took and traced many photos to get his results, which makes it ok for everyone to do so. the inherent flaws in this logic is obvious for 2 reasons- the first being that many of norman rockwells faces are idealized, stylized, and caricatured, meaning they cannot exist in nature, and the second being that before taking and 'tracing' things onto his canvases he was already norman rockwell- an artist of considerable skill who had trained for years in fundamental illustrative knowledge. if you don't believe me, consider the fact that at age 14 rockwell was transferred from traditional high school to the chase school of art, then to the national academy of design, and eventually the art students league, where he was taught figurative art and anatomy by none other than George Bridgman. by the time he was of age and working as an illustrator, he had already mastered many concepts some of us barely even grasp. was it ok for 20 something norman rockwell to trace to get something down? yes. the average beginning artist is not 20 something norman rockwell. theres a time and a place for tools like tracing, and they only exist after you no longer need them. in art, tools should always only be for saving time, and never for making you look like something you're not.
I sincerely hope this dispels any sort of rumor you might still give credibility to regarding tracing. if it doesn't, please, don't contact us. we're not here to argue. the truth of the matter is we run the crimson daggers study group entirely out of a passion for fundamental learning, and really don't care to argue with people defending tricks and tracing. if you've read all we've provided above and still think its ok to lean on so severe a crutch in your professional development, we wish you luck. well be here, for free, to help you figure out the right way to do it when you fail.
Daniel Warren and David Rapoza.