Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tracings ok, right?

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. 

with love,

Daniel Warren and David Rapoza.


  1. *virtual claps* finally someone explains it properly with reasons no one else can deny, I couldn't agree more!

  2. If someone were to look at the Leda and the Swan painting or Madonna on the Rocks they'd see just how much Davinci didn't rely on tracing. After all there's no such thing as a baby with a chiseled physique.

  3. Awsome post, fully agree, i didn't even think this was an issue, but unfortunately i haven't spent much time on you guys' streams, so i guess you get all kinds of questions, and i'm glad you are taking your time to make your points clear.

    I'll have to point this one out thou':
    "in art one only learns by maiming mistakes" i'll assume that was a type-o.. a funny one too :))

  4. What did the Masters trace ? pictures from Google ? haha.

    I can tell you that what they used to do is go out and search for people and sketch them to create a big library for a upcoming piece just so they could chose a face to paint but even if after that they would have traced, it was they're own work that they were tracing.

    Example Michelangelo Buonarroti that's exactly what he did, every time he got a new painting or sculpture to do he went on this adventure of finding suitable models for his work and then worked and probably even traced for that work, but there is a big difference because one he traced his own work and two this came after years of study and mutilated corpses in that morgue.

    Good job Dan and Dave

  5. Even though I agree with the post, I don't understand the nature of it. If it's not up for debate or discussion, as mentioned in the end of the post, then why post this? If you aren't posting this for a discussion or debate, then why argue for your case, rather than just stating your thoughts?

    It's fine to be opinionated, but one should also be open-minded. I know you are simply trying to help people, but it's very hard to be open-minded and learn from a narrow-minded person. I think dismissing any query about the topic is the wrong approach.

  6. Great read, you said it perfectly man. Hopefully lots of unaware art students read this because its definetely something they need to know so they dont have that option in their mind. What a bad road to take!

  7. @Bota. When Dan was talking about the old masters tracing I taught of this
    Although Im not sure when it was used or by who, its definetely an effective way to trace something from life.
    It works using a grid that you can copy square to square.
    I wouldnt be oppose to that, under the circumstances that Dan laid out, its a quick way to satisfy unrealistic deadlines as Dan said.

  8. i try to be open minded about as many things as i can in art. style, direction, culture, method, audience, color, etc. anything that spawns from a creative place is something i honor and admire. however, i cant be open minded about something that limits creativity, puts it in a box, and stunts all the potential of the artist at work.

    i wanna state that i didnt post this as an argument for tracing, im not trying to choose a side. there are no sides on this topic and there is no debate. anyone accomplished in figurative art will tell you the same things ive stated, i merely put it all up here so i wouldnt have to give speeches about it on the stream anymore.

    1. I saw the on-demand stream yesterday and it does make the reasoning of this post somewhat more clear. As I said, I do agree with the post, but to me it comes off a little patronising and dismissive. If someone loves tracing, I think they'd rather listen to someone say "study with us, and you'll be way better at art." rather than someone saying "tracing is shit, and you will be shit."

      It's fine if you disagree, it's just my opinion :)

    2. i agree that im using strong language and it can seem alienating and offensive to some people, especially if they use the technique. But i didnt wanna leave any room for question, and i wanted to stress the seriousness of what can happen. after going to an art school that promotes tracing for 4 whole years, ive seen what the results of using it does to people. out of all my friends who graduated, even the talented ones, none of them were able to find work because of the photo crutch, and to make it worse, none of them knew how to start over on a portfolio- leaving them in debt and jobless.

      i do apologise to anyone this offended, but the matters close to my heart and it gets me mad. amyone who comes to the streams knows im willing to help whoever, free, daily, and that this article was a product of an entire week of arguing and trying to stress my point to several individuals who refused to accept our help. i do appreciate the input though, and apologize if i offended.

    3. Yeah, I'm sure everyone appreciates all the effort you do with your stream, it's awesome that you are willing to do all the work you do with the stream as well as everything else involved with the Crimson Daggers :)

  9. You do yourself a disservice when you post information like this without things like simple punctuation, grammar and formatting. I hope that you take this as constructive criticism because I admire your efforts to help people and I do not want to convey any disdain towards you or this blog. In my humble opinion a post like this one tells me that your lazy and if I were looking to hire you to create some art for me, I would surely presume this lack of effort would exist in your art.

    Im hoping your looking for real feedback on this blog and not just a load of amateur ass-pats.

    1. "Im hoping your looking for real feedback"... You do know that uncle Google can re-check your punctuation and grammar mistakes like "I'm" and "you're / you are" if you're about to talk about correct way of writing... Also, If I were to hire you in to create some lame ass critiques about punctuation for me, I would surely presume this lack of effort would exist in your brain :)

      Best regards,
      Professional Amateur ass-pat.

    2. Your?? really?? so according to your logic you should be homeless right?

  10. Jeanie, if you knew anything about me you'd realize that I stream for a minimum of ten hours a day and teach for free through my livestream channel. Aside from this I also manage commissioned work, lead contests with Dave Rapoza to better the group, do an hour of live crits daily for free to help people in the group, and promote our members tirelessly through goldenboy challenges and on several forums. The fact that youd even insinuate im lazy with no backing knowledge about the amount of work I do daily, live, for anyone to join in on just reinforces my original thought that your previous post comes from a place of embarrassment and ignorance. Im not an art superhero, and Im not by any means good or deserving of any kind of ego. What I am though, beyond any question, is a hard worker. I love feedback on things open for discussion in the arts. I consistently promote engaging in ideas that aren't my area of focus or study daily on my stream. however, some things aren't open due to the common sense behind them being detrimental to the community. Tracing, plagiarism, and color picking are my only topics closed for discussion. If you disagree thats fine, but dont expect me to agree after an article like the one I wrote. Instead, start your own blog, do your own ten hour livestreams, and when your watchers ask your opinions, share them. I promise I wont troll your site and argue about it, despite how I might feel. Sorry if theres a ton of ignorant typos in there, I'm sure it makes me look completely unfounded, but I think I remedied most of them. Be sure to let me know if I missed any! I wouldnt wanna lose any major art jobs by missing a capital letter somewhere.

  11. For learning to draw and paint and otherwise illustrate, this is absolutely on the head. There are only two times that I really ever see using tracing for anything helpful.

    1) Learning Anatomy.. tracing over the muscles in a photo to better understand how they lay. Even doing this requires that you go back and apply what you just learned though.

    2) Inking for sequential work. I'll caveat this by saying that if you are inking, hopefully you already have a sound understanding of all the other techniques. Doing this is recommended by many sequential art professionals (Joe Kubert actually flat out tells you to do this in his correspondence course) for people wanting to learn to ink who aren't interested in doing pencils. Scott Williams inks pretty much all of Jim Lee's stuff these days but practicing on tracings of Jim Lee's pencil work (not Scott's inked work) will give you pencils to work from to learn how to ink. This is pretty much the same concept as the transferring idea Dan talks about but the pencils themselves might come from someone else. Just like quoting someone's text, if you ink someone's pencils for your portfolio, only take credit for your inking and not the other person's pencils.

  12. mike-

    those are obviously not what i was talking about, as neither are used to create final portfolio work. as for the second one you bring up, youre tracing your own art with a pen to not mess it up, and thats a good idea. many people trace originals to do ink transfers and other things. totally in agreement.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Interesting debate. Greg Manchess (imho a modern master) just published an article on the issue.

    1. ooo some very good points from greg. thanks for this, ima share.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. wow that last comment you and dave wrote was really sweet.

  16. Amen, brother!

    I studied illustration some years ago, and they were doing the tracing garbage back then too. I wouldn't do it. I knew instinctively that it would not be good for me. Of course by the time I got to art school, I'd already been drawing freehand for years and while I needed much more improvement, at least I could *draw.* But that was partly why I knew what they were saying was bull. I had already learned "too much" to think that I was "good enough" and there was so much more I knew I needed to be able to do well before I could "allow" myself to trace. (I'm still not good enough and I still don't allow myself to trace! I ain't Norman Rockwell!)

    They only harm themselves. I saw an epic meltdown in school because this one guy (whom I liked) never learned to draw and freaked when expected to draw from a live model in class.

    Even if you aren't getting into illustration, if it's any sort of art where you could be asked to modify something, draw from life, whatever, you are selling yourself short if you skip the drawing and "save time" by tracing. You are the one who ends up looking stupid and like a loser in the end.

  17. Hi, I'm taking an A-Level Fine Art course in college in which our teacher not only states that tracing (with regards to monoprinting and photo transfer) is a useful tool but actually instructs us to use it as a compulsory technique.

    We are in the exam unit of our 1st year now, and our weekly task schedule states for the first three weeks that among other tasks we have to produce two monoprints, two A3 Biro tracings on tissue paper (I've never been able to find any articles or threads of such a technique on any art website) and four A5 acetate tracings.

    These are all techniques in which we have been taught to trace (both in drawing AND shading) directly over the photograph itself. Actually, having looked into the techniques of both monoprinting and monotyping, the technique we've been taught to use appears to be more like the latter, which leads me to believe my art class has been misinformed.

    Would it be okay to print off the article you and David have written about the whole subject of tracing to show my art teacher what a professional artist has to say about tracing and its reputation as a legitimate learning tool and art technique? I'm not saying I want to discuss this subject further; I just want to print off the article, please.

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Kieran,

      feel free to do with this article whatever you like. this is, to this day, a very divisie issue in the art community, with really worthwhile people on both sides with lots of opinions to share.

      i will say, however, that because you mentioned being in a fine art course, as opposed to illustration, the thing i listed above might not be so relevant.

      as an illustrator, i approached the issue and the problems with it from that angle, and not as a fine artist. we often have to work on very tight deadlines and turn in work within the same week or the very next day, so the problems of needing photos compound drastically. in fine arts, and especially academic (learning) fine arts, tracing is less of a crutch. it may be used as a step in achieving atelier style work by trying to teach you a photorealistic way of shading or blocking in forms-- i cant say for certain as i am not in your course.

      however, i still believe drawing from life and old masters still leads you to retain more of the skill and knowledge, no matter what. it forces us to see out worst flaws and work around and through them to achieve better results. if you think this article or any of the extended commentary will help you on either side of the argument, feel free to use it. thanks for reading!


    2. "we often have to work on very tight deadlines and turn in work within the same week or the very next day"

      While our deadlines aren't as tight, we often get given a week or so to produce usually around two to five drawings (depends on scale I think). That seems to me to be rather like your scenario especially for producing a drawing for the next day. Add this to three more A level subjects which I need to be working almost as many hours on collectively, and it's almost like a balancing act of one or the other.

      What i'm especially worried about is trying to draw something in the sort of perspective you might not be able to find on google; if you're never taught any general proportional ratios to use, as you said yourself: "you stop learning altogether, and become a mere copier and slave to whatever reference you happen to be using." The overwhelming majority of artists on Deviantart are also against tracing and say among other things it is effectively stealing someone else's work (even if it's a photograph with a relatively artistic composition).

      Another thing is that we've been taught these techniques almost right at the start of our course, and right then I had this question in my head: "Wait, didn't my GCSE art teacher say we shouldn't be tracing like this?"

      Whatever, thanks for letting me use your article anyway. :)

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