Tracing That Works for You

So many students remark that they don’t know how to draw and are really intimidated by it.  I was recently at a show where the judge remarked that only 3 out of 10 artists know how to draw.  So what do we do?  Certainly, you can learn how to draw but there is a lot of value in tracing your image so you can create without being paralyzed by the fear of drawing.

What are the benefits of tracing?

  1. It will improve your drawing skills
  2. It will improve your ability to observe values
  3. It will give you the time to explore and observe your reference photo.
  4. My mantra is “paint what you see know what you know” Lisa comments about this at 2:44 in the video
  5. The trace is not the final product.
  6. Tracing saves a lot of time

Here’s a great video by Lisa at Lachri Fine Art.

Lisa also mentions that if you trace the same image repeatedly you will improve where as if you free hand repeatedly you’ll probably make the same mistakes.

There are different methods to transfer your image to paper and it’s a common practice especially for realistic painting. I use carbon paper between my black and white photograph and my yupo paper.  I use a black and white photo so I am forced to focus on values rather than colors or hues.  As I find values (lights and darks) critical in my paintings I appreciate every opportunity to observe them in my reference photo.

In this video by Lisa at Lachri, she uses transfer paper between tracing paper and her surface. This video is using acrylics with a background put down first and then white transfer paper so it can be seen.

How much tracing is enough?

When we get into the pets and water classes there is a lot of detail in the subjects.  I get the question “How much tracing is enough?”  You need to decide this for yourself.  Often I will trace with a great deal of detail and then find when it’s time for the painting that I don’t need it.  That’s okay because I’ve been observing my reference photo.

You can see in Lisa’s video using the transfer paper that she just has the major shapes traced. The rest of the shading and color selection is done while she is painting.  For many people this is just fine.  For fur and feathers it’s probably more important to select the areas based on value and not need to trace every line of fur or feathers.  It’s fine to add some clues which direction the fur or feathers lay to remind you, but there’s no need to put in everything.

Let’s look at a couple of coloring book examples – one for children and one for adults

How would you make a great painting out of the first one? If there was enough shading to make the fish look 3 dimensional and the colors were gorgeous, this would be enough.

What about the adult one? It appears that the line work acts to add values and give a 3 dimensional affect.  If you are careful to get the lights and darks correct and use colors based on their values this could work too.

Some people will look at the adult drawing and feel “yipes! too much” and others will think it looks like a lot of fun.

Here are a couple of my examples: foam in the ocean that has the major areas and a cat that has way too much tracing.

I’ve added the finished paintings too so you can see what happened between the tracing and the end painting.


It all depends on you and what works for you.  I’d love to hear your comments.



3 thoughts on “Tracing That Works for You

  1. smswain September 30, 2016 / 7:56 pm

    EXCELLENT! Thanks Sheryl. 🙂

    On Fri, Sep 30, 2016 at 5:32 AM, Sheryl Williams Art wrote:

    > sherylwil posted: “So many students remark that they don’t know how to > draw and are really intimidated by it. I was recently at a show where the > judge remarked that only 3 out of 10 artists know how to draw. So what do > we do? Certainly, you can learn how to draw but ther” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol October 2, 2016 / 4:04 pm

    If I did not trace, I would not do any detailed or tight paintings – I have played with drawing off and on over the years, but have minimal success and it’s the painting I enjoy. I think we must all do what is comfortable for each of us. My tracing is not terribly detailed though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sherylwil October 2, 2016 / 4:05 pm

    For many people all they need is the basic shapes and that’s enough. Glad it is helpful to you.


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