The Art of Tracing

My students in life drawing class are often surprised when the first drawings I have them do are tracings of others’ work. They, like many in the art world in general, tend to think of the practice as cheating. Unfortunately, this disdain has kept us from realizing its potential as a learning device, for tracing is an excellent way to teach yourself how to accurately draw any subject, particularly the human figure. Tracing is cheating only when it’s used to pass off someone else’s artwork as your own, but it’s never dishonest simply to use what others have learned to improve your skills at drawing.

Why It Works
Fundamentally, tracing uses the same mental process that’s required to draw from life—you’ll be using the same coordination between the eye and the hand that you’d need to render a face or figure from a live model. The reason is simple: When you draw the form you see before you, you’re virtually tracing that form in your mind. Your eye sees a segment of a line, for instance, and your mind retains that image as you mentally project it onto the paper’s surface. You then trace that mental image by drawing a line that matches the one in your mind’s eye. Thus, when you’re physically tracing a drawing, you’re teaching yourself to trace images mentally.

Getting an Outline
To begin tracing, start with simple pictures such as line drawings with no shading. You’ll find plenty of good figure-drawing reference books on the market. If you’d like to try tracing from photographs (which is how I started out), choose those that give you clear and definitive contours. The best medium for tracing is graphite pencil. Use drafting tape—rather than masking tape, which isn’t as easily removed—to attach your tracing sheet to a drawing or photograph.

As you begin, don’t concern yourself with style or line quality, such as the thickness or the smoothness of the lines. That doesn’t matter at this point. Concern yourself only with the pattern of the lines, for it’s there that you’ll find the secret to good life drawing.

Rounding It Out
With more complicated images as tracing subjects, you’ll have a great opportunity to practice the process of modeling forms by using value contrasts to create the illusion of three dimensions. The tracing method helps you learn to see tonal shapes, and learning to identify them is crucial to learning how to use them.

Once your figure is outlined, look at the areas of shading in your source through the tracing paper and mentally divide them into different value areas. Then, draw lines to indicate where the changes in value occur. Because these areas often gradate from one to another, you’ll have to use your judgment to decide where each area begins and ends. This may seem arbitrary, but that’s OK—you can always readjust the boundaries later. This pattern of lines will serve as a map to guide you in your shading of the new drawing. At this point, remove the tracing paper and slip a piece of blank white paper beneath it, then use the original as a visual reference for filling in the shaded areas you’ve outlined.

You don’t have to be a beginner to benefit from tracing. Just look closely at the work of any artist whose drawing skills you admire, whether it’s a Renaissance master or your best friend, and realize how easy it is use what others have learned to improve your own skills. Then use that training to create your own masterpieces.

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