A Trace Is Not Enough, In Defence Of Tracing

Last summer I bought myself a tracing pad, basically a slim lightbox that I could comfortably sit and trace on. It was about £50 from Hobbycraft and I love it intensely. I am also a little bit ashamed and embarrassed every time I use it.

Tracing is controversial in the art world. It’s one of those things that professionals use for speed and consistency – particularly illustrators, comic creators, graphic designers, and animators – but that is considered “cheating” by many amateur or beginner artists. While tracing has been around for a while and is just getting easier and more accessible due to the exponential growth of our tech, I’ve noticed a trend on social media of shaming people for doing it. On Instagram there’s accounts which repost “stolen” art, often from the accounts of teenagers. Usually the young artist will have traced someone else’s “original” art, recoloured it, and posted it on their account without crediting the original artist. Many of the accounts that name and shame this practice are also run by teenagers.

Copying other people’s art is an essential step in developing your drawing and observational skills. Art students wouldn’t be sent to museums and established public galleries to copy the work they find there if it didn’t have its benefits. If you go to look at a famous painting, chances are there’ll still be art students floating about sketching, learning. Maybe they’ll take a few photos, go home, and sit tracing a masterpiece.

The main gripe people seem to have is that sometimes the younger artist will post their work without properly crediting the artists they’re copying. But that’s an easy thing to do. It’s easy to lose the name associated with an artwork if you’re cutting up a magazine or taking photos in a museum. With time your eye (and memory) improve enough that you can retroactively attribute the piece to an artist, but sometimes the information is lost and a reverse Google Image search doesn’t help. Think of all the paintings hanging in the vaults of museums whose authorship is in doubt or unknown. Or the unattributed images that flood the internet. In my mind copying the work of others for practice and correctly crediting an influence are two separate things – like writing a caption to a photograph, it uses different parts of the brain. I try to do it, but sometimes things fall through the cracks and you can’t remember where you saw something originally. There’s definitely more to say about this, but I’ll leave that for a future article.

So what’s my point? Well, I think it would help if more professional artists were open about using tracing in their work. At the moment I’m saving up for a basic projector so I can transfer my drawings and photographs onto canvas. When I first realised I could do this I mentioned it to some of my fellow art graduate friends – people who run galleries, get arts funding, and tick every qualifying box in the Scottish Artist’s Union artist criteria. I was repeatedly reassured that it’s just a tool, that either they do it or they know artists and creatives who do, and that it can be a godsend if you’re wanting to enlarge a sketch or get the initial proportions for a painting.

They also remind me that one of the reasons Renaissance art is so realistic is because they’d recently invented the Camera Obscura – a simple device which projects an image onto a surface, which could be used in conjunction with live models. So will I continue tracing? Of course, I’m trying to learn how to shade and crosshatch effectively and I know I can draw freehand if I need to. I’m also looking forward to the day that I can unpack my Tracer projector and set it up in my studio. But for the moment I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking ourselves why we feel the need to call one tool fraudulent while we happily accept another. Drawing or painting from a photograph is also using a tool, as is using a faster drying medium like acrylics. So why do we put freehand on a pedastal? And really, it seems unhealthy to shame schoolkids who are just starting out. I wish I’d bought a tracing pad years ago.

By Ana Hine

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