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Is Tracing In The Art Community Bad?


Do you remember when you were a kid, and you wanted to draw that flower or truck really well for your mom or dad in the picture book or you just wanted to draw a picture perfectly, so you grabbed a blank sheet of paper, covered up that page just enough to see the original and started to trace over that picture?

Yeah, that is what we are going to talk about today.

Is tracing in the art community bad? Why is it unwelcomed?

Well first we gotta ask the question, what is tracing?

According to the web, “Tracing is an art technique used to practice drawing skills and/or to transfer art onto a canvas or wall.” So tracing is an art technique, which, for us artists out there, art techniques are used to help us improve. Then why do people in the art community have an issue with tracing if it’s a technique to help? Well, I did some research to understand why it is an issue, but I also found in my research why tracing is not all bad.

Jae Johns, a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, wrote a blog back in 2021 titled, “ Does Tracing Improve Drawing?”, in that article he states that tracing is supposed to help you learn the strokes. Which makes sense, if you took an art class in school, do you remember your art teacher asking you to draw whatever they put on the projector, (god I feel old) and if you were like me, you would analyze the art so much to make a perfect copy. I mean you would try to get that curve to look exactly like the image on the screen but would get frustrated when you feel like you just couldn’t do it?

Johns used the example of tracing a squirrel, you would trace the squirrel to learn the animal’s anatomy which helps with muscle memory. Now, for a quick human lesson, muscle memory is the ability to do a particular movement without any conscious thought, by a lot of repetitive movements or routines. I remember reading this comment of a parent saying that their daughter traced a horse so much that she was able to draw a horse by memory.

Fun Fact! Johns also stated in his article that comic book artists trace! I had to research that to see if that was true…….

So what is Johns final verdict on tracing? Well at the end of his article, he said that tracing does help improve art by having the artist become familiar with different subjects and images, and helps with the practice of outlining and shading until the artists themselves become confident to do it on their own.

Another article created by Vitruvian Studio or Vitruvian Fine Art Studio with David Jamieson being the writer also talked about this subject. Their article explained that this topic is not a new topic (which it is not), but their article states that tracing has been a topic speculating throughout history, from artists all the way back from the 1400s and other artists including Norman Rockwell, Thomas Eakins and Johannes Vermeer may have included tracing into their art process. The article states that the artists used these lens devices to understand and capture what they saw. Now, just like the article that Johns created, Jamieson and Vitruvian also said that tracing helps with muscle memory but it also helps with eye coordination. In their words, think of it as a rehearsal.

But their article also talks about an art tactic called " Foreshortening” which is a word used to describe how an object is viewed on end. Here is how they explained what foreshortening is from their article, “For example, if you were drawing a figure with an arm stretched out toward you, it would appear “foreshortened”. They also explain that tracing can help you see linear points.

So, it looks like tracing is actually not that bad. In fact it sounds like tracing is a really good tool to use for beginners or to understand a process, but c'mon! We all know that tracing is cheating!! Tracing is a good tool to steal! Which yes, it can be but why?

Going back to the Vitruvian Studio article that I used, they talk about the fall of tracing, and I personally really liked how they break down why tracing is also an issue. One of the downfalls of tracing that they state is that it is done mindlessly, there is no thought to analyze what you are drawing because you are basically copying. Even Johns states in his article that tracing is a way of “photocopying”. There is no studying the subject, no making decisions to change.

They also talk about an issue with tracing that I never knew about but I will talk about that later. But they mention that tracing is something that we have all heard and known about.

Tracing can become a clutch.

Tracing can become a “fear” or cause an “anxiety” because the artist would be too afraid to draw on their own. Drawing takes small steps and tracing can make it very difficult to get out of your comfort zone and really hard to look at art from your point of view. Creating art in general is making art the way you want to make it.

But the issue with tracing that I never knew was that tracing can result in flat drawings. Now what is “flat drawing”? Flat drawing is a design style that is a two - dimensional style that uses minimal emphasis on expression, usually when we create a drawing some people want to create the art of illusion, or expression.

We need to get out of the mindset that tracing is bad and cheating. Just like many other tools, it can be used to help or it can be used to cause damage. It's all about how you use it and what you are using it for.



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