Tracing, Grids, Etc.

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While most artists use special aids, tools or shortcuts, not all are created equal. Some help an artist grow, some just keep them on a plateau, not learning anything new.

Tracing photographs?
Some people claim that tracing will aid the artist in learning how to draw freehand. I wouldn't know personally, since I've never tried this method, but I've heard this from several sources, so I think that it can have merit, if the aim is to sincerely improve at freehand drawing. As long as it is always understood that it a learning exercise—not a technique to settle upon permanently. Tracing isn't drawing, it's tracing. They are two different things.

Only "talented" people can draw?
That's absolutely untrue. Some people have a misconception that only the "gifted" (or "talented") people can draw, and they are endowed with this "gift" at birth. Therefore, if you don't have the "gift," there's nothing you can do about it. So, you might as well trace photographs, since you're never going to be able to get an accurate image any other way. This is NOT TRUE.

It's so sad that people believe this. It causes some of them give up trying to learn how to draw, because they assume that they don't have enough talent. They are mistaken—drawing is a skill that almost anyone can learn, with practice. Even the most "gifted" artist has to practice to become good at drawing. Few artists are born with full-fledged skills, "right out of the box." They had to work to develop their talents.

One of my favorite art books, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, offers great encouragement to anyone who thought that they couldn't learn how to draw. She believes that drawing is a skill that can be learned, by just about anyone! She helps people find their "gift" for drawing. Her book shows her students' "before" and "after" drawings. Many of her students seemed to display no innate ability in their "before" drawing, while their "after" drawing showed quite a lot of skill. Her methods of teaching the artist to see more accurately are very effective, even revolutionary. And they produce results, as her students will testify.

Frankly, the idea of a "gift" (or innate talent) is way overrated anyway. While it's true that we all have certain strengths and aptitudes, too often we give up before we discover all of these gifts. That's why I think it's great that people like Betty Edwards are helping people discover their ability to draw.

The "misery" of drawing...
Learning to draw can sometimes be a little daunting and frustrating. This is not an unusual feeling for any of us. But this does not mean that it is torture, to be avoided at all costs! The best way for artists to overcome the feelings of frustration or discouragement when drawing is to relax.

There is no reason to expect perfection right away! We all have days where things don't work out, and when we feel like we'll never get it right. But it is not so! Any artist who is feeling such frustration should not feel that all is lost if they can't immediately draw perfectly. It is a gradual process. Giving up and tracing every time difficulties come up is certainly not a good solution.

The Grid Method
This drawing book by Betty Edwards teaches the "grid method" (along with many other drawing methods). In my "Drawing for Newbies" tutorial I describe how helpful the grid method can be in training the newbie artist to draw more accurately. However (as I caution on my "newbie" tutorial) the "grid method" should not be considered a final solution to drawing. It should be one of many techniques that an artist can use. If all an artist knows how to do is grid photographs, they'll end up being very limited, not unlike a person who can only trace photographs. But—the grid method is certainly a great "stepping stone," and many artists are very encouraged when they start using it.

Tracing photographs—is there a time to do it?
Sometimes, an accomplished and established artist (or an "old master") has used tracing (or gridding) in for some tasks, particularly for transferring a smaller sketch onto a larger canvas (or huge mural). So they sometimes used the grid, but sometimes they didn't. Such an artist has already worked very hard at developing many skills, and has been exposed to many techniques and methods of artistic expression.

Such artists (including the "old masters") should not be confused with the artist who has never learned how to draw freehand in the first place. The old masters drew freehand, but may have used other tools and shortcuts. But it should be emphasized: they knew how to draw freehand. (How do you think they drew images like fantasy creatures or rearing horses? They certainly could not have traced these things!)

Some artists today never learn to draw (and instead trace or grid) and rationalize that "it's the same thing as what the old masters did." But it's not the same if they cannot also draw freehand.

Advantages and disadvantages (and, some things just can't be traced).
Artists who know how to draw freehand have so many options open to them: drawing from life, drawing from imagination, quick "conceptual" sketches—they have many opportunities for artistic expression. But, if needed, they can still trace or grid a project if they are under a tight deadline or for some other pressing reason. They have the best of both worlds.

Artists who can only trace are in a completely different situation. It's trace, or do without. Find the right photo (or take the right photo themselves), or they're out of luck. They then have to take the time to transfer the photo to paper or canvas (or grid the photo to photo or canvas). Whew! What a hassle! And what a lack of options and choices such an artist has!

Also, artists who cannot draw will occasionally find themselves in some uncomfortable situations, when people assume they can draw freehand (and people will assume). These people may lose a certain amount of respect for an artist when they find out they can only trace. "Anyone can trace, but only artists can draw." That's the opinion many people will have.

Certain kinds of art classes (like Life Drawing classes) will not accommodate the tracing technique, or the gridding technique. Students are expected to know how to draw freehand.

Speed and accuracy?
An artist who can only trace sometimes tries to explain that they do it "for accuracy." But there's a lot more to drawing than accuracy. If accuracy were the only thing that were important, we might as well all put down our pencils and brushes, and pick up a camera. Nothing is quite so accurate as a camera. As far as tracing for the sake of saving time, that seems to be a short-sighted viewpoint as well. In the long run, practice makes us fast, not shortcuts. Practice makes us more confident in our work, and more efficient.

There's always going to be exceptions to my "don't trace" mantra. There will be the illustrator or commercial artist who is under a tight deadline—they may find that tracing (either manually, or digitally, using Photoshop) is the only way to meet a deadline. Other artists have such a "funky" artsy-fartsy technique that their work really isn't about drawing realistically, it's about something else. So it matters not whether they draw or not. There are also the "hobby" artists that are just tinkering around and are not taking the whole thing terribly seriously. (There's nothing wrong with not taking it terribly seriously, by the way! It depends on the individual's goals and aspirations.)

There are always going to be circumstances where not drawing (or never learning how to draw) are not going to be a big issue. But for many artists, it will become an issue (whether they want it to or not) at some point.

Risks and regrets
There are definitely some strong limitations attached to never learning how to draw. There also may eventually be feelings of defensiveness or inadequacy, and possibly some profound regrets down the road. It is never too late to learn, but obviously, sooner is better than later. Consider all these things when you decide whether or not you are going to trace or grid exclusively. Do you believe that you might have regrets later on? Are you sure that you will not?

Don't be a faker!
Anyone who has spent any significant time with any online art community will probably know that tracing vs. freehand is an extremely hotbutton issue for many artists. Everyone has an opinion and sometimes they get passionate about it. (And I am no exception!)

For many, it boils down to this: Don't fake it. Don't pretend. Don't be a poser. Don't trace a photo then present it to others as something you drew. In other words, don't "lie by omission" by never mentioning that you actually traced it.

This is, I believe, the source of most of the emotion directed against tracing. It's when you are trying to get the same respect as someone who has a skill you don't (in this case, freehand drawing). If you want to trace photos because you just wanna, okay, that's your business and there are a lot of times when that's sensible. But realize that when you say nothing about the tracing part, then a lot of the "Wow, you drew this?" comments your drawing gets will be based on a false assumption (that you did it all freehand). For you to not correct that misunderstanding is dishonest. When you're "found out," it might get ugly. Or it might not (not everyone cares). But realize that there is that risk. Isn't it easier to be honest about it, and not have that worry hanging over your head?

UPDATE: More pontificating about tracing/grids on my blog.

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