As an artist involved in many different types of art groups and communities on social media, there is a common question that comes across my screen every month or so. This question was also brought up often among peers in all levels of schooling up to University.
I went to a University that taught me how to draw from life. We didn't use photographs during our classes, just still lifes, landscapes, and live models for portraits, etc. Using a projector to project your reference on your canvas in order to sketch it on, or griding out your canvas (the process where you lay a grid on top of your reference photo and on your canvas to draw it on your canvas proportionally) was actively shamed among many professors and students. Drawing from life was seen as superior and sketching it by grid or tracing was put down as cheating or simply meant you just weren't a good enough artist. I learned how to draw from life and I felt proud I was able to draw and paint realistic portraits by looking at someone solely. I did use reference photos within some of my university artwork however this was within independent studies and not in classes and it was slightly frowned upon.
In 2015 I went to Denver, Colorado for a painting internship to learn under the artist Micahel Vacchiano. Here I was setting up my first panel under his guidance and tips to push my portraiture. I was using a photograph as my reference. I don't remember exactly how the conversation went but when I stated that I wasn't going to project or grid it on my panel I was going to begin sketching it on with my paint and start the same way I had started my portraits previously at University, I was hit with the question as to why? Yeah learning from life is important to developing as an artist but once you are able to do it why not make your life easier? If you can get the same result either way why not cut your painting time in half and save a lot of frustration along the way?
I didn't really know how to answer these questions as I was taught that's just the better way to do it! I believe learning how to draw and paint from life gives you the observational skills that are important to developing a likeness to your subject...But why is it seen as better or the only "proper" way to do it? The elitism within comments revolving around grids and tracing is rampant. People even go as far as to say that tracing is equivalent to "paint by numbers". I didn't question it really until this internship. Why do artists shame other artists who trace their references onto their canvas? Why are they belittled and seen as inferior artists to people who start painting straight onto the canvas and use their paint to sketch instead? Why is there so much shame and elitism within fine art and oil painting in particular?
So is tracing cheating? Or is it simply a tool used to start your paintings? Does tracing really level the playing field for all artists? Or does it not make too much of a difference...
Art Tutor ran a study about tracing. In this study, they asked people to choose between two reference photos and to trace the outline of the portrait with the goal to have the best likeness. Once they were finished they were sorted into 3 categories (strong, fair, and weak) Out of 67 completed portraits 10 were classed as a strong likeness, 35 classed as fair, and 22 classed as weak.
"My theory was this...
Tracing, especially for trickier subjects, doesn't help you a great deal in the absence of good observational practices. In other words, you can't rely on tracing to guarantee things like good proportion, placement, shape, light & shadow and overall likeness.
If tracing is cheating (or akin to "colouring in" and "painting by numbers"), then skill level shouldn't matter. Tracing should level the playing field between more advanced artists and newcomers, in the same way these things do:
However, I believe that tracing does NOT level the playing field. At least not as much as many people assume. I believe that whether you trace an initial outline or not, you still need a good deal of observational awareness to create accomplished-looking drawings and paintings.
With that in mind, I was expecting to see a range of portraits that varied significantly in their likeness and anatomical accuracy.
I postulated that portraits with a strong likeness would come from more advanced artists, and less experienced/skilled artists would struggle with the facial features, particularly the eyes and mouth."
I agree with the statement at the end of the article that states:
"What this experiment confirms for me, is that tracing just gives you a starting point, albeit a strong one.
That strong starting point does NOT guarantee a successful overall outcome. Experience and observational skills determine that.
So if "cheating" means it takes away the need for any skill in the same way as painting-by-numbers or dot-to-dot does, then you simply cannot class tracing as cheating.
And while I chose the most difficult subject (portraits) for this little test, I believe the above statement applies to all subject matter. "
Now artists have been using technology and tracing techniques to better their art forever.
Historically many famous painters used the Camera Obscura, also known as a pinhole camera, to their benefit.
Artland has a nice article about the Camera Obscura and here is their description of the camera.
"The Camera Obscura (Latin for 'dark chamber') is an optical device which is the ancestor of the photographic camera, but without the light-sensitive film or plate. It consists of a lens attached to an aperture on the side of a darkened tent or box. The light reflected on the chosen object outside the box passes through the lens and is projected onto the smaller-scale surface in the encased area. This projection, which appears upside down, can then be traced."
So, which artists used this device? Just to name a few...
Leonardo Da Vinci
(and many others)
(Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600)
Now how could you say that Caravaggio is a cheater or isn't as good of an artist because he used a camera obscura to start his paintings?
The observational skill lies in between the outline and the finished painting, as stated in the Art Tutor article.
Once you have the skill to create a painting of that likeness and quality having an outline is a tool to help save you time and effort in the long run.
So no tracing is not cheating and it does not make you a worse artist or not a good artist, to begin with. It is a tool that has been used for hundreds of years to save time and a way to start your painting/drawing.