Do Artists Trace? (is Tracing Okay, or is it Naughty?)

Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered how the artist planned it out? Do artists always sketch everything out freehand? Maybe the painting started out as a well-planned, meticulous under-sketch…  Or could it be possible that they traced it? WHAAAAT!? Do artists trace?

Some artists use tracing to transfer their sketches from paper onto the surface of their final artwork. Tracing can be done a variety of ways including using a lightbox, a projector or carbon transfer. The main reason why artists trace is to save time and meet their deadlines.

So yes, tracing is a technique that many artists have to use. Sometimes because we have to move on to the next artwork. Sometimes because we need to get the job done by the agreed deadline.

(Aaand a maybe a little bit cos we can’t be bothered drawing it out again).

In today’s awfully riveting and controversial article, we will discuss:

  • Why artists trace
  • How do artists trace
  • When do they have to trace
  • Is tracing a drawing cheating
  • Is tracing a good way to learn to draw

How do artists trace?

There are several ways that artists trace. We’ll be looking at four tracing methods – tracing with a projector, a lightbox, carbon transfer and (the rather appropriately named) tracing paper.

Let’s take a look!


For this method, the artist uses a digital projector to project an image of their sketch onto their final surface. The big advantage of tracing with a projector is that the artist is able to adjust the size of the original sketch, allowing them to trace the image at a much smaller or much larger size.


Tracing with a lightbox involves putting your original sketch onto the lightbox and then putting your final artwork’s surface on top of it. When you turn on the light, light will travel through both sheets of paper allowing you to trace the original artwork on your new piece of paper.

If you’re smart (and maybe a little bit thrifty), you can get the same effect by taping your paper to a window and using nature’s light box – the sun – to help you get your tracing done.

As you can imagine, this only works up to a certain thickness of paper. If you try to use a 5mm sheet of MDF board on a light box, you’re gonna see a whole lotta nothing.

Check out the tracing paper section below for tips on how to trace with thick surfaces.

Carbon Transfer

This is when the artist applies charcoal (or soft carbon pencil) on the back of their sketch. They then put the paper in the position on their final surface where they want the sketch to go.

Once in position, the artist draws over their original sketch. The pressure from the pencil’s point pushes the paper onto the final surface, leaving a faint drawing which the artist can then further work on.

Tracing Paper

In the event of an artist wanting to transfer a sketch they have created on a hard surface (like wood or cardboard), then they won’t be able to apply charcoal/carbon at the back of the sketch’s surface.

In order to get around this, they will need to add an extra step to the carbon transfer process, by tracing the original sketch using tracing paper. Once the sketch is on a thin surface, then they apply the charcoal on the back of the tracing paper and proceed with the carbon transfer.

Phwoar! You’d almost think that it would be easier just to draw the sketch again freehand! (Must be a pretty marvellous sketch, I guess).

Why Do Artists Trace?

The root cause of artists tracing their sketches is because it is efficient use of their time. If the artist is already satisfied with their preliminary sketch, then there is no need to draw it again on their final surface (paper, canvas, board etc.).

When Do Artists Trace?

Artists can trace at different parts of the creative process. They will sometimes use tracing in the early concept stages of their artwork. This a great way to tweak things in your drawing, without spending time to do it again and again freehand.

(I actually do this digitally when illustrating in Photoshop – it saves sooo much time).

Sometimes the artist’s final concept sketch needs to be so precise that there is no point having to draw it out again on a fresh, blank surface.  Speeding up the sketch phase on their final surface will free up their time to work on other parts of the artwork.

Is Tracing a Drawing Cheating?

Tracing is not cheating if the artist is tracing their own, original work. Should the artist feel ashamed if they are tracing their own work?  Absolutely not. They already know that they can draw – now they need to get the job done.

On the other hand, if you are an artist who takes other people’s work and then blatantly trace their art to incorporate into it your art, then that is not good.

 If you trace other people’s work because you don’t know how to draw it, then maybe you shouldn’t be drawing it. Instead, put your efforts into learning how to draw something yourself. Then that way it will truly be yours!

Do People Even Care That Artists Trace?

Think about the people who are buying paintings, illustration and cartoons. If a painter sells their paintings in a gallery, do the customers ask if the artist did any tracing when creating the piece?


If an illustrator needs to turn around an editorial cartoon in 24 hours, does the editor ask is they traced the picture?



Because People don’t care. People don’t care about the process, they only care about the result.  

So if you are an artist who traces to speed up your process so that you can get paid, then you aren’t a cheater, you are just smart.

And if any other artist ever accuses you of being a hack. Tell them yup! But at least you pay your bills on time. (I hope!)

Is it Okay to Trace References?

It is okay to trace references if they are your own references. For example, tracing photos you have taken of buildings or landscapes or people posing. However, it is not okay to trace references from other people without their (preferably written) permission.

Piggy backing off someone else’s work to help your work is kinda dishonest. Also, on the off chance that they catch you doing so, it may lead to a lot of headaches for you (and perhaps a Twitter mob coming for you)

If you are absolutely determined to trace references that aren’t yours, then perhaps only trace them when you’re practicing. I think it’s okay to study other artists you admire, but just don’t try and make money off it or pass it off as your own. When creating art for public viewing or for selling, you need to be relying on your skills, not their skills.

If the only way for you to create something is by tracing it from someone else, then you’re not ready to make that artwork. Keep practicing instead!

Is Tracing a Good Way to Learn to Draw?

Tracing can be an excellent way for someone to learn to draw. If there is a particular subject that you’d like to get good at drawing, then one way is to familiarise yourself with that subject. Tracing copies of something like a car, a chair or a person can be beneficial when learning to draw the things that inspire you.

If you trace certain subjects enough, then over time you will have built up a muscle memory (and a brain memory!) that will allow you to eventually be able to draw it from your head.

Can Tracing Make You a Better Artist?

Anything that you draw will always count as experience that you have gained. This includes tracing.

Tracing your favorite artist’s drawings or tracing photos of things you want to get better at drawing is another way of learning to understand things. Once you understand them, then you will eventually be able to draw them.

How Can You Tell if Art is Traced?

If a professional artist has traced a sketch, it would be difficult to tell because they have the required set of skills to draw it freehand. The final image they will end up with will look the same as their preliminary sketch that they created.

Conversely, if an amateur artist has traced something, you can often tell because the linework may not look as confident as when they are drawing freehand. A blatantly traced drawing will often not have any of the energy that comes with sketching. Variation in line speed, line thickness and so on.

This was something that I noticed since I was a child. I was about seven, and it bothered me that when I traced something, it looked like the image, but it was lacking something.  

Haha I am still happy that Mini Malcolm saw the limitations that sketching can bring if done wrong. It was only years later that I realised that traced sketches are often missing energy. So, if you need to trace, trace the bare minimum lightly, and then go over it with some sweet, confident lines!

Example of a famous artist who traces

Drew Struzan is an illustrator whose movie posters are some of the most recognizable artworks out there. Struzan created hundreds of posters for Hollywood films over the years including the Indiana Jones movies, the Star Wars movies, the Back to the Future movies and Bladerunner.

A few years back I bought a DVD that showcases Struzan’s design process from start to finish when creating a movie poster (for Guilmero del Toro’s Hellboy). It was so fascinating and hypnotic to watch. The dude is an absolute master.

“What’s important is not how you get there, but what you get in the end”.

Drew Struzan

Struzan’s process to create these iconic posters involved creating sketches of all of the characters in a variety of poses. Once the movie studio chose which design they would like him to paint, he would then trace the sketch onto gesso board (the final surface) using a projector.

“…It’s no more honorable to trace it or to draw it by hand… I spent six years at school sitting in front of a drawing board and a live model and that’s where I learned about anatomy… and now as a professional, I have to get it done now. Not later. Now.”

My mind was blown when I heard that. Sure, Struzan is able to draw people that look more like the person than the actual person. But he proudly affirms that he cares more about getting the artwork done than spending any more time than he needs to on sketching.


Do Artists trace? Mate – absolutely. We have discussed that artists use tracing to save time so that they can hit their deadlines or so that they can move on to their next project quicker.

Artists can trace using a variety of tools, such as a projector, a lightbox, carbon transfer and tracing paper.

Tracing is not cheating if the artist is tracing their own work. But if the artist is tracing other people’s work, then they are looking for trouble (perhaps even a paddlin’).

Tracing can be a good way to learn how to draw things, as it will help you understand the form and structure of what you are learning to draw. But tracing alone won’t help you improve, you will also need to draw freehand. This will help you focus more on drawing what you are seeing.

I hope you have enjoyed this (much longer than I had originally planned) article on tracing.

TLDR: You can trace your own work, you can’t trace other people’s work.

I hope you have enjoyed this (much longer than I had originally planned) article on tracing.

What do you reckon? If agree or disagree with my outlandish statements, drop a comment below and we can start a civil conversation / internet flame war.

All the best!


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5 thoughts on “Do Artists Trace? (is Tracing Okay, or is it Naughty?)”

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    • Yeah Camera Obscura is another good method. It’s fascinating – a serious case of art meeting science! Thanks for the video – Hockney is always great to listen to.


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