Is Tracing In Art Wrong? Is There Cheating In Art?

A common plight of beginner artists is the question of what makes them real artists. Is it okay to use a few tricks up your sleeve to make your artwork look better or make you create it faster? Is it okay to trace drawings? Are tracing photos wrong? Can you cheat in art?

Let’s dig a little deeper…

What is cheating?

Cheating is generally used to describe a person whose actions surpass the rules to gain unfair benefits.

Although in art, there are unwritten rules that are based on morality and ethics.

In art, it could mean receiving praise for a drawing that you did not do yourself. Even though there is no direct benefit from claiming someone else’s work as your own, getting admiration, where admiration is undeserved, is unfair.

Selling someone else’s art is wrong. Gaining financial compensation for work that is not yours is unfair to its original creator, who should be getting the money.

Cheating in art is unfair.

Cheating makes us feel angry because we feel limited by the rules, whereas the cheater is not bound. The only way we could compete with the cheater is to let go of our morals and cheat.

The rules of art are complicated

What makes art complicated is that it doesn’t have strict regulations! Except for copyright.

Is it necessary for your artwork to be appealing? Is it necessary to convey a message? Is it supposed to make a point? Is it intended to be witty? Is it necessary to be unique? Should it reflect your artistic vision? Is it better to paint in oil or acrylic? Is it essential for it to be a tangible painting? Can it be a digital painting? Should it be realistic or abstract?

The questions surrounding the validity of art are endless.

The rules of cheating in art are complicated.

However, whenever you say this is my drawing, you imply that you created the lines and strokes and that the final piece resulted from your intellectual ideas.

Is it cheating to trace?

Tracing is used to transfer an image into linework from a photo or artwork. You place your tracing paper over it and draw the lines that you see. This method is far easier than spending years figuring out what lines to use to create a drawing that represents the object you are trying to convey.

But does this technique make you a good artist?

That depends on what you are trying to achieve by tracing…

Is tracing a good way to learn to draw?

1. Helps you understand the structure

Tracing a drawing is not all bad. There are several things that you can actually learn from this. Tracing helps you develop mind-eye coordination and teaches you to draw consciously to improve your understanding of the structure.

This process embeds the learning in your mind that helps develop some basic observation skills. Focusing on contours and shapes rather than details helps beginners concentrate on the big picture. This is why children enjoy tracing. I have certainly done it myself as a kid.

Tracing a hand.

2. Helps you analyse

An image can provide you with several aspects to study. You can choose to trace the image as you want to depict your subject, leaving out certain lines or adding others. You may also use the skeleton of your tracing to produce something entirely different from what has been depicted.

Therefore, tracing helps in the analysis process and does not necessarily mean that you have to reproduce the image as is.

3. Helps you learn about foreshortening and perspective

The added advantage of using tracing, especially for a beginner, is that it teaches us that what we see and draw is quite different from how the subject appears to the eye in real life. For instance, when drawn, a folded arm or leg might actually be shorter than you know it is in reality. This is because of foreshortening.

In your drawing, you will have to consider how it would look in a flat picture rather than a 3-D one.

Tracing helps with studying foreshortening and perspective.

Similarly, when you draw a landscape, not all objects will remain the size they are in reality. As you go further away, things appear smaller than they actually are. Tracing helps beginners understand the basics of perspective. It will help highlight how objects change on a drawing surface.

The Shortcomings of Tracing

1. Limits your skill development

Tracing over an image might make it seem like the hard part is over, creating the outlines. But that’s furthest from the truth. Capturing and translating the lines, shapes, textures, values, light, and shadows is complex.

2. Prevents you from learning to observe

Learning how to draw requires dedicated time to refine your observation skills. We learn to see and draw lines that reflect what we observe. The more we practice, the better we get at representing what we see. Tracing hinders observational skill development.

3. Prevents you from analysing your work

One of the major pitfalls of tracing, or you can let it become one, is that once you get conditioned to tracing, you may just do it mindlessly. You stop analysing your work because it becomes rote.

A lady drawing

If you concentrate on the lines, you are not thinking about things like a light source, how shadows interact with the light source or the texture that you can see. Your mind is not looking at composition because it is already there. These can affect your skill development as an artist.

While you might see a sudden jump in your drawing ability when you first start to trace, it won’t last long. Your ability to draw and paint will stagnate. Ultimately, it results in flat, uninteresting drawings because you don’t grow and develop your skill and art fundamentals that contribute to your artwork.

Tracing is a tool

Many artists use tracing to create their art and speed up their workflow for representational accuracy. Clearly, they do not feel that it is cheating. Speed and quality are the most important aspects of delivering a finished piece of art to a client. The accuracy of the subject matter is important, but tracing does not guarantee that, but it does help in the early stages of the artwork. And they generally don’t mind the process as long as the final piece is a success. As a commercial artist, any tools that save time saves money.

Artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco studied artists throughout history and concluded that many used some form of tracing the Hockney–Falco thesis. In their thesis, they claimed that advances in realism in Western Art were a result of using optical instruments such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors.

Camera obscura used to trace in 1772.

A diagram of the camera obscura from 1772.

Tracing does not help with complex topics such as representing textures, lighting, colour mixing, shading, etc. If the artist lacks those skills, the final work will show a deficit of understanding.

Should you trace?

The answer to this question depends on what you want to use tracing for. Ultimately, it depends on where you are on your artistic journey and how you view the process. You could stay away from the controversial tool, or you could use it to speed up your workflow.

A confused artist

If you want to improve your drawing skills and work toward drawing from imagination, you should stay away from tracing. Draw from life, take classes, learn to observe. In my opinion, that will help you achieve your goals far better than tracing.

If you are tracing another artist’s work, please give them credit as the original creator. Tracing doesn’t replicate an artist’s work as a photocopying machine would, but it is common courtesy to give credit where credit is due.

I am sure you are starting to see the value of tracing as a tool rather than a method to ‘cheat’.

If you decide to use tracing, I hope you will keep practicing the fundamentals no matter how skilled an artist you are. Don’t let it become a crutch!

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Can you cheat in art?

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