Why Tracing Paper is your Best Friend and Why Tracing isn’t Cheating!

I am a bit of a butterfly of late with several projects on the go. I teach art workshops – or rather I did before lock down – and I illustrate. I have a particular enthusiasm for madcap ideas. So today I thought I would tell you about my most recent mad cap idea and how she, Ella, comes into being. Like a lot of my work Ella has a therapeutic component and like a lot of people I was (am) feeling a bit sad and overwhelmed by the state of the world at present. Enter Ella, the all round smile maker. 

Ella begins with a VERY rough sketch – a messy sketch really. Mess is not to be avoided in the creative process. At this stage she is just a spark of an idea and as with all new ideas I like to allow them to settle in my mind for a while – to percolate.

Next I do a second sketch, this one is more defined and I take more care with detail and proportion and the message that the sketch will send. 

The sketching stage is followed by some wonderful text banter <cough> I mean brainstorming, with my dear friend and collaborator, Amanda Hufford @kiteandtether whose ability to take ridiculousness to extremes is one of her many excellent qualities.  Here is the picture of Amanda that inspired this particular Ella sketch. 

The brainstorming is distilled into a strap line of sorts and then I get my tracing paper out. Within a a few drafts Ella’s composition will be fully formed and perfectly imperfect.

Ella then gets photographed and imported into my graphics software where I clean up the image so that she becomes a clean clear black and white image, giving her some polish so that she is properly – or improperly – presentable. 

The point of this story is that the tracing paper stage is absolutely key. (If you are working in an all digital environment then ‘layering’ is an equivalent concept.) This is why I love tracing paper – when you trace an image you are learning motor control and hand eye co-ordination. It takes practice to get a smooth clear line and tracing paper (or layering) gives you the scope to practice within a framework that you have already set for yourself. Frequently, designers will do many iterations of their work on many sheets of tracing paper (or digital layers). In my previous career as an architect it would not be unusual to have a hundred or more layers of trace. Often piling up on the floor next to my workspace as I refined and refined. 

Why am I telling you this?

At school there is a myth that tracing is somehow cheating. That it’s stealing an idea. Well, no it’s not, it’s an important step in learning to think through drawing and learning line control when manoeuvring a pen, pencil or stylus. Maybe not unlike learning to play tennis when you practice that serve over and over again from that giant container of tennis balls until you have cracked the prefect serve. 

So my message is use tracing to build your confidence in your line work. Use it to think and to refine ideas or use it to play. But most of all use it! Tracing paper (or digital layering) is your best friend! And please do let me know how you get on.

Heres what I do

I create characters and illustrations for businesses and individuals. For individuals this might be a unique and personal gift for a loved one while for a business a humorous character can be an eye catching part of your marketing plan creating warmth and personality for your business.  Please do get in touch if you would like to know more.  Contact illustrationsbyglenda@gmail.com 

3 Replies to “Why Tracing Paper is your Best Friend and Why Tracing isn’t Cheating!”

  1. I love what you say here Glenda about using tracing paper to strengthen motor co-ordination and hand -eye co-ordination skills .
    I have Dyspraxia and my fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination skills are the ones most affected, so this is a perfect technique for me in all sorts of ways.
    I’m starting to find if I want to paint from a photo that printing and tracing from the photo means I get much better proportions than if I try to draw by hand and also it helps me refine and simplify what to include rather than getting lost trying to include all the detail which is something else I struggle with .

    1. Thanks so much Sue, for your lovely comment. Yes tracing paper fantastic in so many ways. I want to dispel the myth that tracing is cheating. And you are right, its also very helpful for editing out unnecessary detail.

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