Tracing in art is an emotive subject and some people get upset about it.  However, I’m happy to say that I don’t get upset about it, instead I embrace it.  And why not?  

So let’s start with the question why shouldn’t you trace?

There are only 2 reasons I can think of where you absolutely shouldn’t trace:

  • If your aim is to learn how to draw freehand (but actually tracing can help you do this!)
  • If you’re entering a competition where it states NO TRACING ALLOWED.

So that’s really just one reason not to trace.  Other than this, it’s just personal preference.

The fact is that most artists trace or use a lightbox or a projector all or some of the time.  I know several well known artists who use tracing and projectors including an artist who has sold their work at Sotherby’s.  There are many many professional artists all over the world who use these tools to get their work done more accurately and faster.

Tracing can actually help you improve your drawing skills because they improve your observation skills,  after all if you can see better you’re going to be able to draw better. 

If your goal is to improve your drawing skills then you can still trace but use it as an aid to improving your drawing skills by  tracing part of your drawing – key elements or part of key elements and then finish with some freehand drawing.

I wholeheartedly recommend having a go at tracing if you are struggling with accuracy and it is spoiling your enjoyment of pastelling.  

Why do I trace?
When I started drawing again after many years of not, I honed my skills and I became very good at drawing and I could draw human portraits freehand.   However I then discovered soft pastel and I was completely hooked on this amazing medium!  I had two options, forget about the soft pastel and continue drawing or learn soft pastel and forget about the drawing.  The reason I only had two options is the simple fact of time,  my son was very young and I just didn’t have time to practice both.  So knowing that I could trace and get my drawing done a lot faster meant I could concentrate on my new passion for pastelling.  And I’m glad I did this because it led to a whole new career in art that I had previously thought impossible! 

But this has meant that my drawing skills have suffered because I haven’t done the practice and for me I need to practice my drawing skills to keep them top notch. some people don’t need to practice and they are just naturally gifted and can draw but some need lots of practice to keep their skills honed.

Whilst we’re on the subject of tracing we can also talk about a grid and using a grid to get a better line drawing.  This is a really useful tool. You can also use the grid method to improve your drawing skills by starting off with a small grid and then gradually making your grid bigger so that your relying less on the grid and more on your skills.

Even tracing takes practice and I know that some of my students struggle with tracing.  Tracing accurately is a skill in itself and isn’t always a matter of simply tracing the lines that you see, especially with a portrait because photos can hide so much, especially poor quality photos.  If you’re a beginner, using poor quality photos will not help you improve so do yourself a favour and use quality photos so  you can see more clearly.  You have to work out what the lines mean to the structure of the face and this takes practice – it’s virtually impossible to do this if you photo reference is poor, you can’t see what isn’t there!

Is it cheating?
To answer the original question, excluding the one reason above, NO it’s not cheating.  Because a painting is so much more that the line drawing that you start with.  But ultimately, it is your opinion that matters to you most, do you think it’s cheating or is it just another aid to getting the job done?


 Here are 2 videos showing you how to trace.


Sue is a Soft Pastel Artist and International Tutor from England UK
She's passionate about soft pastel art and teaching her students from around the globe.

"Art makes my heart sing and my soul smile"