Artist’s tools: Tracing and Lightboxes

If you’ve been creating art for any length of time, you know that you need to develop your drawing skills. And the only way to do that is to actually draw. Draw whenever you have a chance, and if you don’t have time, *make* time. Seriously. Because, as with anything else, the only thing that will help you improve is practice. Check out the book Sketch!: The Non-Artist’s Guide to Inspiration, Technique, and Drawing Daily Life by France Belleville-Van Stone to get a real life insight into what it means to make the time to draw.

Having said that, I’ll admit that’s not entirely true, that the only thing that will help you improve is practice. What I mean is, you don’t just have to sit there and just practice drawing by hand. One excellent way to quickly improve your drawing skills is to trace what you’re trying to draw.

This may sound “wrong”, and purists will tell you that the only way to learn to draw is to do it by trial and error. The reality is, for centuries, artists have used whatever tools were at hand to help them draw accurately. They used grids, worked out their compositions as sketches, and, yes, they then traced the final sketch on to their surface for the final rendition, using an early version of transfer paper: they covered a paper in black chalk and used a stylus to trace over their “cartoon”, as they termed that final sketch.

So, you ask, how does tracing help you learn to draw? The old masters used tracing *after* they were happy with their design, as I said above. Well, the old masters also learned from their predecessors … often by apprenticing with experienced painters and copying existing works of art repeatedly until the techniques were ingrained in them by the repetition.

Yes, artists often completed an apprenticeship. And art was made in a workshop, with the artist planning the work and his apprentices carrying out many of the initial parts of the work.

Changes in technology and individual wealth today means that many more of us have access to fine quality art supplies and have no need to apprentice with a master. However, it does not obviate the need to actually learn to draw accurately. And this is where that infernal tracing paper comes in. Drawing an image over and over does not mean you’ll draw it better each time!

You see, when you just look at something and draw it, over and over, you may actually be training your eye and your hand to draw the mistake over and over, effectively locking it in, because you are drawing what your brain tells you it’s seeing. What’s really happening is that your brain, because it knows (or thinks it knows) how something looks, makes your hand take shortcuts to produce the result your brain knows … except, when you look at the result, it looks different from the original.

If, instead, you grab a piece of tracing paper and go over the image repeatedly either with a pencil or with a stylus, your hand and eye will start correlating what is being drawn with what actually exists in the image. You will learn to “see”, as artists phrase it.

Try it yourself: pick an image you’ve repeatedly drawn incorrectly. Trace it some ten to twelve times. Then go back and try free handing it again. Isn’t that better? There you have it: a simple way to improve your freehand drawing using a technique that some will say is cheating. But the end result will still be a distinct improvement in drawing skills.

Once you have a finalized sketch, you can then use tracing paper to transfer it to a clean paper, and thence to your canvas or other surface using transfer paper: Loew Cornell makes a really good one: this 2-in-1 set has one sheet of white transfer paper (for transferring to a dark surface) and one in gray for paler surfaces. Is two sheets really enough? Yes. Because you don’t “use up” transfer paper for a really long time … I’d say hundreds of uses per sheet, because you have a large sheet and you won’t just be tracing the exact same image over and over in the exact same location on the transfer paper!

If you don’t have tracing paper, you can use technology to help you trace an image: the simplest way is to tape your image to your computer monitor, turn the screen brightness all the way up, and then trace over the image onto your paper.

You won’t always get good results with a computer monitor, though, especially if you have a busy image as your wallpaper. Another alternative is to get a dedicated lightbox: much like a computer monitor, except there’s nothing but white light being emitted here. You can turn up the brightness as you need, and all but the heaviest papers will allow enough light to pass through your image so that you can create a good drawing by tracing the relevant lines.

There are several decent lightboxes out there. I personally like the Artograph 12″x17″ lightbox as it’s large enough to accommodate most of my drawings without being overly heavy and bulky. Another decent alternative is the AGPTek A3 USB powered lightbox. The AGPTek is slightly lighter [A3 is almost the same size: 11.69″x16.53″], and a lot less expensive … I haven’t used this one myself, but a friend of mine has one and claims it works really well.

And there you have it: from doodles to professional quality results without a whole lot of pain and time spent apprenticing when you could have been out having a beer or watching the latest show on Netflix!

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