Tracing vs drawing
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
I've recently started teaching Painting to adults and it has been really illuminating.
In the current era, realism and representation seem to have returned to a position of primacy in Art. Not just in the mainstream but also with the young who often direct the cutting-edge of practice. There seems to be little compunction about tracing a photographic original onto a canvas before painting over it. This is fascinating for several reasons.
Firstly, the ease at which photographic source material can be accessed, enlarged and printed is obviously a factor. It takes 10 minutes and almost no cost to print out an image sourced from anywhere to a size that you can trace directly onto your painting. In the case of a lot of street art, you just project it onto the wall as big as you want. Issues of proportion, distortion, likeness and scale disappear.
Also, anyone who has ever done much life drawing will know that there are many factors that go into getting a drawing to 'work'. Proportion can be distorted if you stand to one side of your drawing, drawing larger than life size is more difficult that drawing smaller, and the position from where you orient your gaze can seriously alter your point of view. After all you're translating something that's three-dimensional into two dimensions, so if you move around your subject the subject will change. This doesn't happen when you trace a photograph.
I liken tracing to always using GPS to get to where you're going. You arrive at your destination but you don't know how you got there. There is a whole stage and a whole lot of learning and brain development missing. And it means you have no insight into your subject; you won't be able to extrapolate what you learned from this drawing to other situations. The image and the work is locked-off.
One of my students who doesn't have a lot of drawing experience decided she would paint the hallway of a famous house. It's a fairly simple perspective exercise, or so we thought! Thankfully she didn't just trace it but decided to draw it based on a photograph. What she soon found however was that the image didn't seem to 'work' at all. She was quite adept at the one-point perspective to a vanishing point at the end of the hall (the photo was largely a symmetrical view down the hallway to a window at the end). And she was very observant and had a good grasp of architectural structure. But she found that she somehow didn't have enough room for the doorways, furniture and pictures along the walls each side.
She was working from an iPhone photo, and so the phone's camera was distorting all the verticals due to its very wide-angle lens. I had to explain to her about spherical distortion and how mediated all images are by the photographic tools we use before I could explain a solution. Her learning curve was almost vertical! But she saw it and learned. She was eventually able to perceive how the verticals actually fanned-out from a vanishing point below the picture and used this to correct her base drawing.
She has grappled with this 'simple' painting for probably a solid eight hours now and it's still not resolved. It might never be. But she and I both agree that she has learned so much from this little painting that even if it never sees the light of day it will have been worthwhile, because of all she learned in having to really look. And grapple with why what she thought she saw wasn't what was actually there.
If she had traced the drawing she would not have had as much difficulty, but she also would not have learned anything about perspective or about optics, or about the mediated nature of mechanically-reproduced images. That's three massive areas of learning!
Another student was blocking in the ground to a portrait which I knew she was going to trace over the top. I suggest she just keep blocking and blocking until the face emerged. I tried to get her to see how the face was already visible in the blocking. I suggested that she keep working in that way, slowly observing the painting as the face emerged from the paint. In the end she went with her preferred way of working but she understood what I was getting at. You can be a slave to the source material, or you can use it as a starting point to create something new.
My S11 portraits are all from photographs, and the photos have limited amounts of visual info in them due to the fact they've been blown up and rephotographed so many times. But when I re-paint and re-draw them, something extra always enters into them. There is a likeness to the original, but there are also new likenesses. For instance it is common I think for artists to unconsciously idealise their subjects slightly. Or the opposite. But the likeness is never neutral. For me I see people I know in the likenesses. These photos of unknown (to me) protesters, police and bystanders end up as paintings and drawings of family members: my son, my mother. A policeman I drew the other day I had to hashtag #sirianmckellen just because of the likeness to Gandalf, even though he was a riot cop in a face shield.
This is the purpose of drawing: to discover things you didn't know you were looking for. If you trace your source material, you're limiting the relevance of the final work, to you, and to the audience.