Why shortcuts like tracing won’t help you with drawing on the long run and what to do instead?

What do I call shortcuts in drawing?

Shortcuts in drawing are steps which lets you create a relative good and accurate picture fast skipping some or most of the hard work. This might sound good and catchy at first but actually it has a lot more downside than you can imagine. Here are some of the most common shortcuts and how they work:

Tracing: tracing is when you use an existing drawing or photo and you draw over its main features (the line of the figure for example) then you design it further or just color it. It is actually copying. Tracing a photo for a pose can help you reduce working time but you won’t learn too much from it. You won’t understand how anatomy works just from copying. When you do this with other peoples artworks (so you basically redraw an existing artwork) that is most of the time considered stealing and is not welcome in artist circles. I believe if you are not an artist, but your job requires to create some images no one will care if you trace a photo (whose copyright you have).

Using bases, pre made designs: there are some softwares and also some people who let you use their own pre made bases, like characters which you can then design further and use them for example in your comic book. They are pre made so they will have limited forms, poses and size.

Photos as backgrounds: when you copy paste a photo so that it will be the background for your artwork. When you do this your artwork won’t look so good, the styles will be too different, your picture will “fell apart” visually. There might be some situation when this is a required effect but most cases artist use this because they don’t know how to make a background or they background skills are a lot lower than their actual character drawing skills and when they create a background behind their character they just don’t like it.

There are good shortcuts too if you know when and how to work with them:

Magic brushes: what I call magic brushes are brushes which easily imitates things like trees or clouds. You just click and you will have a tree on your canvas. These brushes can be helpful however I really belive that you should only use them when necessary and at first learn to draw these by hands. Concept artists use these kind of brushes a lots of time, however they actually can draw a tree in a minute from head when needed. They use these brushes to speed up their pace of work and they use these brushes well, so those trees will look part of their picture. This actually needs some skills to put into practice. Artist who are just starting out might end up with a tree or rock that is not part of their image, it doesn’t match with their style and with their artwork.

A 3D image for base: Using other softwares to create a starting base, like a 3D image made in 3D Studio Max or a house put together in Sketchup. When you create a base like this you will have less work when starting, but you will still work a lot to create an awesome image from the bases. You will recolor it, add details to it and there are still way more to do with the image. I think using these kinds of shortcuts can be very helpful and they won’t do the real job for you. They are guidelines. It is advised to use these as references, so do sketches from them by freehand. They will look better and you can adjust the bases to fit your idea freely.

What is the problem with shortcuts

The most biggest problem with shortcuts is that you will improve a lot less, if none at all. When you use a shortcut you basically avoid the hard part of drawing, which means you don’t learn. If you use a pre made character base for example you won’t learn how to draw a human figure from head. You won’t be able to draw a character from any view, not to mention you won’t be able to create whatever character you have imagined. Your art will be very limited.

Your knowledge of the most basic things of drawing will be missing. You might be able to create nice artworks at the beginning, but as I said your art will be very limited. As soon as you want to create something else you will realise that you miss many skills and basically you will create a less impressive artwork as you may wanted. You might end up disappointed. You won’t learn to sketch for example with this. Sketching is important for drawing, you can test ideas and composition quickly with it. Also when your whole arm is moving you will get lines and shapes that have movement and energie what will be visible on your drawing. An other skill is seeing. Seeing means you draw what you see and not what you think you see. Seeing will help you get perspective, forms, colors, lights and even details right.

An other problem with tracing might be that you will learn a mistake an other artist made, for example an anatomy mistake. You might not even realise that his/her drawing is off and by tracing you might just learn that mistake, which will be hard to correct later. Also you will learn the other artist style while tracing his artworks. This might be something you want, but if you would like to work on your own style I don’t recommend tracing as this might be a result.

In time you will need to acquire the basic skills and the more complex ones as well. There is no way to skip these, you might only delay them at the time. I believe it is more wise to start drawing now without shortcust then realising a few years later – when you need them – that you are missing key drawing skills. You might face more problems at that time, like overwhelm. Learning to draw needs time now and will need time 5 years later too.

An important problem with shortcuts are that other artist who realise that you use shortcuts might be disappointed in you and in your artworks and they might not follow you anymore. The more well known you are the more trouble you might have with this. Just imagine that your favourite artist suddenly shows a tutorial of his process and what you see is that he puts a photo on his canvas, he makes it quite transparent then redraws the model on a layer above in 2 minutes. Who would have thought that he uses this shortcut while you struggle to draw the torso and the legs of your character for hours to get them right. (A traced pose will actually lack energie. You will do a lot better if you use a reference picture for sketching, which you will adjust along the sketching process to make it more awesome.)

What to do instead?

I believe the best way is if you put your time and effort into your artworks as soon as you start out. It will pay off many times in the long run. It will be seen on your artwork that you have worked hard on it. Don’t do this for others, do it for yourself. Learn it. You might ask where should you start then, how will you be able to draw well?

First just try to draw a few things from your imagination and from real life, enjoy it, and then analyze your drawings. What do you like about your drawings and what not? What looks good and what needs more work? On your next sketches and artworks be sure to focus on these areas, correct them if you think they are going the wrong way. Correct the mistakes and don’t do them again. Use references wisely – I will write an article about this soon.
Analyze how other artists solve art problems like cloth wrinkles or foreshortening. Check how they do it, understand it and adjust it to fit your drawing style. Use what you’ve discovered. This is how you will learn.

Tracing can be helpful in some way when you just start out with drawing. You might learn to draw some basic forms in a given way, or you can memorize the proportion of human figure that you can use later when you learn anatomy. I suggest if you want to use tracing for learning, use it alongside with free drawing. Draw more from life, sketch more and if you feel like tracing helps you, use it as an additional excercise to boost your skills.

Good luck and have fun with drawing!

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