How to use tracing paper to transfer your sketch to the drawing paper

Is learning how to use tracing paper cheating or a legitimate artistic technique?

This is a debate that has raged within art communities for years. We're here to tell you that not only is tracing a valid method used by professional artists, but it's also an incredibly useful tool for beginners and intermediates looking to perfect their craft.

This comprehensive guide will explore the myriad ways you can use tracing paper to enhance your artwork, from transferring sketches to final pieces, to checking proportions and more.

We'll also debunk common misconceptions about tracing and explain why this method is no less authentic than drawing freehand. Whether you're an established artist or just starting out, read on to discover how tracing paper can revolutionize your art process.

The benefits of tracing

As an artist, the primary objective is to encapsulate the intrinsic nature of the subject. Tracing paper is a valuable tool for achieving precision and has been an invaluable companion throughout many an artistic journey, from the initial steps to the current practice.

For beginners, tracing paper offers a pathway to understanding form and structure. It's not about copying but about learning - observing how lines connect, how shapes form, and how details bring a subject to life. Tracing can help train the eye to see these elements and replicate them more easily in freehand drawing.

As an intermediate artist, tracing paper becomes a means of refinement. It allows you to experiment with composition without committing to the final piece. You can overlay different sketches, compare proportions, or adjust positioning until you find the perfect balance. It’s also a great tool for honing your technique and practicing difficult elements.

Even as an experienced artist, tracing paper doesn't lose its relevance. It aids in transferring initial sketches onto the final drawing paper, ensuring the accuracy of complex compositions. It can also be used to create mirror images or symmetrical designs, saving time and ensuring precision.

Tracing vs freehand drawing: why not both?

When using a photo reference, the process typically begins with freehand sketching in a sketchbook or on inexpensive paper, experimenting with various compositions and concepts. This allows artists to question and refine their ideas before committing to the final piece.

Tracing paper becomes a useful tool at this stage, not for tracing the photo directly, but for tracing the original sketch. These sketches and tracings provide a guideline for the accurate size and placement of drawing elements. For instance, they might outline the boundaries of a colorful fur patch, the angle of a nose, or the location of a sparkle in an eye.

Once the sketch has been traced onto the tracing paper, it can be set aside until nearing completion of the artwork. At this stage, it can be overlaid onto the drawing to ensure that all crucial elements are correctly placed and haven't shifted during the drawing process. If necessary, adjustments can be made at this point.

So, when asked whether a drawing is traced or freehand, the answer could be - both.

How to use tracing paper

In this guide, we will outline four distinct methods of using tracing paper.

Alternatives to tracing paper include using a lightbox or the grid system. Click to learn more.

Method 1

You might recall this method from school days, but a refresher never hurts. Using thick, quality tracing paper is important to avoid frustration from creases or tears.

Tracing is a simple three-step process.

  1. First, the tracing paper is placed on top of the desired image to reproduce. To prevent slipping, the two should be held together with tape or paper clips. The image is then traced over with a medium graphite or watercolour pencil that stands out against the drawing paper.
  2. Next, the tracing paper is flipped over and laid on scrap paper. The traced lines are then reinforced with a pencil.
  3. After securing the tracing paper over the drawing paper with low tack tape, a colored pencil is used to draw back over the original lines.

Using a different colour helps distinguish which lines have already been traced over.

It's important not to press too hard with the pencil to avoid indented lines. Alternatively, a crafter's "bone folder" or even the back of a teaspoon handle can be used to transfer the graphite from the tracing paper to the drawing surface. Using these wider, flatter tools reduces the risk of creating indented lines.

Method 2

Here's a more streamlined approach.

  1. Start by tracing the outlines as usual.
  2. Flip the tracing paper over, and this time, there's no need to retrace the lines precisely. Instead, simply scribble over them in a rough manner. When lines are closely spaced, the scribble can encompass the entire area. However, if there's a large open space, leave that untouched.
  3. Secure the tracing over the drawing paper and meticulously go over the traced outline to transfer the image.

This method has a higher risk of smudging, so extra caution is advised.

Method 3

It is possible to create graphite transfer paper by coating a sheet of tracing paper with graphite, sourced from either a pencil or a solid block.

This sheet can be reused simply by replenishing the areas where graphite has been previously transferred.

Attach the tracing to the drawing paper as usual, then insert the DIY carbon paper in between, ensuring the graphite side faces the drawing paper.

It's crucial to trace over the lines meticulously. Do keep an eye out for smudges, as they are a common occurrence with this method.

When working on black paper, a similar sheet can be effectively created using a white pastel pencil or stick. After transferring to the drawing surface, overlay the pastel with a white colored pencil and finally dust off any loose pastel powder.

Method 4

Consider purchasing ready-prepared graphite paper from the art store or online for a convenient and efficient option.

It's crucial to select the graphite version, as other types, which are carbon, don't allow for the easy removal or modification of transferred marks.

This tool also comes in other colours like white and red, specifically designed for use on dark-coloured papers. However, it's worth noting that some artists haven't had much success with these variants. If a traced line strays outside of the intended area, it proves challenging to erase.

There's also been difficulty working with white pencils over transferred white lines. But remember, each artist's experience can vary.

How to remove smudges from the drawing paper

For those looking to erase unwanted graphite smudges, a kneaded eraser can be a lifesaver. Lightly tapping the smudge with this tool can effectively lift the loose graphite, leaving your artwork smudge-free.

If you don't have a kneaded eraser at hand, mounting putty, often used for hanging posters, can be a great alternative. Brands like BluTac, popular in the UK, work wonders when warmed and worked in the hand until slightly sticky. This allows for easy lifting of any unwanted graphite.

To keep your kneaded eraser and BluTac in prime condition, store them separately to avoid dust accumulation or drying out. This ensures your tools are always ready to keep your artwork pristine and perfect.

Summing up

In conclusion, tracing paper serves as a valuable tool for artists at every stage of their creative journey…

  • whether you're a professional seeking to save time,
  • an intermediate artist looking to refine your techniques,
  • or a beginner focused on building fundamental skills,

…tracing paper offers a multitude of benefits.

Remember, tracing paper is not about creating an exact replica, but rather about capturing the size and positioning of elements within your artwork. By following the methods outlined in this guide, you can confidently transfer your sketches to drawing paper and ensure the accuracy of your composition.

Now, it's time to take action. Experiment with the different methods discussed, finding the one that aligns with your workflow and artistic style.

Don't be deterred by misconceptions or concerns about cheating. Instead, view tracing paper as a tool that can enhance your creativity and elevate your artwork.

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