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

It may seem strange to find a page on how to use tracing paper on an art site. I am sure your reaction was "WHAT!" or "Thank goodness it's allowed!".

The subject comes up a lot in art groups on the internet, and people seem to either think it's cheating or that it is a tool. Whatever your feelings, there are certainly times when tracing paper is useful whatever stage of becoming a coloured pencil artist you have reached. 

  1. For a professional who works on a commission basis, time is money. Anything that can save your time is surely worth taking advantage of?
  2. For the intermediate artist, who can draw but wants to learn the techniques of using coloured pencils, tracing the basic shapes from a tutorial or your own photo offers a lot of benefits, including speed. 
  3. For the beginner, practising basic skills will help you more in the long run than worrying about whether you're cheating by tracing.

My method

When someone asks, "did you trace it or draw it freehand?" I normally answer yes. Inevitably, I get a blank look in return. I then explain.

When I work from a photo reference, I don't trace the photo itself. I do a freehand sketch in my sketchbook or on cheap paper, trying out different compositions and ideas. "Shall I include that? Is this necessary?"

When I am happy, I go over the lines I want to use with a darker line. THEN I get the tracing paper out and trace my work. 

My sketches and tracings are not accurate representations of where every hair goes on a dog, or every leaf on a tree. The lines are there to get the correct size and positioning of elements of the drawing. I might delineate ...

  • the edges of a patch of coloured fur
  • the angle of the nose
  • where the twinkle is in an eye 

I use the method given below for how to use tracing paper and then put the tracing to one side until I have nearly finished the artwork. Then I will take it and lay it on top of the drawing to check that I have the important elements in the right places and that they haven't migrated during the process. I can correct their position, if required.

A tracing of the finished piece is also useful as a template if I am writing a tutorial for others to follow. Anyone trying to reproduce my drawing would want their initial layout plan to resemble how mine finished up and not to include any mistakes I had made with my first sketch. 

Instructions for how to use tracing paper

Method 1

You likely used this method at school, but might not have done it recently, so here is a recap. 

My first piece of advice is to use thick, quality tracing paper. If the paper is too thin, it can become creased and tear, which is frustrating. 

Tracing is a three-step process.

  1. Lay the tracing paper on top of the image you wish to reproduce. Hold the two together with tape or paper clips to prevent them sliding around. Trace over the image with a medium graphite, or watercolour pencil that contrasts with your drawing paper.
  2. Turn the tracing paper over, lay it on scrap paper, and go over the traced lines again with your pencil. 
  3. Secure your tracing in place over your drawing paper with a hinge of low tack tape. Being careful not to press your hand down over the tracing, use a coloured pencil to draw back over your original lines. 

Using a different colour allows you to see which lines you have already traced over. Don't press hard with your pencil or you will end up with indented lines.

Instead of a pencil, you can use a crafter's "bone folder" or even the back of a teaspoon handle to transfer the graphite from the tracing paper to the drawing surface. As you are using a wider, flatter implement, there is less chance of creating indented lines.  

Method 2 for how to use tracing paper

This is a quicker way to work.

  1. First trace the outlines, as before. 
  2. Turn the tracing paper over and this time don't worry about accurately retracing the lines. Instead, just scribble over them roughly. Where lines are close together, your scribble can cover the entire area. Where you have a large open space, leave that uncovered. 
  3. Secure the tracing in place over your drawing paper and go over the traced outline carefully to transfer the image.

There is more chance of smudging using this method, so take more care.

Method 3

You can create your own graphite carbon paper by covering a sheet of tracing paper with graphite from either a pencil or solid block. This page can then be reused by just adding more graphite where it has previously been transferred. 

Attach your tracing to the drawing paper as usual, then slip your DIY carbon paper in between with the graphite side towards your drawing. 

Trace carefully over your traced lines. 

Be wary of smudges as they are very likely with this method.

Method 4 for how to use tracing paper

To save even more time, you can buy ready prepared graphite carbon paper at the art store. Be sure it is the graphite version, as you won't be able to work over or remove any transferred marks if you use carbon intended for other purposes.

You can also buy this in other colours, such as white and red. Designed for use on dark-coloured papers, I have to say I have not had a lot of success with these. If your traced line ends up outside of your drawn area, it is difficult to erase. I have also found my white pencils do not work well over the transferred white lines. Of course, your experience may differ. 

When working on dark paper, I prefer to use a white pastel pencil on the back of the tracing paper. After transferring to the drawing surface, I then go over the pastel with a white coloured pencil, before dusting off any loose pastel powder. 

How to remove smudges from the drawing paper

I find the best way to remove smudges is to tap lightly with a kneaded eraser, as this picks up the loose graphite without smearing it further. 

An alternative is to use the blue (or white) mounting putty used to stick posters up on the wall. Here in the UK a popular brand is BluTac. Work the substance in your hand for a while and it will start to feel a little sticky. It will then pick up the unwanted graphite easily. 

I like to keep my kneaded eraser and BluTac in separate little tubs so that they don't dry out or collect dust.

In summary

I hope this page has refreshed your memory on how to use tracing paper or provided some options if you haven't tried it before. 

I suggest you try out the different methods to find the one that suits you and your workflow best. 

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