Why I Allow Tracing in the Art Room

Tracing used to be forbidden in my classroom. Basically, I saw it as an easy way out. I felt tracing prevented students from learning new skills and honing their observational abilities. I didn’t see any real value in it.

After some deep reflection, however, I’ve come to see tracing in a whole new light. If you’re on the fence about tracing, read on to see what changed my mind. You might just make space for it in your teaching practice.

Here is why I think tracing can have a justified place in the art room.

student tracing

It Can Fit With the Goals of Your Class

When I really think about it, one of the main purposes of my art class is to make students believe they are artists who can creatively execute their ideas. Another purpose is to give students challenges they must solve using artistic means. These open-ended assignments force students to problem-solve. Is it really so bad if tracing is part of the solution?

Along with solving problems, another purpose of my art class is for students to feel and understand they can use art to communicate with others. For example, if a student is trying to create a visual story of their life, then they need to be able to envision, brainstorm, design a composition, make choices about artistic conventions, and execute a finished piece accomplishing their goals. The critical thinking skills, college-level work habits, and the artistic process involved can still be rigorous, authentic, and provocative even if tracing was used to transfer some imagery.

It Can Be a Form of Differentiation

I encourage all students to render using their eyes and hands. On average, there are thirty students in my classes. Generally, twenty of those students draw independently and ask for coaching occasionally. Five students might need some one-on-one instruction, but eventually, take on the challenge of drawing on their own. The remaining five students feel like they want to create pieces they are proud of but might have some specific challenges making it difficult to do so.

Perhaps their hand coordination is compromised. Perhaps they are not willing to step out of their comfort zone. Usually, when students choose, or demand, to trace, they are students with limited skill levels. Providing tracing as a tool can be incredibly helpful for them.

artwork using traced image

If you think about it, many other classes give extra support to students who need it. For example, students in an English class might get support via sentence starters. In math, this could look like using a calculator or notes on a test. So why can’t tracing be an accommodation in the art room?

Tracing even becomes a tool when a student can use their traced image as a spark for something else. After they trace, they still have to continue the artistic process. They still have to make choices to communicate their ideas. They still need to ponder what needs to happen for the piece to achieve their goals.

Making Sure Tracing Doesn’t Become a Default

Let me be clear: I do not promote tracing in the art room. I do not reference it as a strategy to help create an art piece. I still try to discourage students from doing it. When a handful of students approach me about tracing, or simply do it on their own, I try to talk them out of it. In fact, tracing is never allowed on low-risk assignments like those more about experimenting with line, shape, or color.

However, if a student is absolutely set on tracing and it keeps them focused and driven in a larger, open-ended assignment, then I allow it. It is a case by case basis. Tracing usually happens when an assignment is on paper, so they can see through to the other side. By offering students supports beyond paper, such as cardboard or wood, students then have to experiment with a new strategy. Of course, they could trace an image over their support with the hopes of leaving an impression on the surface. That is another form of artistic problem-solving.

Final Thoughts

People use tracing all the time. Cartoonists use it as a way to speed up the redrawing process in animation. Architects trace over blueprints. Muralists sometimes project images to trace outlines or detailed parts when transferring an image. It doesn’t have to be taboo.

And although I don’t encourage it, when students naturally find tracing as a way to help them solve artistic problems, I can accept it as a suitable strategy. Some students simply require some extra scaffolding to help them engage in and complete artistic investigations.

What is your view on tracing in the art room?

Are there any approaches or content you try to dissuade students from using?

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

Related

  • Leo Barthelmess

    I guess it really depends on the goals of the lesson. I do not let tracing on observational drawings etc but assignments that are more pure design based, I do allow it. Historically, “drawing machines” have been used to assist in accuracy so why not now?

    • Matt Christenson

      Good call Leo. I agree with you.

  • Mary Duval

    I think back to my own independent tracing practices as a child and realize it truly gave me the opportunity to do line work where my hand was allowed to move without having to think about which direction to go. Mental connections were made for when I drew later on my own. The process of tracing was relaxing and helpful but when all was said and done I felt less proud than if I’d done it on my own and the more I drew naturally the less I traced.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hey Mary! Glad to hear that tracing had some benefits for you at earlier stages. I agree. Tracing is not as satisfying in the long run.

  • Kristin Adolf

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7929ccc574d2d17f4faa4a37640a0a6a383673c1835847e6e7bf261729c86f51.jpg I agree- it depends on the goals for your lesson. This one, for example, is a recent product from a lesson I do with 4th grade. The students are introduced to using text in their artwork. They each develop a list of positive words about themselves (approximately 50), and use them to fill in their portraits. My main goals for this lesson are to incorporate text (we discuss font size and style) color selection, and craftsmanship. Putting all of that new info on these students is plenty (in my book) and I want the students to feel successful! So I allow them to start this project using a digital photo and tracing the major outlines so their designs look like themselves from the start and sets them up to succeed!

    • Matt Christenson

      This is awesome!

  • Mr. Post

    The Hockney–Falco thesis is a theory of art history, advanced by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco. Both claimed that advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical instruments such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due to the development of artistic technique and skill. Nineteenth-century artists’ use of photography had been well documented.[1] In a 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney analyzed the work of the Old Masters
    and argued that the level of accuracy represented in their work is
    impossible to create by “eyeballing it”. Since then, Hockney and Falco
    have produced a number of publications on positive evidence of the use
    of optical aids, and the historical plausibility of such methods. The
    hypothesis led to a variety of conferences and heated discussions.

    Here’s a link to the article on Wikipedia about it – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockney%E2%80%93Falco_thesis

    I cleared out a space in front of all of the windows in my classroom specifically to make more room for kids to trace things when they are done with their art works. They love to trace cartoons, Pokemon, cars etc. Eventually the kids who draw the most tire of tracing and move on to drawing works in their own sketchbooks.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Great point! I tell my kids about the Camera Obscura all the time and it completely blows their mind.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Mr. Post! Thanks for dropping some knowledge here. I’m going to look into the Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters book. Sounds interesting!

  • BossySnowAngel

    I worked in graphic design for years before returning to the classroom. Lightboxes, projection and a variety of other means were used regularly to insure proportion and placement of elements within a composition. This is especially true of logos, type fonts and repetitive elements. What’s ironic is the same means are used today with Maya and Photoshop to simply copy, resize and move elements without redrawing them. While drawing is certainly an important handskill, tracing doesn’t necessarily prevent developing those skills. One of my favorite lessons involves designing one-sixth of a color wheel in order to develop a radial design that matches. I also teach gridding, which in many ways can be more insidious than tracing in keeping skills from developing.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Bossy Snow Angel! Love that name. Thanks for sharing a bit about your class and the gridding lessons you do!

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I agree that tracing has some merit in art class. When asking first graders to create geometric shaped robots I provide shape stencils. They can also trace their own drawing if they want it to be transferred to a clean piece of paper. It comes in handy when creating a repetition of the same shape. However I want the children to use their eyes and learn to see details too, so I limit the tracing to an occasional thing, but tracing to transfer from one medium to another is necessary. I never want it to be used as a crutch instead of trying. We don’t have light tables for Elementary school but I know that graphic artist and animators use them all the time to transfer without having to redraw something over and over again. I love seeing my K-5 students achieving a goal or being proud of their creations.

    • Phyllis Bloxson

      My room doesn’t have windows to serve as light tables either. Rather sad to have an art room with no windows in it.

      • Matt Christenson

        Hello Phyllis! Wow…no windows! You must be an inspiring art teacher then. I think the windows give my students some extra vision…both through light but also some mental inspiration. Definitely agree on not using tracing as a crutch instead of trying.

  • Hannah June

    I agree- I “cheat” by tracing sometimes! Even when creating my own artwork! It can be a time saver and helps guarantee success. I ALSO discourage students from relying on this to create, but it really helps some of my students with low “art confidence” feel successful. Tracing still takes skill and focus to do, so I can appreciate the base it gives some of my students to work with.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Hannah! I agree…the lower confidence levels can become elevated with a little tracing help.

  • Erica North

    I really like the point that “tracing is an accommodation.”

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks Erica!

  • Tamara Hallock

    I like trace monotypes. I just created a couple last week, but haven’t done it with students yet. Color and details are added with watercolor, oil pastels, colored pencils or pastels… Combining two tracings would involve a little more planning and composition skills.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Tamara! Thanks for sharing.

  • Paula Goepfert

    I allow a form of tracing, along the same lines of the masters using projections. Halfway through the semester, I ask students to pick a topic from an art history list. After researching and writing an art critique on the topic, they must build it 3-D as a mini diorama. (aka Biography in a Box.) They are to recreate any art in their own hand, but are allowed to do a full color reproduction using their computer screen, vellum and prismacolor colored pencils. A quote last year from a student who recreated the Sistine Chapel ceiling: “I had no idea all that was in there!”

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for the comments Paula!

  • Kristy Sitton

    I agree that tracing can be a useful tool at times but should not be used as a crutch. It is great as an accommodation. I teach high school and I allow my ESS students to trace sometimes. But, on the other hand, I don’t know about letting students trace projected photos. I guess there is some merit to it but at a local art show a school displayed portraits that had (obviously) been projected and it made them all look the same. There was no artistic voice. It looked as if one person created all of them. It also seemed unfair because they won most of the ribbons that year. I would have felt like I was cheating if I allowed my students to do that.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Kristy! I agree…it’s a difficult line to walk sometimes…

  • Hharris

    I enjoyed this article and have used many techniques to strengthen drawing and free students to create.
    I find it is very much like using a calculator in math. Learn the basics and then move on to speed up the process.
    I teach high school art and for the first 2 years students learn from obersrvation, sketching from photos they have taken and using a grid-then tracing their own drawing on drawing- no tracing of a photo in the beginning. Once I feel they have a good handle on drawing then they can move to enlarging their own photos to trace. It does speed up the process. I know they could draw it on their own ( grid or free hand) but it would take longer. I would rather them spend time on improving blending, shading, painting, printing, etc. in the third year.
    If you keep the lessons varied with a mix of observational drawings, sketches, painting without a preliminary sketch and tracing, it’s all good!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello HHarris! Thanks for sharing your process here. It’s all good is right!

  • Jan Miller

    Tracing is a legitimate art skill that can amplify but should never replace free drawing. I permit a very limited amount of tracing from reference pictures, superhero drawings, etc. for grade credit as long as students acknowledge their source and I feel this will advance their skills. I also do this, even in high school, to level the playing field or to concentrate on a certain part of the lesson. For example, when introducing the creation of a real sense of depth in a still life, I allow students to juggle cut outs before settling on a final composition. In this way we avoid the frustration of spending hours realistically rendering something only to find out there’s no room for the cornucopia between the grapes and the large bowl. In my class students can always trace their own artwork from “thinking paper” onto their final paper. Tracing their own artwork frees them to make mistakes or alter their compositions on recycled paper while preserving your most expensive supplies for their final work. This also helps protect the tender surface of many papers from hard erasing. A final note–if you’ve got classroom windows within reach of your students, let them use this rather than a lighbox. They’re not likely to have a lightbox at home and more kids will be able to trace at a single time.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Jan! Amplify but never replace…I like that quote. Thanks for the insight!

  • jadine zadvorney

    I allow tracing in a couple of circumstances…one is the student is allowed to trace anything that is their own artwork. In other words anything that they have created they are allowed to trace as the original artwork belongs to them.
    In the other circumstance the tracing is done when a student is having difficulty figuring out how to draw something and/or seeing the basic shapes to use. This type of tracing is done with a dry erase marker and a sheet of plexiglass. The student is able to place the plexiglass over the photograph or image, use the dry erase marker on the plexiglass to trace over the basic shapes or lines of the desired image and then use this new line drawing on the plexiglass as their guideline to do a final drawing on paper or canvas. I have found this immensely helpful to all students to watch me do it first, erase my lines and then have the student redo on their own.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Jadine! Thanks for sharing some of your technique in class. That’s a great way to go about it. Awesome!

  • artpoet

    I think tracing is absolutely a valid tool and that is why I not only allow it but do sometimes teach it. I wouldn’t allow students to trace other people’s artwork but I want them to know shortcuts to make the work that fits their own vision. Why spend energy repeating things by eye when tracing can get the job done better and faster? But the original mark must be their own.

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for the insight Artpoet! Much appreciated.

  • Mario Asaro

    9 light boxes and a copier to enlarge and reduce reference material. Its more about compisition and design than anything else

    • Matt Christenson

      I agree Mario.

  • Mario Asaro

    where’s edit, composition, thank you

  • Olivia White

    I liked your argument for it be a means of scaffolding and I would add professional artist make use of any technology, tools and media that simplfies and streamlines making their artworks. I do not see why students cannot learn these techniques used by artist beyond the classroom.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Olivia! Thanks for the comment. I agree.

  • L Thompson

    I use it when the student is unable to draw certain shapes. And its temporary. I use it like kindergarten teachers uses tracing letters as practice for writing freehand. Then I slowly take them off the crutches. I also use tracing for lessons where the main focus is not drawing. Like finding a symbol to do for metal tooling or drawing an object for my pop art project. If Warhol copied, why can’t my students?

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello L Thompson! Great question about Warhol…I’m with ya.

  • Mary V

    I agree with the others- I see merit in tracing, if it is not to just copy someone else’s work. I let my students use tracing and projection quite often- just like I let them use stencils and overhead projections. It saves time, cleans up the artwork, and gives them a sense of satisfaction. Recently, we did a painting project where they were using personal symbols to create a painting in the style of Jim Dine, and they had to draw the symbol as many times as the roll of the dice said in their work. Many drew it once, then traced it on their layout paper with the light box or windows, then used a graphite transfer method to put it on their canvas panels. Was any of that wrong? I think it is just a faster means to an end.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hey Mary V! Thanks for sharing some of your students’ experiences in class.

  • Tina

    Tracing definitely has its place. My students don’t often ask but I actually encourage it at times even in observational drawing, if a student has one side of symmetrical object the way they like and are struggling too much with the other side I share with them some of my tricks of the trade, but then again it’s their work they are tracing. I think it is really a problem when it comes to tracing other works, cartoons etc. But even for some it’s a start and I handle it on an individual basis.

    • Matt Christenson

      Right on Tracy. Thanks for sharing what happens in your class!

  • Lory

    Tracing is like training wheels. Students can get over the hump of not drawing well, which is a skill that develops with time and practice for most. When students are able to draw out their designs, they are then able to apply techniques and creative design choices. They feel a greater sense of achievement in the end and are encouraged to continue their artistic development. Most people quit because they “can’t draw.” Applied artists use the technique of tracing every day. The only caveat is that when students must learn what is acceptable to trace and what is not (i.e. logos and popular designs created by someone else, anything that is copyright, etc).

    • Matt Christenson

      I like the training wheels analogy. The caveat makes sense too. Thanks Lory!

      • Lory

        My pleasure Matt. Thanks for the great article!

  • I recently came to the same realization. During our perspective unit, tracing is a very effective accommodation for my occupational course of study students. While tracing, one student expressed that she was used to drawing windows and as buildings as rectangles, but when she traced she realized that they weren’t really rectangles. Of course I still teach perspective drawing techniques to the class as a whole, but tracing allowed my occupational course of study students to understand the underlying principles and still create something she was proud of.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Katherine! It’s a fascinating realization, right? Thanks for sharing!

  • Steve Trudeau

    We use light boxes, tracing and transfer paper extensively in my Art I class, especially when I’m trying to encourage students to feel good about their work and not fretting about their drawing ability. I have two projects where I take a 3/4 view head shot of all my Art I students. We then create a “morphing” self-portrait that involves that photo. This has the student “mapping” the values in their image and using that mapped face for an abstraction portrait where they place non-realistic color combinations (after having studied analogous, complementary and split complementary color relationships). This abstract image goes in the center of the tag board (a 12″ x 24″ sheet), to the right or left of that image they trace their face, again, with the same photo, to create their realistic face (minus the value mapping) and finally the last section has their Non-objective space where they emphasis shapes (from the value shapes, or created from their imagination). There is much tracing and transferring going on, but their finish works look like them because of the photo, leaving them free to develop a composition that demonstrates their understanding of color, value, line, form, space, realism, abstraction and non-objective style. I’ve included a few photos to demonstrate my students’ successful use of tracing and transfer that is far from any crutch to learning. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7052d0da372b591041654137537025289bd244d6495400917076bd156586eb5b.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cf0d53b0be69229d8baf5f881a54a0061ca54c53d7cd587e65db583a0a8c3062.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c677ec035a6c7b72fb7b95657d71953be8a93062411f7da749bf8711652eba86.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/03d087f997638f6985c76b138a5148dcea38cfbffe6b1cc3fecd32edda56e854.jpg

    The other project, that utilizes their photo, is a pen & ink project where the value mapping comes into play, once again. Lighter values get minimal hatch marks, progressing to multiple hatching and cross-hatching for the darkest of values. Again, they learn the concept and have a finished image that they can take great pride in https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d3dd2c5675bd57e525a14f0dd9faab8332aa14b494aaa613700399e65bfd7aeb.jpg

    I always encourage students practicing observational drawing, but Art II is where I really promote that and wean them away from copying, especially others’ work. The issue of copyright and originality are strictly enforced as they progress through my class.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Steve! Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your process with students and these AMAZING projects! I really like your approach here. These are great.

  • Melissa Woodland

    It used to be taboo in my classroom to trace the work of another. They were always allowed to trace their own work. Then a penciller from Marvel comics came in for career day and blew my theories in front of the class as he discussed his career path and the expectation that he apprentice from the masters by tracing work from their hand. In high school this is a great springboard topic for a discussion on appropriation and I’ve used it as such. It is an option for students in my class who need accommodations. I also let them “trace” a ruler whenever they need to draw a straight line.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Melissa! Thanks for sharing. How cool to bring in a penciller from Marvel! Nice…

  • ElizT

    I like using tracing as a skill for younger children. But I have also allowed occasional tracing, say, as an example, when students of any age are doing self-portraits, I’ve let them trace their own glasses. I also allowed first and second graders trace a heart shape when we did Mondrian hearts. (I didn’t feel the least bit guilty, since in Kindergarten we have lessons on how to draw our own hearts.) I think tracing has its merits, as long as we clarify the rules against plagiarizing or inappropriately copying others’ work.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Eliz T! I appreciate your comments and agree with you. Take care!

  • Gloria Budz

    The only time students may trace work in my classroom is when they are tracing their OWN. I often tell them that if they are working on a draft, if they can compose it as close to a final look as possible, they won’t have to draw it all over again. They can trace the image over. It saves so much time and frustration. Their draft is usually exactly the same size as final work for this reason.

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for sharing on this one Gloria!

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  • Eric G Bubb

    Visit the National Gallery and one of the items on display is a full size graphite drawing ready to be picked onto a Canvas so it may be painted. A master would do a drawing and is minions would produce the actual painting except for the Face and hands which the master would do.