Years ago, I remember watching tutorials and reading step by step outlines on drawing techniques. They taught me a lot.
What remained a mystery to me, though was, “how did these artists get their initial outline to look so amazing? Did they do it freehand, and if so, I want to know how to accomplish that amount of accuracy myself!”
I searched many sites and videos, trying very hard to find an answer to this, but almost everything I watched started the lessons AFTER the outline was already there, which really irked me!
So I tried asking the question, “How do I actually go about drawing the initial outline for my drawing?” on art forums such as Wet Canvas.
What I found interesting was that this question actually started debates among the artists there about whether any method besides 100 percent freehand was cheating!
When I read these debates – which sometimes included harsh judgment from some for anyone who traced an outline – I felt a twinge of guilt.
I felt like I was not a “real” artist like those other artists who seemed to be capable of drawing perfectly with no mistakes on their own.
For a while, I hid the fact that I began my drawings this way, out of embarrassment. I thought wrongly that most artists must have a gift or quality that I didn’t possess and that I had a shameful secret; that I used shortcuts that other “real” artists didn’t need.
The truth came to light (for me) years later when I realized that many artists through the centuries and even today, use many methods (like tracing) that help them to be more accurate.
It’s not shameful or cheating to use these methods. They’re just helpful tools that help speed the process and help provide accurate proportions.
Imagine taking a traced outline to multiple people who are not artists and see how their drawings turn out. They would all be different, wouldn’t they?
The finished product would reveal the skill level of each artist involved.
There is so much more to a drawing than the initial sketch!
The fact that the underdrawing is traced does not change the fact that it takes a lot of understanding to fill in the details without messing it up terribly.
Also, one thing that surprised me over time was that tracing did not actually handicap me or make me dependent on tracing in order to draw.
It was actually beneficial in guiding and instructing me as I practiced and developed as an artist.
I am now able to freehand most subjects fairly accurately without even needing to trace, which is something I think I can at least partially credit to tracing.
I can even draw people from life now, which is pretty cool, since i couldn’t always do that!
So now that I’ve given you a little background on my experience, here are some of the methods that I have used (in the past and today) for drawing:
The grid method
If you’re not familiar with the grid method, do you remember ever seeing these types of things in coloring books?
When I was a child, I absolutely LOVED these types of coloring pages in my activity book.
In this type of drawing activity, there are numbered squares each containing a random looking shape, and you have to find the number that matches each square, draw it in the correctly numbered box, and put these in the right order. It will “magically” become a picture that you can identify.
It’s kind of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but different. I still enjoy doing these today!
In fact, these are terrific for teaching us to really SEE” what we are drawing (which is a topic I plan to write about soon!)
Anyway, the grid method is similar to this. The grid method is a way to enlarge or transfer an image without much effort.
And it really helps improve your drawing skills, much like the activity I showed above, by helping your observational skills.
I really don’t know how other artists do the grid method, but here’s how I do it:
I get a plastic paper protector sleeve and I draw a grid (using a ruler) like this over it, with equal sized squares.
I usually have the squares about a half inch to an inch. You can make them whatever size you want.
I lay this sleeve with squares on it directly over my photograph. Now, I get a piece of paper and draw VERY LIGHTLY ( I can’t emphasize this enough- VERY lightly) squares onto the paper, the same size.
Or, if I want to make the drawing 2x the size of the photograph, I’ll make the squares 2x the size of the ones on the plastic sheet.
So now, I begin by looking at the squares individually (kind of like in the activity page shown above) and draw what I see ONLY in that square.
One square at a time. Once all the squares are filled in, I’ll have a proportionally accurate outline that I can begin doing the hard part with!
Now, the only annoying part is that you need to erase all those squares from the paper, which is why you want to draw them VERY lightly, or else you’re going to see them on your drawing forever!
By the way, you can also use the grid method to REDUCE the size of a photograph that is bigger than you want your drawing to be.
Just use the method described above, only reduce the size of the squares on your plastic sleeve by half on the drawing paper, and it’ll work perfectly!
Tracing by Projection
Ok, so another method that I’ve used in the past and absolutely LOVE is the projection method!
The kind of projector that I used was an Artograph Superprism opaque projector. I bought mine on eBay, but they are also for sale at Hobby Lobby (and you can get it for 40 percent off with their everyday online coupon)!
This is almost nothing like the overhead projector except that it does project things onto the wall.
The opaque projector projects clearly and brightly in full color right onto your wall. It’s SO EASY.
Just turn it the projector on, turn off the lights, point it at the wall, and trace onto a sheet of paper (there are opaque projectors that are tilted toward a drawing table so that it’s easier on your arms).
The projector can enlarge and reduce by using the different sides of the lens and by pulling away from or getting closer to the wall.
I HIGHLY recommend using a projector…when I was churning out 1-2 portraits a day in 2013, it was worth it’s weight in gold because it saved me SO MUCH TIME.
Tracing using lightbox:
Now, I actually haven’t used a lightbox before, but I have seen others use them and know they are pretty handy.
What a lightbox is is literally what it sounds like. It’s a box that’s like a little desk filled with light that you can put your photograph on, then place drawing paper on top of that.
The light is bright enough that you can see clearly through your drawing paper and trace directly onto your paper that way.
If you don’t want to spend the money to buy a new lightbox, you can always make your own. Just use the search words, “How to make your own lightbox!”
I have used other methods that are similar- my laptop achieves this purpose quite well.
I just find an image online or upload one from my camera, and size it the way I want, trace onto tracing paper, then transfer with graphite paper onto my drawing paper.
If you’re not familiar with graphite paper (aka transfer paper), it’s a very thin piece of paper coated in graphite (what pencil lead consists of).
It is placed under an image, usually on tracing paper, and creates a copy of your image when it’s traced over. Think of when you write a check and see the copy underneath. It’s like that.
Note: do not try to substitute carbon paper for this, as it creates very dark lines that you cannot erase.
I have also (in a pinch) used a window in the house as a lightbox as the natural light from outside works just as well!
I just stick my photograph directly onto the window, put a sheet of drawing paper on top of that, and trace the outline.
Over time, I have come to like drawing freehand more as it allows me more freedom, and I can use my imagination more.
Yet, I still use the other methods as it sure does speed things up if I’m in a hurry (and, being the mother of eight children, life does keep me busy enough to need a time saver or two!)
If you are unable to draw your pictures freehand, don’t feel like it makes you any less of an artist.
With every tracing you make, you are learning more and more about how to coordinate your hand and eye movements, and you are developing your observational skills, and it is not in any way a bad thing!
Now, what do you think? Have you ever tried any of these methods described above, and if so, what are your thoughts on them?
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I plan to share many more tips on how to improve your drawings, so stay tuned!