Last week, I taught a class on painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It was the third time I’ve held a workshop there and it was a full class at eighteen painters. It was a bit difficult for everyone to see the model, but we adjusted well enough.
We loosened up the first day working quickly from the live model, and then, in order to give the entire class the full advantage of working from the same angle, I photographed her in a new pose, and projected it. Everyone worked from this new angle so that we could all talk about the same points of concern.
That may just be the first time anyone’s ever done that. The students needed to get beyond the stigma associated with using photographs. I wanted them to compare working from life and working with an edited photo. The model returned the second day and we worked from both. The Rockwell even provided color and b/w prints of the pose. This way, we worked with whatever it took to learn and get a good painting on the surface.
When I was hired for my first studio job, I refused to use any kind of projection, any kind of tracing whatsoever. Then as I watched the hours tick away while my other better, faster colleagues were covering far richer ground, I decided to use it. But I promised myself to learn from it. I would master it and use it to inform my skills.
I found it a fascinating teacher.
First off, I used tracing to learn anatomy. By tracing, I could actually feel how an arm foreshortened. I could see what length the line was that was needed to foreshorten it. I could understand how eyes, noses, hands looked at difficult angles.
I used it to train my drawing skills and improve them. No, it didn’t happen right away. Like anything else, it took time. Yet I sped up, my drawings improved, and I began to keep up with the guys around me who chuckled to themselves at my naivete.
In life drawing classes we work from the model, sitting before us. But what happens when they’re not there? What most art schools fail to tell you is that you’re supposed to be memorizing. Memorize anatomy? What kind of alchemy is this? Most instructors think you learn anatomy by simply drawing the model. Uh huh.
2. Draw, don’t trace.
When I draw, I remember that using the point of the pencil is boring if all the line weight is the same. Same for tracing. I use the side of the lead, roll it, angle it, vary it for shadow lines, hair, folds, trees, etc. I get different line weight by varying the pressure on the pencil. Ultimately, you’re doing a drawing. SO DRAW.
3. Edit detail.
Forget about tracing every little subtle light shift, or shadow, every tree branch or eyelash. Forget about drawing every strand of hair. Draw for shape, draw for tone. Generalize the reference for the most part. It’s a guide.
4. It’s a guide.
When you trace under something like an Artograph, drive yourself to get good enough to draw with it. It’s not about tracing the image exactly. It’s about using the image as a guide to correct proportions and delineate shadows, depth, line, and contrast. Give it your own technique, otherwise your work looks lifeless, pedestrian, lame. It’ll look like you traced it. Exaggerate. Use fluid lines. Any ol’ goof can follow lines. Draw with it.
5. Use your own photography.
Shoot what you need. Best that way. The internet is full of pictures you need for reference, but I use them only as reference to draw from. I still need to make the sketch my own. Whenever you can, buy the reference you need. Better for everyone that way.
6. Distortion Happens.
No photograph records life exactly. Photos adjust the image from three dimensions to two. It’s already distorted. But you have to know when it’s telling you a lie about reality. Do not believe that photographs are real or telling you about reality. They do not. You must learn to recognize when they do and don’t and be able to compensate. Besides, it’s a GUIDE.
7. Perfect the composition.
First, I design the composition with thumbnails. Then I use reference to draw separate elements of a complex composition on separate slips of tracing paper. I move the sheets around until the composition is refined, perfected. It’s a composition guide. Artists have been using this since the Dawn of Illustration. Today, you’ll likely do this by cutting and pasting the reference together on the computer. It’s the same thing.
8. Use it sparingly.
As I trained with tracing, I used it less and less. It instantly improved my drawing skills, especially drawing from my head. It improved my memorization skills, but I had to focus on it. The next time you draw from life, you’ll understand what you learned from tracing. The next time you trace, you’ll understand more from your life drawing. Back and forth, back and forth. --What? Did you think there was a straight line to skill? C’mon.
9. Nothing is cheating.
If I hear another artist talk about being a purist and only drawing from the model, I’m gonna burst. That’s just part of the training. Honestly, get over it. Now, today. If your grandma's hurt because you trace photos, tell her to get over it, too. I do whatever it takes to get the idea to the canvas because it all changes from there. If Leonardo could’ve used today’s technology, you bet your sweet maxilla he would’ve. Sorry, but there’s no “cheating” in the art field. Anybody who says you're cheating, you have my permission to, umm, enlighten them. At this point in mankind’s search for Art, all is fair game.
Let’s see where you, where we all, can go from here.