Can Tracing Help Improve Your Art? -- The Tracing Challenge


Morning ya'll! :D So not too long ago, I made a video talking about tracing. It's a common hot-button topic amongst those inside and out of the art community, and I felt it was important to address it. If you haven't already seen it, I definitely recommend it, regardless of your feelings towards tracings.

The feedback was an interesting read, and while I could make a whole video in and of itself addressing certain things, I thought instead to touch more on the side of tracing itself, and what you could do with it. If you watched the video above already, which you should have :P, then you'd know by now that tracing can be a tool. To emphasize that point, I decided to test it out.

I have experience in tracing in the past, but it's very limited, and also back when I felt a lot of that heavy shame for doing it, so that deterred me from playing around with it. (Now /that's/ the real shame!) For this experiment, I wanted it to be something I was completely unfamiliar with. I was weary of going too far into complexities, like cars or buildings and such, and went with something more organic--animals. My familiarity with the human body was too strong, and I felt that the differences from a before/after scenario might not be as telling. So I went for my weak point and chose to do horses! Something that I had only drawn once, maybe a couple times before.

Nevertheless, I knew almost nothing about how to draw them, so I set off to draw my 'before' picture, and this was the result.


I did my best to avoid having even looked at any horses before drawing these, to have it be as from memory as possible. I did a full body front, profile, and 3/4 view for the face. You can quite clearly see I had very little knowledge about horses. *cough*

From here, I hid my initial sketches, wanting to have a clear mind through this process and not bias anything. I went off to find reference photos to trace from. Since this was a YouTube video and not private use, I wanted to go with CC0 licensed photos just because they're the safest and easiest to use. (Fair use is debateable for other CC and non-CC licensed photos, I know, shh.) Heading on over to Pixabay, I narrowed my search down to photos of horses, and chose pictures that I found either appealing, ones with their bodies clearly in focus and not obscured by anything, as well as anything to assist in the three positions I drew initially.

After choosing my images, I went over to Photoshop (not necessary for this practice, you could use any digital program or traditional mediums to practice tracing) to get started.

I set myself a few rules for this challenge: (1) I could only trace. That meant no copying or other forms of referencing. Everything had to be on top of the reference. No otherwise practicing. (2) I could only use photo reference from life, nothing else. Since I wanted to get a grasp on real anatomy, and not stylized, I had to avoid any artworks or obvious photo-manipulated images. (3) No tutorials or outside resources could be used for assistance. I could only use the photos.

From there, it was merely a matter of trying out various forms of tracing.

For the most part, I stuck to the same analysis style for all the images I used. I kept pretty loose, even with the more accurately traced images. Since this experiment was more sketch-based anyway, hyper details weren't as important to me as getting a gist down.

When doing a study, of any kind, not just tracing, you want to be ACTIVE. That means not blindly copying or tracing from your reference. You should be asking yourself as many questions when and where possible. Why does this look the way it does? What is happening underneath? What shapes can I break this down into? What would happen if I used different shapes? What would this look like from a different angle? Etc.

I didn't just want to /trace/, I wanted to /understand/.

I would break the images down into several iterations, depending on how many I felt I needed. It was mostly unplanned, which I chose and why. Again, I'm going into this basically new to tracing as a form of study, and I hadn't looked into other methods other artists had tried. I wanted to go into this on my own first, see what I could get out of it before I looked for help.

Contour lines, like outlines, basic shapes, lining the forms, silhouettes, more detailed outlines--all of these methods of tracing were ones I tried. It's all about building an understanding and a relationship with what you're tracing. If I wanted to draw this again from memory later, I needed to simplify things to help me build it up later.


I tried many variations and used a variety of images because I wanted to have a wide range of things to learn from. I wasn't 100% sure what all I needed, so I jumped around to what felt right at the time, being more loose or refined when and where I needed it. I also wanted to have a balance of simplifying and more detailed tracing, to see the differences between them. I took the images from complex to simple then back to complex. Seeing that breakdown and subsequent rebuilding helped me more understand the forms of the horse, and told my mind ways I could do it on my own.

In total, I used just under 30 images, tracing them anywhere between 1-4 times, if memory serves.

As time went on, I did discover repeatable patterns, consistencies, and was better able to envision things in my mind. I was a bit nervous about the outcome, but I had little doubt that I wasn't going to see /any/ improvement.

So taking the dive, I hid all my layers, all my photo references, and drew the three horses again from memory.

tracingchallenge_horses_after.png, right? xD

While there are still definitely things off, it's clear as day that the little tracing I did had a massive impact to my skill level with drawing horses! It gave me a great start in my foundations of my understanding of the animal, and if I wanted to continue, I'd have a much easier time utilizing a variety of other methods, or even more tracing, with my studies.

If I were to do this again, however, I would for sure do skeletal and musclar tracing alongside of the photo references, since to understand the outer layers, one has to know what's going on underneath. The reason I didn't do it with this round of studies is due to Pixabay's limited library of resources. They didn't have those references, so I couldn't use them. Doing private studies on my own, I would most certainly take advantage of Google Images. ;)

Here's the side by side to compare them more easily. If anyone tells you tracing doesn't teach you anything, they are most certainly wrong!

The important thing is to pay attention, ask questions, experiment, and try to deeply ingrain those understandings. Tracing is an excellent and completely valid tool to help increase your knowledge about any subject. I highly encourage you to try, no matter your skill level!

Hopefully you found some of these tips helpful!

The content on this website is 100% free, but if you'd like to help give back, you can do so by donating here or by sharing this post! I appreciate the support, thank you! :)