Tracing vs Freehand Drawing: Where people LOSE THEIR DARN MINDS

One of the most contentious topics among artists is whether it’s okay to trace photos, use other drawing aids, or is drawing freehand the only way to go? These types of discussions often devolve into INSANITY. Why is that? Let’s discuss.

“Fluffy Tuxedo Kitty” 6×6″ oil on panel.

First, my personal disclaimer:

  • Drawing and art tools are just tools. There is no such thing as “cheating” (as long as you’re not dishonest) and the use of a particular method or tool does not make you “not a real artist.”
  • Nobody is telling anyone what they MUST do. If you’re happy with how things are for you now, keep doing what you’re doing!
  • If you’re relatively new(ish) to drawing and painting and feel a little overwhelmed by anything in this post, just bookmark it and check back in a year or so. No rush. Just keep drawing and painting and enjoying yourself!

WHY THE INSANITY WHEN IT COMES TO DRAWING VS TRACING?

I think it’s a combination of ego, defensiveness, purism, and … defensiveness.

Let’s identify our two groups:

  • Artists who believe that freehand drawing is an integral part of drawing and painting realistically.
  • Artists who say, “Whatever works!” and “Da Vinci used drawing tools so it’s good enough for me!”

Some of the “Drawing is integral” crowd can get very “purist” and make claims that anyone who doesn’t draw isn’t a “real” artist. That’s carrying it too far. There are many artists who use drawing tools a lot, perhaps because their freehand drawing is weak. But their artwork looks great and they sell. How is it that they’re not “real” artists?

Some of the “Da Vinci did it!” artists are too dismissive and (sometimes) butthurt when anyone suggests that there should be more freehand drawing in their life. Maybe they’re in denial. “I can draw but…” or “It doesn’t make any difference!” The hard-core defensive ones will even say, “People say they draw freehand just to brag. It’s a bunch of extra work for nothing.”

And so, we have egos clashing and craziness. And we keep on coming back to debate it again and again. (Me included!)

Drawn from a live model, in pencil.

I’M A DRAWING EVANGELIST, NOT A DRAWING PURIST

Okay, so I’m one of the freehand drawing people. I occasionally use a four-square grid (like you can see here on my other blog) but not that frequently.

I’m a drawing evangelist because it is a skill that has given me many opportunities and advantages.

Because I can draw, I can draw from life (not copy a photo). Photos “lie” to us and when we always use them as reference (as we are forced to do if we can’t draw well freehand), we get stuck in a rut of repeating the “lies” that photos show us in colors, values, and edges. And our paintings suffer for it.

Before and after studying under the amazing artist Adam Clague.

BEFORE AND AFTER

“Before,” I could draw accurately (the “before” painting was, ironically, painted from a live model). But I didn’t like my colors. They were too warm, they didn’t look natural. I sold my art, but sales were often “meh.”

The “After” painting was done after I attended a workshop taught by Adam Clague. That painting sold only a few hours after I first put it up for sale online. (Which happens sometimes—but not that often! 😉 )

Long story short, Adam teaches his students a different way to “see” color, values, edges. He prefers to have his students work from life (rather than photos) when possible. What he taught completely reformed how I painted.

After attending his classes, I immediately started to sell a whole lot more paintings. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this changed my art life.

Even when I use photos as reference, my paintings look better than they did before. That training I got in Adam’s class helps me know how to better adapt and work around the shortcomings of photos.

AND HOW FREEHAND DRAWING MADE IT POSSIBLE

Adam’s teaching involved a lot of working from life and being more completely aware of the limitations inherent in photos. The best way to learn this is to work from life a lot more.

And that’s why I’m an evangelist for freehand drawing. Because those who can draw freehand are not stuck with only using photo references. And not being wholly dependent on photo references is where it’s AT, baby, it’s where it’s AT.

“Matthias” 8×10″ oil on canvas panel. Painted from life at Adam’s studio. I hadn’t really started taking lessons yet but was starting to show some improvement under his influence.

WORKING FROM LIFE: YOUR ART MAY LOOK DIFFERENT (BETTER)

I like this blog post from the Oil Painters of America site and often refer to it when this subject comes up. But will people read it during the heated debates? I fear not.

So, to summarize:

  • There are benefits to painting more from life and less from photos. In order to paint from life, you need to be able to draw well. (I’ve already covered some of this.)
  • The paintings of those who always copy photos often have white highlights, black shadows. That’s the color information photos give us but in real life, there’s far more nuance and beauty in shadows and highlights. Photos miss a lot of this beauty.
  • Those who copy photos a lot tend to depict all edges as sharp because that’s how a camera captures the edges. This is not how the human eye “sees” edges so paintings with all hard edges may not look as natural.
  • Artists who only copy photos often have no difference in the color temperature of the lights and shadows. This is not how color temperatures work in real life.

The author of the blog post says they can often instantly tell who paints from photos all the time and who doesn’t. That is a very revealing statement. It means that those who are too dependent on photos have a “look” to their paintings that can be spotted right away—and that is not necessarily a good thing.

SO THAT’S WHY…

It “matters.” Schools, teachers, and ateliers who insist that their students draw freehand are NOT making them work needlessly just for the sake of working. There’s a genuine benefit there.

If you don’t want to add more freehand drawing to your skillset? I get it; you’re not alone. Maybe you were taught years ago to use tools and you figure, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You don’t want to be nagged or made to feel guilty. I understand.

But I’m an evangelist because I worry that you might regret missing out later. And that’s why I wrote this whole post. (Hope it wasn’t too annoying! 😉 )

RESOURCES:

Please remember that you don’t need a class to work from life! Just draw or paint anything you see around you. It’s all good. (However, a heads-up. If you use mostly photo references—even if you always draw freehand—you might go through an “adjustment period” as you get used to working from life. Don’t be discouraged. You’ll get through it!)

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Brian (painted at age 19)

“Brian,” 16×20″ oil on stretched canvas

I painted this oil portrait (which is NOT a good likeness!) of my brother-in-law Brian when I was age 19. I remember I was studying under Shirlee Prescott at the time and she advised me on the colors. I used a black-and-white photo (taken by my sister) as a reference.

John Singer Sargeant said, “A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” And that applies here! His mouth and chin aren’t quite “there” yet. But, since it wasn’t that embarrassingly bad as a portrait (of someone), I put it up on one of my other websites many years ago and didn’t think much about it for a very long time.

Until today. Brian died suddenly from natural causes a few days ago and the news has just broken on social media. Everyone who knew him is in shock, adding memories, sharing thoughts, and I didn’t know what I could contribute. Then I thought of this. This painting. This is my contribution. I just wish it were a better painting. But it still is a painting. Oil on canvas.

Paintings have a “permanence” to them that is unique. That’s why people commission artists to do portraits. A likeness of a person takes on more weight when it’s transformed into paint on canvas, filtered through an artist’s eyes.

Portrait paintings invite attention and a chance for discussion. Paintings often will get “spread” farther online than a simple snapshot will. People will discuss the painting on its artistic merits and sometimes start thinking of the subject of the painting too… and that’s why paintings are a special kind of memorial. If the painting is particularly good, the painting gets seen by more people—who will then see the painting of the person, the subject of the painting.

When you lose a loved one, one of the things you want most is for them to be remembered. They are gone from this earth, but it’s so comforting for something of them to be left behind in a tangible form. A painting can be one of those things.

You are here today because you like art and somehow found my art website. I am here today because of Brian. I want to share some things about him for a moment.

Brian has been a wonderful father and husband. He dealt with our crazy family shenanigans with long-suffering endurance. He was the father of two remarkable sons. He has two amazing daughters-in-law (who adored him—and you know you’ve succeeded as a parent when your in-laws love you!). He has two beautiful granddaughters, and he also leaves behind a sister and a niece.

He was a flight test engineer who had a life-long passion for planes. He built his own small aircraft and of course was a pilot. This passion spread to my sister, who also learned how to fly.

Recently they got their dream house in a “residential airpark,” a community for plane geeks, uh, fellow flying enthusiasts. It had this HUGE hangar for his planes and he spent a lot of time tweaking things there. It was a dream come true for a plane geek flying enthusiast like Brian. But it was to be short-lived—they only enjoyed a few years at that house. I feel that injustice acutely. But at the same time, I’m just so grateful that he got to enjoy it at all.

You leave a big void in our lives, Brian. I know you are flying with your own father now (who was an Air Force pilot). God bless you.

Brian doing what he loved most—tweaking on something plane-related in his own personal hangar!
Brian at a family Thanksgiving.

UPDATE:

One of my awesome nieces-in-law sent me a cell phone pic of another piece I did of Brian. Drawn when I was the same age (19), with the same problems with chin and mouth. (Mostly the chin.) But hey, it’s a good lesson: You do get better with time and practice!

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I guess it’s time

…for a website update.

Like many of you, I’m stuck at home, waiting out this scary pandemic. Fortunately, I’ve got adequate supplies (including cat food!) at home, so I am settled in without much panic at the moment. Therefore, what else is there to do but update my blog? Right?

I’ve done some painting since this blog was last updated. Here are two oils (randomly selected):

Band of Light – oil on panel, 6×6 inches
Foolish Passion – 6×8″ oil on canvas panel

A lot has gone on since my last update. Some scary, some big, but a lot of good.

But to quote Tim Conway Jr (who I listen to a lot when I paint), “Who cares!” Who cares about all my personal travails at the moment? This is an art blog so let’s talk about art.

I’m planning on revamping this site a bit so there should be more posts coming soon. What better time to do it but now?

Yeah, like a lot of artists, I’ll be painting a lot…since I’m at home anyway, it’s a perfect time.

I hope everyone else is doing well right now. Stay safe, stay home, study a lot, and if you are an artist, paint a lot!

Be back soon.

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After over a year… (IMAGE DUMP!)

The guilt over neglecting this blog has finally become too much! I’m trying to catch up with so many things in the past year. After a lengthy period of sharing caregiving duties with a sister for our mom (who had dementia) the “new normal” is requiring some adjustment. Furthermore, there were other things that have happened in the last year, things that kept me from painting (or updating this blog) as much as I’d like.

I can’t say that everything is now perfect and normal, but when is it ever? All I can say is that things are gently pushing upward. For that I am grateful.

Anyway, I have done many paintings in the last year. I’ll post many of them in future posts, but just want to share a select few here:

Backlit Tiger – 8×8″ oil on canvas panel.

I’m going through a “tiger phase.” This is just one tiger example. I’m not done yet! I’ve got many more tigers (and other big cats) to paint! If painting tigers is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

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Content Tabby

Content Tabby, 5×5″ oil on panel.

This is a blissful-looking kitty! I found the expression irresistible and wanted to capture it in a painting. I loved how many different colors were in the cat’s fur—some green, blue, and orange flecks and reflections are found all over. 

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Two new cat head paintings, long and rambling updates

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted to this blog, and there’s a good reason for that (which I’ll get to later in this post). Forgive me as this will be long and rambling!

NEW PAINTINGS

First, I want to share two of my latest cat head paintings:

Black and White and Fluffy (#2) 5×7″ oil on oil primed panel. I used a reference photo by a photographer on the “Paint My Photo” community.

 

Perky Young Orange Kitty, 6×8″ on canvas panel.

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Behold a Pale Orange Cat & super-mini studio setup

I’ve got a few new cat head paintings to post, but first, the latest news:

“Pale Orange Cat,” 5″ x 7″ oil on Pintura Painting Panel

Another painting completed tonight! This time, I finished this little painting at a most unusual working space: my computer desk!

As I mentioned in a previous post, these are desperate times for me (studio-wise) because now I am fulfilling my duties as a part-time caregiver for a family member. Gone are the days when I can gallivant away to my lovely studio and paint until the wee hours. I must stay homebound and be a caregiver. (And that’s okay. It’s family, after all!) I finally developed a workaround (a small studio area) to allow me to work in a very cramped space, but tonight, I decided to go even smaller.

I hope that my situation (and my solution for it) might be useful for other artists out there. Surely I’m not the only one who is dealing with a desperate need to paint, but only with cramped spaces available to work!

My very small

My very small “studio area.”

I did my painting on a computer table. Not even a “real” computer table, just some table that I’ve been using for my 20″ iMac. 

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Tabby Tabby Tabby

“Tabby, Tabby, Tabby” 6×6″ oil on Gessobord. Thanks to Axel Naud of flickr for his photo I used as reference. (His photo is available under a generic Creative Commons Attribution license.)

Finally! A new painting! It’s so nice to finally be back to painting. I missed it so much.

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