Tracing, the Do’s & Don’ts

Is tracing really that bad?

A quick search through any illustration related hashtag will reveal plenty of beautiful pieces that have very clearly been created by tracing over photographs, sometimes the artist will add or remove certain elements, adding their own artistic license to the piece, but you’ll always know a traced image when you see it. Now, I’m not here to condemn people who trace, in fact I think there are certain circumstances where a tracing technique can be extremely helpful and effective. When just starting out and getting comfortable in digital mediums, it can be helpful to practice by tracing, there may also be situations in which a client wants to commission a portrait of themselves, and send you a picture of themselves to use, or you might just love tracing photos that you’ve taken yourself, all of these are perfectly fine and valid forms of art. 

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Reference image by Isaiah McClean on Unsplash

Understanding Copyright

That being said, it is a slippery slope, and I have witnessed many people being publicly called out and dragged for tracing, however the tracing itself is not the issue. Copyright and permissions are what we need to be truly cognisant of as illustrators, especially illustrators who want to build a public presence as well as present and sell their work on line. Images that we find on-line, whether that be off Google images, Pinterest, Instagram, or wherever else you find imagery, all have a creator or creators to who legally own them, and using these images as the base of your art and illustration is copyright infringement and can get you in trouble legally. It is not enough to link or @ the photographer or model in your posts, we all need to go through the right processes to ensure that we are not infringing on anyone else’s copyright.


Getting the right permissions

If you find an image on Instagram that you would like to base your illustration on, sometimes it’s just as easy as reaching out to the person and asking nicely for their permission, if there was also a photographer involved, you may have to take it a step further and ask them too. This can actually be a wonderful strategy to help get more eyes on your work, if the person you are reaching out to has a following of their own, they may even decide to repost and share with their own audience. If you plan on selling your artwork, you need to make sure to disclose this when asking, be as open and transparent as you can about what you plan to do with their likeness.

Video from TikTok

Stock photos to the rescue

If you find an image you love on Pinterest, Google images, or anywhere else and aren’t able to locate the owner of the Copyright, then it may be time to cut your losses, and get well acquainted with the wonderful world of stock imagery sites. This is typically where I find most of my images that I reference for my own art. Here are some of my favorite, free stock imagery sites:

These are images that you are able to freely use in your work however you please, just always make sure that you’re checking the permissions on the images you are using. You can also feel free to get as creative as you like with these images, mix and match, cut and paste, choose elements from one photo, and combine them with another, this is something that I frequently do in my own work, taking a pose that I like from one photo, and adding the arms from another, I also very frequently take photos of my own hands in the exact gesture I have in mind, and add those to my reference images.


Tracing vs. referencing

Now that we have the legalities of tracing out of the way, I want to add my personal opinion into the mix. I personally don’t trace, I have my own personal style that I like to shine through in my work, and so I use stock  and my own photos as reference. Once I have my reference photo, I typically manipulate it, sometimes I’ll distort, or add elements from different photos, then I’ll go in and start drawing the basic shapes and forms, and create a drawing in my own personal style. This video posted to my TikTok highlights this process. 


I like to think of tracing as training wheels, and I believe that with a little built of work and guidance we can all learn to reference images, translating them into our own unique personal style. This is the foundation of some of the work that I do with my 1:1 coaching students. If you are interested in learning more, contact me here!