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I’ve been tracing.
Sometime late in high school I decided not to copy other artist's work. It wasn’t any sort of moral stance. I didn’t feel like I owed Erik Larsen an apology for redrawing one of his spiderman panels. I wasn’t selling them, or claiming that I came up with the drawing. I certainly didn’t come up with the character. Like a lot of kids, I was reproducing other people's work as a way to understand it. I thought that if I could decode how Ron Lim put together a splash page of silver surfer fighting Mephisto, I could someday learn to draw like him.
Then I stopped doing that. I drew from life, things I could see. I drew bowls of fruit, both nude and clothed human models, and a few animals. I would use photo reference, but only as a piece of a different composition. I completely stopped recreating other artwork, and I never ever traced something.
I don’t know who told me that tracing was cheating. I can’t remember if anyone even did. In any case I never traced, even when it would have been sensible. Drawing a brand new pose for a character just to try out different costumes is really not sensible.
I did some tracing recently, and realized I have been very stupid. Of course now I know that artists have been tracing for as long as it has been possible. Vermeer, tracer. Norman Rockwell, tracer. Neal Adams, proud tracer. So much landscape, still life, and portrait art was traced from a camera obscura projection, it would be difficult to tally it up. For whatever reason I considered it cheating, probably because so much of the rest of the world considers it cheating.
Here is an image I am currently working on.
And here are the steps I took to make it. 
Like a most drawings, this one comes from an idea. I’m trying to represent the attitude of a whole group of characters as they are described in text. So the first thing I do is draw a page of quick dirty sketches.
I’m really just trying to imagine what the character is thinking, so I’m drawing poses and postures. Most of this probably doesn’t look like much, but I also usually don’t save this step. I just draw and delete a bunch of stuff until I have a bead on the character. This sketching part is probably the same no matter if you are going to trace or not.
Next I may or may not do some image searches on google to see clothes, postures, and interesting faces. In this case, I didn’t.
​Next comes the interesting part. There is an addon for Blender called 
http://www.manuelbastioni.com/ an open source, blender specific, offshoot of MakeHuman. Both ManuelbastioniLAB and MakeHuman are collections of nice clean 3d models of humans with all sorts of adjustment sliders to make all sorts of different “humans”. I use ManuelbastioniLAB to create a pretty generic looking person inside Blender. I use all the sliders and tools to make a person sort of close to what I am looking for. Then I use the included skeleton to pose the character, and I adjust the camera and lights to approximate what I will be going for in the final image. Then I render out a quick version, which usually consists of just taking a screenshot.
My original intent was to take a screenshot and then use that as reference the same way I would use a photo. I would look at it and redraw the relevant bits just beside on my screen. For whatever reason, the act of moving the image from one place to another by looking here and drawing over there is not really considered cheating.
Instead, I thought, well the picture is right here on my screen, on another layer of the same file in fact. Why don’t I just draw over it? So I did. I felt like I was cheating, but I got the landmarks and fiddly bits out of the way incredibly quickly, if you don't count all that time setting up and posing the model. It let me work more on getting the right attitude and dealing with costuming and making all the little changes that just didn’t work in the initial pose. The position of the eyes, the tightness of the lips, size of the chin, Subtly repositioning the shoulders and fingers until this single captured moment says what I want it to say. 
Now I don’t know if this technique will work for everyone. Maybe you have to do it the hard way for a while before tracing becomes a tool you can use without being slavish to the source material. I honestly can’t say. I do know that I was a bit rusty in the drawing department, having spent years sculpting and 3D modelling, but tracing helped me out a lot. I did a few freehand sketches on paper just yesterday, and found that laying down poses and rough camera angles felt much easier. Maybe I just needed to trace for a while.
This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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