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Members, I present to you the be-all and end-all discussion post on tracing, heavy referencing, and the benefits or evils thereof. This can be about the use of legitimate source material, such as photos you took and stock that specifies free and unlimited use, or it can be about using whatever one finds on a Google search.

Feel free to quote copyright laws, court decisions, link to (in)famous artists, and describe your own use (or non-use) of tracing. Share whether you'd commission someone who traces, and why or why not.


The reasoning for this post is that almost every post about an artist tracing tends to devolve into a back-and-forth of "tracing is good", "no, it's cheating".

Therefore, we mods decided to have a general discussion about it, where everyone can share their viewpoints on the matter.

After this date, this specific topic will no longer be allowed in any post reporting an artist for tracing. We will freeze any threads that start discussing this and redirect them to this post. This is to help the posts stay on topic (whether the person is tracing), not whether tracing is good or bad.
Artist's beware has moved!
Do NOT repost your old bewares. They are being archived.


( 268 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 27th, 2011 01:11 am (UTC)
I don't think it's a big deal. If the artist is using stock photography/has permission who care~
Oct. 27th, 2011 02:48 am (UTC)
If they're going to go the stock route, they better be paying for it. Or in the case of free stock from places like DA - private use would be better. If to be used in something making money - permission from the stock-artist would be ideal and credit a must.

And a lot of individuals DO care. Its like false advertising AND its confusing. For an example... I'm a face painter and in the past I've caught a woman at the local farmer's market using MY photos and the photos from MY place of employment as her advertising. But she cannot paint to my or my co-artist's caliber. Period. But she continues to use our images to draw in people who leave... very upset that they didn't get what they paid for. These same people come to me - notice how we are using THE SAME IMAGES (really these people where the ones who pointed this out to me) and are originally afraid they're not going to get their monies worth. I have to work harder to get them to see and believe me that my talent is my own, because someone else was too lazy or too scared to step out with their own talents.

That's why people need to care when it comes to tracing.
(no subject) - houndofloki - Oct. 27th, 2011 03:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - oceandezignz - Oct. 27th, 2011 03:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - houndofloki - Oct. 27th, 2011 03:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - oceandezignz - Oct. 27th, 2011 04:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - celarania - Oct. 27th, 2011 05:12 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stormslegacy - Oct. 27th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:21 am (UTC)
tracing is ok if used to learn, and does not go beyond that, so long as the original artist is credited.... thats an educational use and part of the copyright law fair use section, I posted on that awhile back.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:24 am (UTC)
"After this date, this specific topic will no longer be allowed in any post reporting an artist for tracing."

Wait, you mean that you can no longer report people for tracing their commissions, or does this just mean that in a post which reports a tracer, there will be no debate about the topic of tracing?
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:27 am (UTC)
Yes, you can still report tracers.

In a post reporting a tracer, you can debate whether it's tracing or not, but you cannot debate whether tracing, in and of itself, is ok.
(no subject) - sigilgoat - Oct. 27th, 2011 01:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sigilgoat - Oct. 27th, 2011 01:32 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
My personal opinion:

Tracing can be used as a tool to help an artist learn and can possibly be beneficial as long as it's used to LEARN and not used continuously as a crutch.

I also think that as long as the artist is tracing/referencing a stock photo that is there for that specific purpose with permission, it's alright. If the art is copyrighted to someone else and permission isn't granted, then I would have to say it's a no-go. The artist also shouldn't use anything they trace for profit, such as commissions and they're always sure to cite their sources.

And, in the end, I think it's better for someone to learn by REFERENCING over actually tracing, as it's a better way to learn.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:28 am (UTC)
Tracing can be used to learn. Tracing, of any kind, should not be used for commissions. If you take your own photos, and trace over then you should inform the commissioner before hand. I know I wouldn't want something traced over a photo. Referencing I'm a bit more lenient on. I reference every now and then to try and see how a pose works. If you use several photos, and cite your sources, I don't see anything wrong with it.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:30 am (UTC)
My view is that it's generally alright as long as you either own the photo or you have the rights to use it like that, If you don't have the rights and you just want to use it for practice then don't upload it anywhere.

Noah Bradley and his group did a livestream on this and some other stuff recently http://www.awesomehorsestudios.com/s1e2-digital-lightboxing-and-reference/ but you have to pay to view it. I think the general summary is the same as what I said. Professional artists get asked about it all the time and what they say is generally the same.

I would probably commission someone who traces as long as it's from a photo and not someone elses drawing.

Thank you for making this post, it's definitely a heated issue that needs more definition.
Oct. 29th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
but if it is not their photo? Like something from National Geographic?(even if the e-mail I got back from them says do not trace, do not copy our photos)
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:31 am (UTC)
I think its useful as a learning tool only, but not for profit.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
XD I still say outright tracing, even of your own photos, isn't going to look right. I know some amazing pro artists take their own photos and heavily reference them (because really, it's pretty awkward to get models to stand for you for days, why not if there's a camera?) but I'm going to maintain they do not TRACE, ie, blindly follow the outlines of the photo, etc; they use the photo as a close reference.

But if someone takes their own photos and does some kind of trace or photomanip, and that's their artistic technique and people like it, more power to them I guess. I just think it'll always look off compared to someone who knows the underlying structures and can adjust the photo to "look" the way our eyes like to see.

Tracing "for practice" will not improve your ability to understand the underling shape, just your ability to trace. Heavily referencing (not gridding, but drawing with shapes and proportions while referring back to the original image to see how they did things) can, though.

Legality wise, of course tracing non-public works is copyright infringement of non public works. I do believe "heavily referencing" is pretty much copying and thus infringement too, though of course if the image is changed enough that you can't be sure what the source is, then you're probably on the proper side of artistic referencing rather than copying.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:35 am (UTC)
If it's for practice sake, or personal art, I think it's fine as long as the artist links to their reference material and either takes the photo themself or chooses free-use stock.

However, I tend to think that really heavy photo-referencing, and definitely tracing, are uncool for commissions unless the buyer has been informed and is okay with it. Even if it's a free-use stock or a photo you took yourself. Why do I think this? Because even though it may be legal, technically, the buyer is paying for original artwork. If you plan to trace or eyeball-copy a photo, it's only fair to let the buyer know so that they can decide whether or not they want to pay for a tracing or a copy.

I understand that there are exceptions (very close photolikenesses are usually the desired result of say, pet portrait commissions) but in general, I think the buyer should be informed beforehand if an artist plans or using these methods.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:35 am (UTC)
I've traced before when I was first starting to learn anatomy and stuff, and in my personal opinion it doesn't help AT ALL.

Referencing is a much better way to learn. Anatomy classes where you draw nude live models or still-life sets are a much more efficient way to learn in my personal experience. I've seen myself grow, I've seen classmates grow. Tracing does nothing but prove you can copy a line-- which is stupid.

That being said, if someone REALLY NEEDS TO TRACE, these following things better be adhered to:

1) DO NOT TRACE SOMETHING THAT IS NOT YOURS/FREE TO USE. Google is not your personal reservoir of pictures. Just because it shows up on Google does NOT mean it is free to use.

2) DO NOT SELL TRACED ART FOR COMMISSION WORK. This should be self explanatory but apparently it's not. It's lazy, unfair, and cheap.

3) CITE ALL SOURCES USED. Not that hard people.

4) DO NOT TRY TO PRETEND YOU WEREN'T TRACING. We can make layovers. You will be caught.

Annnnnddd that's my personal feelings on the subject.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
1. I agree.

2. I feel as long as the commissioner is informed, and the artist follows #1 and #3, it's fine, since the commissioner got a choice.

3. Indeed. Plus, a person who cites their refs looks more honest/professional to me, than someone who obviously reffed/traced but didn't cite.

4. Funny how that works, isn't it?
(no subject) - fallimar - Oct. 27th, 2011 01:44 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - morti_macabre - Oct. 27th, 2011 12:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Oct. 27th, 2011 01:41 am (UTC)
Tracing -can- be used to learn, but it's crucially important that other methods are explored as well, instead of just becoming a human Xerox machine. I don't want to see that posted in a gallery though, even with credit, since it's a) pretty damn obvious if you've traced it and b) it's still not your work in the end.

It can be helpful to trace over a photo or picture to figure out the basic lines and shapes of something to get an idea of hoe everything connects (or doesn't connect if it's a drawing, in which case you take it as a "what not to do" lesson). Granted this kind of thing would not ever be used for a commission, or even a trade from me, though I do it for myself to learn. If it's ever posted, sources are cited, though I end up deleting/closing without saving them most of the time if it's digital, and never scanning traditional sketches.
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)
I've always been under the impression that even as a learning tool tracing is kinda... pointless. If you're just copying, not really seeing, the underlying structure to something and translating that into what you're drawing, then you won't be able to extrapolate from that and create new works based on a solid grasp of structure.

For instance, referencing VS tracing a pose from a photo.
If you want to draw a pose that includes foreshortening, it's great to look at numerous photos, get a good grasp of how the process works and get a good image in your head of how you want your picture to look. You've got multiple points of reference and multiple sources to draw from, so you'll end up with something original, with the added benefit of having learned a good deal of anatomy and how it works. This, to me, is how it should be done, beginner or not.

Tracing a pose, you've got one reference. Even if you do learn from it, you've only got one example of anatomy, your art isn't going to look like yours and you won't improve fast at all.

Long story short, I don't buy the 'tracing is great for learning' schtick. It's nowhere near as good a tool as learning to use reference properly, and it kinda feels insulting to people who've never traced anything besides their own work for the sake of copying it on to another piece of paper/object!

Maybe an unpopular opinion, but I believe that's what this thread is for ;)
Oct. 27th, 2011 03:31 am (UTC)
I completely agree with all of this. :)
(no subject) - kriscynical - Oct. 27th, 2011 04:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crssafox - Oct. 27th, 2011 01:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:45 am (UTC)
My personal thoughts are that tracing/eyeballing without owning the original matieral is acceptable as long as it isn't for any profit and only for the sake of artistic development or enjoyment.

Once you cross the line into "for profit", you should only trace/eyeball existing works/photographs that you own the copyright to- by either taking/drawing the photo yourself or buying/obtaining those rights from the person who does. When you make profit from someone else's copyright (and hard work) without their permission or their benefit, that is questionable on your part.

Now on the legal front, tracing/eyeballing falls under the derivative works umbrella.

To pretty much copypasta most of the beginning of the wiki:

In the United States, the Copyright Act defines "derivative work" in 17 U.S.C. § 101:
A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

17 U.S.C. § 106) provides:

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies...; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies...of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending....

One of the only legal ways to take a work and reuse it without out permission or rights appears to be "transformativeness". Taking the original work and altering/reproducing it in enough ways to bring new meaning/value to it that the original work did not contain.

Otherwise, you're operating against the original creator's rights and can be held liable for penalties if, theoretically, brought to court on the matter.

Oct. 27th, 2011 01:49 am (UTC)
"One of the only legal ways to take a work and reuse it without out permission or rights appears to be "transformativeness". Taking the original work and altering/reproducing it in enough ways to bring new meaning/value to it that the original work did not contain."

And that right there is why DeviantART allows traced bases.
(no subject) - kuwaizair - Nov. 11th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - akari - Nov. 11th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2011 01:47 am (UTC)
Speaking from my own experience, even if I do consider tracing somewhat of a learning tool, it isn't a very good one.

I traced Sailor Moon drawings when I was a kid for personal use. Did it help me learn to draw? Not really, but referencing/eyeballing from my favorite Manga series in later years did. Quite a bit, in fact.
Referencing is what finally helped me be confident enough to draw front-facing heads and bodies. Before that, I could only barely manage profiles.

I definitely agree that it should never be used for paid art. That's cheating the customer out of money by giving them something that basically already existed.
If you reference, remember to credit your sources (and get permission if it's not free stock)! It takes all of a few seconds to put "I used this image to help me with this part of the drawing" or what have you.
I can't count how many times I've seen a good friend of mine on DeviantART have one drawing of hers referenced from with no credit given, and she's usually pretty okay with people reffing her stuff as long as they credit her for the original.
Oct. 27th, 2011 02:07 am (UTC)
As long as the original creator of the source of work is ASKED and credited. Then it should be ok. Be it artwork, photo, photo stock, any imagery source. It belongs to someone and respect goes a long way.

I personally don't think it helps though, especially if derived from other's artwork as most end up learning to draw like them instead of developing, I feel anyway. Nor would I commission or trade with a tracer unless they agreed beforehand if they would create without external sources.

I'd suggest picking up an anatomy book and do studies to understand WHAT you are drawing instead of emulating the form from other peoples work.

[begin advert]
I highly recommend Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists by Joseph Sheppard as a good starter book especially as it's rather cheap.

HIGHLY recommend. [/end advert]
Oct. 27th, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)
I'd also highly recommend 'Classic Human Anatomy: The Artist's Guide to Form, Function, and Movement'. http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Human-Anatomy-Function-Movement/dp/0823024156

It's expensive, especially at the store, but it's a godsend. It features just about every bone and muscle in the body and tells you how they move and where they connect. It also has handy proportion tips and ways of simplifying the body. I don't think I've used any other human reference book since I've gotten it.

(no subject) - noiserut - Oct. 27th, 2011 02:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - otherscape - Oct. 27th, 2011 03:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kriscynical - Oct. 27th, 2011 04:06 am (UTC) - Expand
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