UP!–Tracing Paper spells: RELIEF

ArtTools_WriterSideUp.com_byDonnaMarieWell, trusted followers, even if you don’t illustrate or do artwork, I hope you find this article interesting, it showing a small part of my illustration process. Several years ago this was published in our now out-of-print NJ SCBWI Magazine “Sprouts” (posted here in full and accurate). My receiving positive feedback, having been told how this was helpful, I’m hoping it will be so again here. It is important to note that since writing this article, though I still use tracing paper for nearly everything outlined here, I have recently begun using my scanner and Photoshop Elements (PSE) for more ease in composition, scale, and transferring line-drawings to paper to render finished artwork. Whether you do or don’t have access to a scanner or Photoshop, these tips are still very relevant. Also, though images of several of my original characters were used for the print magazine, I chose not to post them on the internet until they are contracted. Instead I created generic, quick sketches for the purpose of this article. With that said, here you go!…

Instructables.com by GraffitiBatmanI remember using tracing paper as a young child—it was fun! As I grew older and became more accomplished as an artist, I hadn’t a need to use tracing paper to achieve the same results. It got so that the mere suggestion of using it felt like I was “cheating”.

Then a few years back, when buckling down to develop characters for a picture book I wrote, I found it frustrating to keep proportions and scale consistent when redrawing each character in different positions. Though formally-educated artists, illustrators and traditional animators may have already known this, it was a revelation to me when I thought to use tracing paper! It has become an art staple for me—its positives far outweighing the only negative attribute I’ve found:


  • sketches smear easily while working, sometimes requiring re-darkening outlines or erasing areas that darken too much. Wearing white cotton gloves with their fingers cut off (removing only the fingertip on the pinky of drawing hand ) keeps your hands clean and reduces smudging, though many put a sheet of paper beneath the working hand and move it as needed since the gloves—if dragged, not lifted—can still cause smudging.


  • when using a light table, the paper’s transparency enables a sharper image for transferring to bristol, watercolor or other paper of choice for the finished piece  (instructions to make your own light table, as pictured above, at instructables.com)
  • it is easier and cleaner when repeatedly erasing lines
  • being transparent, it’s a convenient way to flip any sketch to face in the opposite direction or position at any angle
  • the smearing (as mentioned above) is sometimes preferred, giving a softer, shaded effect
  • when shading is deliberate, its smooth surface lends a quick, soft result
  • tracing paper is lightweight, versatile and relatively durable


0429152208For consistent proportion: With tracing paper over the original “standing in place” sketch of the character, I lightly trace it, then pull it aside and use the lighter tracing to manipulate perspective, positioning and features according to each illustration’s needs. This is particularly handy when the differences from one sketch to another are minimal (e.g.: arm up instead of down, etc.). Also as base for another character, as is shown here, using the boy and altering to create a girl.

04291522310429152240For accurate scale: when rendering the original sketches of these (my) characters, there was no consideration as to size in relation to one another. (Just as the computer is a blessing for writers when revising, so is a photocopier/scanner/Photoshop to an illustrator.)

When needed to achieve proper scale, using a photocopier, I reduce or enlarge each sketch to the percentage of what’s required (calculated using a “proportional scale”). I can then maneuver the

proportional scalecharacters by retracing them into position on the same sheet, possibly adding background. I also have the option of taping them into place with small pieces of Scotch “Magic” Tape, to a separate sheet of tracing.  I can photocopy or retrace these for a dummy sketch or finished artwork. (I now use PSE for scale and position.)


Materials: As artists, we have our individual preferences as to which tools and materials we find most useful and comfortable. For your information, I have listed mine:

                 Strathmore Tracing pad       My tools for drawing

  • Refillable click pencils: they are most convenient and never need sharpening! The one I prefer for comfort and quality is by Staedtler (shown in green); I choose Pentel 0.5mm 2B black lead stick refills for original sketches only, reserving a hard lead for finished artwork to render very light, non-smear lines.

Illustrating picture books can be a very time-consuming and sometimes arduous job. When a method saves valuable time, can relieve bouts of frustration, and contributes to better finished work overall—it’s not “cheating”—it simply makes sense! Tracing paper is our trusted friend, so—trace away!

*Note: all artwork on this page/site is copyrighted by me unless otherwise stated.

So, do you find tracing paper useful for artwork or any projects you’re involved with? Artist or not, perhaps you, too, remember using it when you were a child?




22 thoughts on “UP!–Tracing Paper spells: RELIEF

    • Hey, Mike! I love my light table, too 🙂 My father had made me one that I used for many years, then for my birthday, I think maybe 10 years ago, they bought me a “real” one. Btw, sorry I haven’t been around for a while. I’m missing all the blogs I follow, but have too much going on with appts., etc. plus working on creating characters for a dummy for the conference. Only a month left! I hope you’re doing well 😀


  1. Fascinating Donna. I’m not an illustrator (sadly) but I loved learning about your technique. Your characters are very cute. I loved using tracing paper as a child but haven’t used it in a long time. I’ll have to check out a light time. Interesting. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although not an artist, unless the occasional stick man counts, it is still fascinating to understand a bit more about the process of work that goes into creating the illustrations on books, I think we can all relate that to much loved books that we have read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is SO true, Ste, and this is truly NOthing in comparison to the work that goes into picture books as a whole, and certainly not work of great detail. All this shows is part of my process. There are different ways to approach the work and this is what I found is the way I can create characters and also give them movement.

      I’m not a “digital” person, for the most part, when it comes to artwork, though I am very much appreciating the time saved with composition and scale once I’ve done all the scanning and separating work in PSE. As you know, I’m in the process of developing all the elements of a new dummy book, so all this comes into play. Glad this gave you a tiny glimpse into process 😀 I love when you stop by!


      • For me its another way to engage with a book which makes me happy, I can be more appreciative and knowing about the effort and techniques that go into creating will remind me not to rush over drawings as I am sometimes prone to do wanting to know what comes next. I love stopping by too, it is amazing how taking a day or two off to finish a big book I was on quickly turned into a week away from the blog. Still it reminds me how much I miss chatting to you guys.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, these little, quick chats in comments make me feel the same. I know I’m missing a lot, but really have to get past that. There are so many things I want and need to do, all of it piles up around me, whether in the house, on the computer or in my mind, but life just doesn’t allow for everything. I know this, but it’s so hard to prioritize when so many things are important, right? I have a feeling I won’t be around much ’til after the conference though. Looking forward to seeing how everyone is 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nice Donna! 🙂
    You made me want to draw! I wonder if I can get tracing paper here!
    I got my book and read it. I loved it.
    I have your things ready and I’ll mail them soon. I’ll email you first 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paola, you’re so sweet 🙂 And I’m assuming the book you’re talking about is MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS? 😀 I would also think you can find tracing paper there in an art supply store. It’s such an old tool and I would consider it common place. I’m grateful for it when I do this kind of work, that’s for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

      • 🙂 I live in a tiny town with a couple of stores only. I will check if they have it.
        Yes, Make Way for Ducklings 🙂 I’ll read it to my kids soon, I’m sure they’ll like it too!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. We have used tracing paper! Actually, Cool Dad began college as an Art Education major and he swears by tracing paper. I always thought it was “cheating” too, in a way but it makes sense and is really no different than copying and pasting text that you’ll be editing (your own, of course). DD has spent hours using tracing paper, too. She has an amazing ability, though, to look at something and draw it well. (I am a bit jealous).
    Have a super day!
    ~Cool Mom for the Gang

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, tracing paper didn’t become my friend ’til I was working on a dummy book about 9 or 10 years ago and realized it was the only way I could effectively and more quickly create the many positions I needed of each character. I’m once again doing that now, only this time it’s 9 different characters. I typically create only 2 or 3 per book, so 9 is a LOT for me! I hope you’re all well 🙂


Express yourself :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s