Well, 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!…
I 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
For 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.
For 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
characters 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:
- Tracing paper: Strathmore 300 Series Tracing Pad (though other brands may be comparable). I find the 11”x14” tablet the most versatile.
- 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.
- Erasers: the “Factis” extra soft white. For more refined erasing: the Paper Mate “Tuff Stuff” Eraser Stick; it is a refillable click dispenser.
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?