A fairly common concern that I often find new artists asking about is whether some methods of making art are cheating. Most often their questions are about about using photographic reference, photo-editing software, transfer grids, rulers, and tracing from projected images or photographs.
Whether these are cheating or not is mostly a matter of opinion, but I do think a few of them will probably hurt you in the long run.
I’ll start by covering the “questionable” methods that I use myself.
Painting from photographs
With portraits I’m almost always forced to take reference pictures instead of painting from life since having people sit is rarely convenient. I try to get one primary image that’s the basis for my painting, and use the others for reference.
I know that visually many people find it easier to use photos, but is it wrong? Is it cheating? You still have to study and record the subject. Perhaps it’s cheating the client somehow, but I don’t think so. They’re usually just interested in the best portrait possible. I don’t think using photos is bad, but I guess if it is, it’s a necessary evil. People just can’t sit for hours to have their portrait painted. I do make sure to take all my own photos (unless of course the subject is deceased) which means that the entire creation is mine. Painting from other people’s photos is illegal, and should definitely be avoided if you plan on selling your work.
Digitally editing a photograph
I also edit my pictures in Photoshop for natural color and contrast, and at the same time blow them up so I can see the details better. In my opinion, a large photo is just plain smart, and anything that brings you closer to a real life setting can’t be all that bad. And while some photography purists may disagree, I think as a medium it is only enhanced by darkroom techniques and digital manipulation.
Using a grid
The second technique I use when painting is a very simple grid to help transfer my image to the canvas. After setting up my large reference photo to the left of my easel, I mark off four quadrants on both the canvas and the photo. It only has four imaginary boxes (no lines even), but technically it works like one. This just helps me mentally and visually place the composition on the canvas. There’s no way I’d consider this cheating, and I don’t think using a full grid is either. It’s simply a method that helps train your eyes to see the space properly.
Using projectors, rulers, or tracing paper
I don’t use rulers, but I also don’t really have an opinion on them either way. I often measure objects visually by holding out my thumb or paintbrush handle to compare distances, and that works for me. Projectors and tracing I don’t have anything to do with; I’m pretty sure I’d just feel guilty.
But is it cheating if you use a projector, or trace directly from a photo? I’m torn because on the one hand, I believe the end result (artistic communication) is what’s important. That part of me says, absolutely, whatever it takes to create your art, DO IT!
But when I look at art as a process of discovery, a way of life, a constant challenge, and so much more. . . I always feel that tracing an image limits (and cheats) the artist out of learning and growing.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand how frustrating it can be when a drawing’s not turning out. I certainly wasn’t born a painter, and my drawing skills didn’t come overnight from the tooth fairy either!
Learning to draw realistically took a lot of practice, plus information from a few great art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as well as learning from some very talented professors. Most importantly, it took a decision to really, REALLY focus while drawing, and the stubbornness to NEVER accept from myself a drawing that I knew was visually wrong.
Eventually my drawing skills became the foundation I built my skills as a painter on. Not just because holding a brush is similar to holding a pencil, but because drawing prepared my eyes and mind in a way that tracing can’t.
The truth is, I would never have learned to really SEE if I hadn’t had to prove it by drawing realistically.
For those artists who trace from a projector or photo. . . well, I understand it, and honestly sometimes when I‘m struggling, I’m a little irritated that I don’t do it myself!
In the end, however, I think you’re losing out on an opportunity to improve, and numbing your visual understanding as an artist. Just as drawing trains the eyes to see and understand, tracing will train the eyes to stop working hard, and to automate the act of drawing rather than engage in it.
So don’t cheat yourself. You might end up amazed at what you’re actually capable of when you give your skills a chance to grow.