Misc. Stuff · Uncategorized

Tracing vs Freehand Drawing: Where people LOSE THEIR DARN MINDS

One of the most contentious topics among artists is whether it’s okay to trace photos, use other drawing aids, or is drawing freehand the only way to go? These types of discussions often devolve into INSANITY. Why is that? Let’s discuss.

“Remi” pencil sketch drawn from life.

First, my personal disclaimer:

  • Drawing and art tools are just tools. There is no such thing as “cheating” (as long as you’re not dishonest) and the use of a particular method or tool does not make you “not a real artist.”
  • Nobody is telling anyone what they MUST do. If you’re happy with how things are for you now, keep doing what you’re doing!
  • If you’re relatively new(ish) to drawing and painting and feel a little overwhelmed by anything in this post, just bookmark it and check back in a year or so. No rush. Just keep drawing and painting and enjoying yourself!


I think it’s a combination of ego, defensiveness, purism, and … defensiveness.

Let’s identify our two groups:

  • Artists who believe that freehand drawing is an integral part of drawing and painting realistically.
  • Artists who say, “Whatever works!” and “da Vinci used drawing tools so it’s good enough for me!”

Some of the “Drawing is integral” crowd can get very “purist” and make claims that anyone who doesn’t draw isn’t a “real” artist. That’s carrying it too far. There are many artists who use drawing tools a lot, perhaps because their freehand drawing is weak. But their artwork looks great and they sell. How is it that they’re not “real” artists?

Some of the “da Vinci did it!” artists are too dismissive and (sometimes) butthurt when anyone suggests that there should be more freehand drawing in their life. Maybe they’re in denial. “I can draw but…” or “It doesn’t make any difference!” The hard-core defensive ones will even say, “People say they draw freehand just to brag. It’s a bunch of extra work for nothing.”

(Before I go further, I’d like to point out that “Da Vinci did it too!” but he also drew these sketches of cats, lions, and dragons, things he couldn’t have been capable of drawing without good freehand drawing skills. Tools were tools, but he wasn’t overly dependent on them.)

And so, we have egos clashing and craziness. And we keep on coming back to debate it again and again. (Me included!)


Okay, so I’m one of the freehand drawing people. I occasionally use a four-square grid (like you can see here on my other blog) but not that frequently.

I’m a drawing evangelist because it is a skill that has given me many opportunities and advantages.

Because I can draw, I can draw from life (not copy a photo). Photos “lie” to us and when we always use them as reference (as we are forced to do if we can’t draw well freehand), we get stuck in a rut of repeating the “lies” that photos show us in colors, values, and edges. And our paintings suffer for it.

Before and after studying under the amazing artist Adam Clague.


“Before,” I could draw accurately (the “before” painting was, ironically, painted from a live model). But I didn’t like my colors. They were too warm, they didn’t look natural. I sold my art, but sales were often “meh.”

The “After” painting was done after I attended a workshop taught by Adam Clague. That painting sold only a few hours after I first put it up for sale online. (Which happens sometimes—but not that often! 😉 )

Long story short, Adam teaches his students a different way to “see” color, values, edges. He prefers to have his students work from life (rather than photos) when possible. What he taught completely reformed how I painted.

After attending his classes, I immediately started to sell a whole lot more paintings. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this changed my art life.

Even when I use photos as reference, my paintings look better than they did before. That training I got in Adam’s class helps me know how to better adapt and work around the shortcomings of photos.


Adam’s teaching involved a lot of working from life and being more completely aware of the limitations inherent in photos. The best way to learn this is to work from life a lot more.

And that’s why I’m an evangelist for freehand drawing. Because those who can draw freehand are not stuck with only using photo references. And not being wholly dependent on photo references is where it’s AT, baby, it’s where it’s AT.

“Matthias” 8×10″ oil on canvas panel. Painted from life at Adam’s studio. I hadn’t really started taking lessons yet but was starting to show some improvement under his influence.


I like this blog post from the Oil Painters of America site and often refer to it when this subject comes up. But will people read it during the heated debates? I fear not.

So, to summarize:

  • There are benefits to painting more from life and less from photos. In order to paint from life, you need to be able to draw well. (I’ve already covered some of this.)
  • The paintings of those who always copy photos often have white highlights, black shadows. That’s the color information photos give us but in real life, there’s far more nuance and beauty in shadows and highlights. Photos miss a lot of this beauty.
  • Those who copy photos a lot tend to depict all edges as sharp because that’s how a camera captures the edges. This is not how the human eye “sees” edges so paintings with all hard edges may not look as natural.
  • Artists who only copy photos often have no difference in the color temperature of the lights and shadows. This is not how color temperatures work in real life.

The author of the blog post says they can often instantly tell who paints from photos all the time and who doesn’t. That is a very revealing statement. It means that those who are too dependent on photos have a “look” to their paintings that can be spotted right away—and that is not necessarily a good thing.


It “matters.” Schools, teachers, and ateliers who insist that their students draw freehand are NOT making them work needlessly just for the sake of working. There’s a genuine benefit there.

If you don’t want to add more freehand drawing to your skillset? I get it; you’re not alone. Maybe you were taught years ago to use tools and you figure, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You don’t want to be nagged or made to feel guilty. I understand.

But I’m an evangelist because I worry that you might regret missing out later. And that’s why I wrote this whole post. (Hope it wasn’t too annoying! 😉 )


Please remember that you don’t need a class to work from life! Just draw or paint anything you see around you. It’s all good. (However, a heads-up. If you use mostly photo references—even if you always draw freehand—you might go through an “adjustment period” as you get used to working from life. Don’t be discouraged. You’ll get through it!)