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Learn How to Draw – Teach Your Fingers Using Tracing and Copying

Updated on January 22, 2013

From a Drawing to the Painting

Author first drew the cup and teapot before abstracting them for the painting ("Tea Time").
Author first drew the cup and teapot before abstracting them for the painting ("Tea Time"). | Source

The Art of Drawing

Drawing isn’t difficult, it’s simply a skill to be learned. Admittedly there are people who seemingly are born to the pencil. These individuals seem to have been given a natural gift for translating what they see through the muscles of their hands and fingers onto the paper without any formal training. For the rest of us, we learn.

An important thing to know about drawing…we have to train our eyes to see and we have to train our fingers and hands to do what we command them. Both we can learn to do. A good way to begin is through tracing and copying.


Handy supplies for tracing and copying

For supplies:

  • pad of tracing paper
  • pad of sketch paper
  • a couple of drawing pencils [an HB lead is a good beginning pencil. “H” indicates hardness of the lead…and lighter shades; “B” indicates a softer lead and indicates a darker shade. HB is right in the middle]
  • roll of masking tape or blue painter’s tape
  • a good eraser
  • a Black Sharpie Pen

A light box is handy but not necessary. The goal of tracing is to begin teaching the muscles of the hands and fingers how to move. Muscles have memory…teach your fingers and hands how to draw a circle and they will remember.

Learn to Draw through Tracing

Tracing is a practice valuable for the person who wants to draw but doesn’t know how to start.

Choose a picture you’d like to copy. It can be anything – a photograph, a magazine advertisement…anything. Place one sheet of tracing paper over the image and tape down the corners so it won’t move. Trace the outer lines of the image. If you have a picture of a tree, trace the outline of the trunk, the outline of the major branches that are easily seen and the outer contours of the foliage – like big circles.

Do several tracings of the same image until you feel you’ve successfully gotten a good outline of the image on the tracing paper. Then, choose several other pictures and trace them until you feel you have a satisfactory tracing of them.

Learn to Draw through Copying

Copying is a time-honored traditional way of learning to draw. What tracing does for the muscles in your hands and fingers, copying does for your eyes and mind. Tracing helps your fingers know how to make a straight line, how to draw a circle, how to connect various shapes and forms. Copying frees you from having to make creative decisions as to what to draw. Copying lets your eyes and mind learn to translate what you see onto the paper in front of you. You see a circle, you then draw the circle. Your fingers have already learned how to draw a circle.

Take a clean sheet of drawing paper from the sketch pad. Choose one of the images you previously used for tracing and copy only the parts of the image you had traced. If it was an image of a tree, copy the tree, but not in too much detail. Look at it. You see a trunk coming out of the ground and going up into foliage. You see that the foliage makes circular shapes [in most cases of deciduous trees]…you don’t want to draw each leaf, just draw the form the foliage takes on the tree.

Draw the trunk of the tree, but don’t worry about the detail of the trunk. Draw the main branches but let them disappear into the foliage shapes. Your goal is to draw a copy of the outline of the tree. You initially traced this outline as a way to allow your hand and finger muscles to learn the forms. Now you are copying this outline as a way to allow your eyes to learn to translate to your hands and fingers what you see.

More Tips on Copying for Learning to Draw

A good second step to copying what you see is to set up a 3-dimensional object, like a coffee mug, and draw its outline. Looking at a 3-dimensional object is far different than a flat 2-dimensional plane. Our minds have to make decisions about what we see and will ask itself: Am I seeing what I think I am? Is that a circle or an oval? An oval or an ellipse?

The goal is not to draw a photographic reproduction of the mug, but rather to continue teaching your eyes and mind to translate what you see through the muscles of your hands and fingers to the paper by way of the pencil. Your goal is not to end up with a drawing that appears rounded like the actual mug…rather your goal is to have a drawing of the outline of the mug…as closely resembling the mug as possible in outline and from the view vantage point at which you’ve drawn it.

The easiest way to do this exercise is to put the mug up at eye level…use a box or stack of books to lift the mug to a height so that while you’re sitting and drawing, your eyes are looking at the side of the mug straight on. Your outline will be of the side of the mug and its handle protruding from one side or the other. After you’ve done this view a few times, alter the height so that you draw the mug’s outline showing a part of the top…that top opening will be an ellipse rather than a complete circle. Ellipses look very strange and “off,” but don’t let that bother you.

Try various types of simple objects for this exercise: vases, boxes, bottles, fruit like apples and oranges and vegetables like green peppers and carrots. Always remember that your goal is to continue teaching your eyes and mind to translate what they see and your hands and fingers to receive that translation. You are looking for good outlines of these objects, not photo reproductions.

Drawing can be Learned

Drawing has so many aspects including:

  • perspective,
  • foreground,
  • background,
  • texture,
  • value,
  • relative size of objects

All of these aspects are secondary to learning the basics of shapes and forms. Everything about drawing can be learned. Tracing and copying are valuable beginning drawing learning techniques.

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