Coloring Dilemma - To Trace or Not to Trace

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Do you remember when rubber stamping was popular? You could easily take an hour or two wandering through a rubber stamp store drooling over the card samples on display made from these little magical blocks of wood? I have purchased my share of rubber stamps, embarrassingly, the majority have never been introduced to a pad of ink.

It’s true, I tried my hand at rubber stamping. Not only was I a terrible stamper, I could never color these images to look like the samples. That may have had a lot to do with the fact that I had no desire to color with the adult coloring craze hit the craft world.

It all changed for me when I purchased Copic markers. That was really what started me on this crazy coloring path that lead to this art road I’m on now. It took just a few coloring classes, and before I knew it, I was hooked. I would literally finish a project and start the next as quick as I could. The hardest part in my coloring process was always getting the image onto the paper so that I could get to coloring. Tracing my images took patience, not easy when I really was focused only on the physical act of coloring. That may not quite be true. Looking back now, I guess I wasn’t even focused as much on the coloring as I was laser focused on the class sample knowing now that if I followed the instructions, I would be creating something amazing with a touch of realism.

As you might imagine, I quickly realized that tracing wasn’t a skill I had in my bag of tricks. I would get out my light box, trace the image, turn off the light and then look at my tracing—oh dear, I missed something in the image again, my trace lines don’t all line up, my tracing is too dark or maybe I pressed my pencil too hard and indented my paper. Can you tell why I determined early on that I really didn’t like tracing?!

All was not lost, because it turns out that I could print digital images on my home printer. That was a so exciting. I could send my image to the printer and within minutes I had a perfect image on my paper and now I could just get right to the fun stuff, the coloring!

Fast forward three years, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’ve come to the realization that I shouldn’t be printing any of my images. I know, I’m still shocked by this thought myself. Even so, that’s hard to do because the temptation is always there to send my image to the printer and let it do the prep work for me. After all, when we take online coloring classes or download a tutorial, they normally come with a digital image. So, it’s normal (quick and easy too) to just print the image and start coloring by following the project instructions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this process, but have you ever stopped to think about what you are missing in the creative process when you don’t trace your image? Once again, I can’t believe I am having these thoughts, after all, I have even written tutorials to teach you how to prepare and print digital images.

It took me over a year of creating my own projects before I came to appreciate the act of tracing images. But there I was with pencil in hand standing over my light box tracing, when it hit me, tracing was helping me to fully understand what, and in some cases how, I was going to color before I picked up my first marker, colored pencil or brush.

Think about this, you are happily coloring along and come to a section of the image and you just can’t figure out what the heck the artist has drawn? You are thrown into a tailspin, what are you to do when you study this area of the image you finally realize what you were coloring wasn’t a lemon, oh no, it’s a kumquat! Then it becomes clear, that is why there are five distinct sections in that slice of kumquat. So now you have to take the time to figure out how to transform that lemon you just started into the kumquat it was intended to be. This wasn’t an extreme case of mistaken identity, but you get the picture I’m sure. But when this happens it can really throw you off your game. So how do you avoid this coloring pitfall? Trace your image instead of printing it. This gives you the time to really look at your image and understand what you are about to color. Knowing this before you color also helps you know what you might need to research in terms of photo references too. Or, you might just find out that there is something wrong in the image you are tracing. At this point, you can correct it by not tracing what is wrong, edit it to be right. Strange images happen. It’s like a friend that sends you the recipe from last night’s dinner and forgets a view of the key ingredients or overstates the amount of anchovy paste needed. You would fix those things too.

Another benefit of tracing is that you can trace with your medium of choice (i.e., graphite, Col-Erase or Verithin colored pencils, Copic multi liners, etc.). Personally, I don’t use Verithin pencils because I’ve learned that I can have a heavy hand when I trace and that results in my indenting my image into the paper (not a good thing). I love my Prismacolor Col-Erase colored pencils for tracing an image that will be colored with light colors. It’s much easier for me to hide the tracing lines as I color later. Whether I use graphite or Col-Erase pencils, I lighten my traced lines before I color them. I do that because I had always heard that you should do that. But here’s my tip that I figured out the hard way, when I was told to erase these lines, I thought they meant all at once. I would erase the outline and even though some areas would remain visible, others were not visible enough for me to know where I was going to color. The solution was so simple, only erase enough of the outline to still be slightly visible and do it section by section as I’m coloring – not the entire image before I start.

So before I go, if you are starting to think that there just might be merit for you to spend the extra time it takes to trace your next coloring project image, then you might enjoy this article where I share my pros and cons of tracing versus printing images.

I just realized I have another pro to tracing a digital image that I hadn't thought of before. You can print the image that you are about to trace, trace it onto your paper of choice, then use the printout to swatch on or create a color map as you plan your coloring strategy for the project. While nothing goes to waste, and you are actually learning more of the coloring process from start to finish!

I’m really going to go now. Time for me to get back to this month’s practice technique. We are learning to color eyes. Sounds crazy I know, but if you want to color realistic eyes, learning a few tricks of the trade are important. Putting these tricks to use takes practice. Until next time, keep creating!

What's happening in the Corner . . .

We are now focusing our attention on coloring eyes because it's amazing how something so small can add so much emotion or attention to the image you are coloring. Big or small, there are details that will help you color successful eyes every time.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you can find the Practice Technique Pack for Eyes here.

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