Is using a Grid or Tracing Cheating?

//Is using a Grid or Tracing Cheating?

It’s a question that we’ve had a fair bit over the years that we’ve covered a little in blogs and podcasts. But in this post we wanted to talk a little in detail about whether using a grid system or tracing to produce your outline drawing is “cheating”.

Sue sent us an email regarding a friend of hers that made this remark. Sue is one of our members and has done fantastically well working through our projects to the point where she now does pictures for people. Sue writes:

Hi Colin and Steve,

I’ve got a question which has been bothering me a bit and I’d really love to know what Colin thinks about it. So here goes…! Thanks to finding Colin’s tutorials online and becoming a member, my animal portraits have improved so much that I have now got my own website and sell portraits to the public (I’m repeating myself here because I have emailed to you before about that and I can’t tell you how grateful I am!).

But my problem is that before I was selling them, and whenever I’m practising (usually copying off your website), I draw freehand and this is always something I’ve been quite good at (well copying basically!) but when it came to drawing for someone in particular, I panic a bit because I’m so desperate to get it exactly right for them. Consequently it seems to take me so much longer to get the initial sketch right because I worry and faff all the way through. Then, I came across your tutorial on using tracedown and now instead of taking hours I can get the initial outline done in minutes which is brilliant.

So what’s the problem, I hear you ask? Well, I was talking to a good friend about it the other day and she said ‘oh well that’s cheating’ and since then I’ve been feeling really guilty about it. The last thing I want to do is cheat anyone but it saves so much time and moreover I can relax knowing the proportions are right.

What do you think about this? I’d massively appreciate your opinion.

Many thanks,


We’ve recorded a mini-podcast which we’ll include below and if you’d prefer to read the transcription then we’ll pop that below the episode too.

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Stephen Bradley: Hi everyone. We’ve had a question come in from Sue and we thought we’d do a little mini podcast to cover it because it’s something that has come up quite a lot in the past and it’s something that I thought that we could both talk about Dad and so kind of put the issue to bed because it comes up a lot and it’s talking about “is tracing or using a grid cheating?” Now I’ll read out Sue’s e-mail that she sent us because she brings up the subject and I think it was worth talking about. So she says “hi Colin and Steve I’ve got a question which has been bothering me a bit and I’d really like to know what Colin thinks about it. So here goes: Thanks to finding Colin’s Tutorials online and becoming a member my animal portraits have improved so much that I have now got my own Web site and sell portraits to the public. My problem is that before I was selling them and whenever I was practicing usually copying off your Web site I drew freehand and this is something I’ve been quite good at. But when it came to drawing for someone in particular I panic a bit because I’m so desperate to get it exactly right for them. Consequently it seems to take me so much longer to get the initial sketch right. Because I worry and faff all the way through. Then I came across your tutorial on using tracedown and now instead of taking hours I can get the initial outline done in minutes which is brilliant. So what’s the problem I hear you ask? Well I was talking to a good friend about it the other day and she said “Oh well that’s cheating” and since then I’ve been feeling really guilty about it. The last thing I want to do is cheat anyone but it saves me so much time and moreover I can relax knowing the proportions are right. So what do you think about this? I massively appreciate your opinion. Now Dad we’ve spoken about this on podcasts, in articles fairly extensively but I think with this piece of content this mini podcast we can finally flesh it out, talk about it and hear your thoughts on it. So what do you want to say in response to that? 

Is using a Grid or Tracing Cheating?Colin Bradley: Well I can understand the dilemma that Sue has because I went through something very similar myself when I started out. Now I was okay at freehand drawing but I never really tackled animals and people. I was really in the landscape area where it’s not vitally important to be absolutely accurate. After all a trees a trees a tree and water water water you know so you can and you’ve got a lot of license when it comes to that. But if you’ve got animals and you’ve got portraits they are specific and people are asking you to do their animal or portrait want a representation of that image so that they can recognise it. It’s no good going and doing a Picasso on it because if you do Picasso on it they’re not going to want it. They’re going to say “I don’t want that I want something that looks like my dog or my cat on my horse” or whatever. So you’re really obliged I think to pander to their wishes. That’s the customer’s wishes rather than maybe an artistic way of looking at it. But I think you can get the best of both worlds. This is how I would do it. This is how I did do it and still do it to this day. I used the square drawing system as you know. We sell this and it is really really popular. This is because the grid system itself is almost infallible as long as you’re following the rules and you’re getting the proportions as accurate as you can. Then you’re going to get a good line drawing and that’s all it is though it’s a line drawing. So therefore it takes the takes the risk away of getting it wrong because you don’t want to go through all that process will all the colouring and all the you know presentation only to find when it’s hanging on someone’s wall “Oh my goodness. That ears wrong or that nose is wrong” or whatever. How awkward is that? So by using a grid system you do obviate that. Now this is where people say “it’s cheating to do that”. Well no it’s not. And I know it’s not because I know that a lot of professional artists use some kind of drawing aid, I wouldn’t necessarily say the grid but they use a drawing aid of some kind. Constable did it. John Constable my hero. He used a grid system and I’ve got proof of that because I’ve got a sketch which he’s done where he’s got on gridded paper. And funny enough we were watching Sky Arts portrait of the year the other day on UK television and blow me down if two or three of the people and some of these people on there are professional artists had a grid and they use the grid for reference. So what am I saying? I think that’s the way you should do it if you feel that you want to be accurate as you can. Freehand drawing is great. But there is a certain risk to it. Some people but it’s very very few could actually get a very good likeness. But they are few and far between. So we’re looking at producing an outline drawing which is accurate but then the work really starts because you’ve got to fit it all in and that’s a skill. And obviously Sue’s good at that. Sue mentioned just tracedown she didn’t mention the grids so I’m not really sure whether she uses the grid system that we advocate or whether she just traces it through using tracedown. I’m not clear on that and I don’t think the e-mail was clear but Sue will know what I’m talking about. But I’m still giving you the big picture because this is what people want to hear and this is what people want to know. Is it cheating? Categorically no it isn’t. So I think probably I’ve answered that question because I understand is what is my opinion and that’s my opinion. 

Stephen Bradley: I also want to touch on tracing as well because not in this particular industry or in other industries and things I’ve heard from professionals in other podcasts and other content that I’ve consumed over the years tracing seems to be popular amongst professionals. And I wouldn’t take someone’s opinion like “it’s cheating” and then think “oh it’s cheating” is just an opinion. It doesn’t make it fact. And if you’re doing something for someone and you want it to go on their will and you want it to be the best it can be. And you’ve got the tools to use that enabled it to be that way. Why wouldn’t you do that? 

Colin Bradley: Absolutely. If it suits the person. Yes. Why not do that? The square drawing though is a slightly better system in terms of you feel happier that you’re actually doing the drawing. You know be it not freehand you’re actually doing it as opposed to tracing. But I’ve got no objection to that if people want to do that that’s fine. But the other thing with square drawing is you can make those adjustments as you go along. I do very very often look at something and think “I think that would look better if I did this or did that” still within the grid system, still working on the proportions but you can change things. Use your license your artistic license to make those slight adjustments. I do this a lot when I’m doing particularly animals because you could get an animal that’s got a little bit of fur out of place you know all puffed up and it doesn’t work. Now if you were tracing you probably follow that line – see what I mean? Whereas with square drawing you can see that’s not quite right or it would look better if I did it this way. So within the square drawing framework you can then make that slight adjustment. As I say I do it all the time. So I follow the rules and I’ve never had a complaint (not that I do Pet drawings for people now) but when I used to I never had a complaint because what they saw at the end of the day was their cat, dog, horse whatever. 

Stephen Bradley: Let’s also touch on the fact that you’re learning by using the grids you’re learning by tracing you’re learning all the time. And like you said unless you’re someone that has just got that raw talent for getting it right or being a really good freehand drawer and even then you can’t guarantee that you’re gonna be very very pinpoint accurate. The grids will teach you that. It’s all about learning and the colouring is one aspect. But if you want to learn and get better you’ve got to train. And by using the grids and even by tracing obviously the grids it teaches you a lot more because you’re doing more and then with every picture you’re learning. And I think that’s all part of the process of getting better. 

white tracedown a4 transfer carbonColin Bradley: You’re right. That’s just very true. But the grids are a learning course in themselves. They would they would be better than tracing. I’ve still got to emphasise that. Simply because when you’re drawing it you’re actually producing and creating the image even though you got some help but when you’re tracing it’s a bit too easy. You just go around the outline. I’m doing a picture at the moment where I’ve looked at the picture and I’ve got it all set up on an outline. But then even though it’s all been done quite accurately I didn’t like the shape of these particular legs. It’s a bird by the way. And I though “no that’s not right.” So I’m going to change them. So I’ve actually changed the legs. Now if you traced it you probably wouldn’t even think like that you and it wouldn’t be until at a later date when you looked at the picture you think I don’t think those legs look quite right. Even though you’ve traced it. So you’re not using your judgment and I think this is why I kind of insist on the square drawing side of it all or the grid system side of it. It’s just coming and seeing it because you’re going, after all square by square by square by square, you’re creating the imagery. So you’re not going to get it wrong you’re not going to get the proportions wrong unless you put it in the wrong square but that shouldn’t happen. But what would happen in the end once you’ve got all of those in place and we always recommend always that you do it on squared cartridge paper. Don’t go straight onto the pastel paper because that’s when you can make these little adjustments. It’s more important than ever if you’re working on say a dark pastelmat because as dark pastelmat doesn’t take graphite I mean you can put it on but the graphite carbon doesn’t work with them. So I use a white tracedown so therefore you’ve got to be even more sketchy. If people look at my pictures that I’ve done in graphite there’s a lot more detail in them than pictures I’ve done on pastelmat because you can only put the bare outline on. But you’ve got to get that to look right. If that’s not right or in proportion somewhere along the line when you’re either doing the picture or finished picture you’re gonna see it.

Stephen Bradley: Yeah. So to summarise we’re both categorically saying it’s not cheating. Another angle you could put on it is how much do you want to learn from doing the outline? How much flexibility do you want to have in terms of adjustments that you want to make? How do you want to approach the picture and what you want to get out of it? Because after all even know you’re doing it for someone you’re doing it for yourself as well to learn. So I wouldn’t think of it as “is it cheating/is it not”. It’s your personal experience. 

Colin Bradley: I think you’ve got to you’ve got to learn to be very strong here. When someone says that to you it’s not a very nice remark anyway to be honest that person who said that to Sue. It’s a little bit bitter. Leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. So you’ve got to be strong and say “ah well you may think that” but what you can also say is “that my tutor Colin Bradley doesn’t agree with you” and when I used to have my art classes I used to get these sort of questions a lot. You know people say well I said I shouldn’t do this or I shouldn’t do that. And I used to say “look tell them that I told you it was okay to do it and that will shut the person up”. They can come back on me anytime they like. But you’ve got to have a lot of resolve really not take that personally 

Stephen Bradley: And just accept if that’s how they view it then fine. Then they can do it the way they want to do it. 

Colin Bradley: And you can also say to them in return I have a lot of satisfied customers who wouldn’t agree with you either. You see what I mean, you’re getting back then. Just a little retort. And so anyway no you’re quite right Steve. Anything you do it’s not cheating it’s how you produce an end result which is going to give someone a great deal of pleasure. And if you’ve got an ear that the wrong shape or and a nose that’s slightly twisted out of shape because you didn’t take enough care on it then how is that person going to react to it.

Stephen Bradley: Yeah let’s not take away from the fact that this is the outline. Look at the work that you put in after that there’s no getting around that. There’s no cheating involved in the colouring aspect that takes real skill.

Colin Bradley: Good point Stephen that could be pointed out to the person who comes up with that silly remark.

Stephen Bradley: Yeah. Anyway I think we’ve vented enough on this. I hope that’s helped Sue and I hope that anyone listening or reading this on our blog and can just rest easy that it’s their issue. Do your experience, enjoy what you do and accept that there’s more than an outline involved in what you’re doing for people and be proud of what you do.

By | 2019-03-26T00:06:12+00:00 March 22nd, 2019|Tips & Techniques|0 Comments