DIY: Tracing

This tutorial dates from 1998. A more complete, current tracing demo can be found in chapter 8 of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures.

OK, this may sound totally idiotic; i.e., why should I teach you how to trace? So you can copy other people more easily? No, it’s so you can trace yourself more easily. Sometimes this is an incredibly useful, necessary thing to do. Mostly, it serves to create cinematic, (in McCloudian terms) “moment-to-moment” transitions. This sort of transition can be really useful to portray a set amount of time passing, or to set a mood. Some so-called cartoonists will try to create this sense of time by xeroxing or cutting-and-pasting images from one panel to another. But you can always tell, and always looks like two images of the same moment, not one moment and the next. And this counts. I’m not trying to mislead you: tracing sucks: it’s incredibly boring and tedious, but there is no way around this. If you want that kind of transition, that palpable feeling of time passing, you either have to draw each panel totally from scratch, or you have to buckle down and trace. Anything less is damaging to your work.

Image 1 is of Lara doing her sidework in the kitchen of the restaurant where she works. She’s filling crushed-red-pepper bottles. I need the next panel to be similar, but not the same, showing her continuing to fill the bottles, as her boss walks in behind her. The first thing I do, then, is get a piece of cheap tracing paper and use a thin roller-ball pen to trace the main lines of this panel.

Image 2
shows this tracing paper. Notice I’m using a ruler to do the walls and so on. If you don’t, it’s really easy to just get waaay off after a generation or two of copies.

Image 3 shows the image just as I get it down on paper. I’m using a commercial sheet of carbon paper here. This is a decent solution, but take note that it doesn’t erase well, so you may have to white-out some lines. I also use the thin roller-ball pen. I used to use a pencil, but I found that the impression was fuzzy and inaccurate. This kind of pen is the perfect balance of hardness and thinness needed. One other detail here: if you’re reluctant to use commercial carbon paper, you can make your own with pencil graphite, which is both lighter and easier to erase (much). Get yourself a piece of good-quality tracing paper (you’ll be using it a lot, over and over), a fairly soft graphite stick (solid graphite, 2 or 3B) and a small amount of paint thinner. Scribble all over the paper, covering as much as possible as thickly as possible. Then put a little dab of thinner on a paper towel or something, and smear all over the tracing paper. It will smooth out the graphite and make a nice, even graphite “carbon” paper. Be careful not to breathe the thinner in or get it on your hands.

Image 4 shows how I used the traced image as a basis for my final pencils. Now I’m ready to ink!