The Secret of Tracing Like a Pro – Basic Under Drawing Techniques

October 24, 2012 in Beginners, Lvl 0

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” ~Scott Adams <= CLICK TO TWEET

Getting it Perfect the First Time

You can’t seem to get it down the first time. You know what you want but you don’t know how to get there.

You understand the concepts being taught. You’re trying to apply them. You’re doing the exercises but you’re getting frustrated.

The truth is, when you put down a line to draw a face, a circle, or a stick figure body, you either don’t know where it will end up when your done, or you do know, but it just ends up somewhere else.

That blank page has no “foot holds”. You wish you had an “anchor” or SOMETHING to guide you, so that you know where to place your pencil as you draw.

Well, that’s where tracing comes in.

What’s that? You thought tracing was bad?

Well, it CAN be. It depends on how you use it.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use tracing to refine your drawings and your control over what happens on the page. By the time we’re done, you’ll know how to set down the guides that will help you control the most complicated types of drawing.

How the Professionals Trace

I know of very few professional draftsmen who can just pick up a pencil, start in one corner of the page, and magically have a finished art piece in one pass.  Those guys are the legends.

That’s not us…at least…not yet.

The majority of professional, do what is called an “under drawing”.

An “under drawing” is a rough pass, or trial run for a drawing.  Like a rough draft in writing. It’s not meant to be perfect by any means.

The purpose of the under drawing is to explore the direction you want to take the drawing and solve any problems the drawing asks you to solve.  It’s meant to be sloppy and imperfect.  It’s there so you’re final drawing looks good.

Most beginners never do this.  Have you been doing it? I didn’t think so.

So what does this have to do with tracing?

Well, once the under drawing is done, you then draw over your under drawing, either directly, or on top with another piece of paper, “tracing” the final lines of your drawing.

There are two kinds of tracing, the bad kind and the good kind.

  • The bad kind is what most people do. They take, say, a drawing, put some tracing paper over it and mindlessly follow the lines of the original drawing underneath. The end product looks like a wobbly, ugly version of the original drawing.
  • The good kind is what draftsmen do.  They take that same drawing and the same tracing paper and REDRAW the original drawing underneath, using it as a guide and making confident line CHOICES. The result is a new confident drawing based on the original.

“Good tracing” is in fact, not quite tracing but redrawing. Since it’s redrawing, you make conscious choices as you go. By doing so, you end up, not only refining your drawing but also your drawing skills.

When you redraw over your under drawing, you’re actually choosing what final line you want from the rough mess of lines you’ve put on the page. The outcome SHOULD look like a drawing you finished effortlessly.

Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s Some Examples From This Very Site

Okay, so remember this drawing from the “Start here” page?:

Figure 1

This is how I approached the drawing.

First I drew a really rough gesture drawing of the pose (Figure 2). I’ll explain gesture drawings in a later drawing level. The point is, the final Figure 1 drawing didn’t just appear fully formed. I first drew the scribbly mess that is seen in Figure 2, to get it started:

Figure 2

Once I’d gotten all the shapes and lines approximately where I wanted them I refined the drawing by drawing over it . In Figure 3 you can see what I did. I recolored the rough from Figure 2 blue, so you can tell it apart from my more refined rough:

Figure 3

Having redrawn and refined the character, I decided it was time for the final line. I took the rough I drew in Figure 3 and drew over it:


Figure 4

Figure 4 is the result.  Notice I was basically “tracing” or redrawing and refining my drawing in order to get the final result. At this point, it was more about what lines to choose and what to leave out than anything else.

Let’s take a look at another example.

In Figure 5, we have the other drawing from the “Start Here” page:

Figure 5

But in Figure 6, we can see where I actually started:

Figure 6

As you can see in Figure 6, my first pass was a big mess. I was just scribbling, trying to get the shapes down where I need them to go.

Once that was done, I went and redrew on top of the scribbly mess, refining the drawing a bit more:

Figure 7

As you can see in Figure 7, I did a lot of adjusting and redefining.  It’s still rough and imperfect.  I wasn’t being “precious” with the drawing in anyway.

Once I was satisfied with what I had, I went in drew over the rough for the final pass:

Figure 8

Figure 8 was all about “tracing” or redrawing and refining.  Once again, this process is about choosing the right lines to keep, while throwing out unnecessary lines.

“BUT…,” I hear you saying, “golly gee, it’s all swell and jolly to do that with your fancy pants drawing, but how does that apply to MY drawings? I mean, I’m only drawing stick figures here.”

That’s a good question. Take a look at Figure 9:

Figure 9

Yup this is the rough I drew for the STICK FIGURE drawing I used at the head of the “Stick figures with style” post.

Even THIS drawing didn’t come fully formed. I drew a rough under drawing for it so I could work it out. THEN I drew over it:

Figure 10

You can see in Figure 10 how I refine even a drawing as simple as a stick figure.

The result is the drawing in Figure 11:

Figure 11

Had I not just shown you what I did, you would have thought I effortlessly drew it.

I get paid to draw for a living and this is how I approach drawing.

You want more control over your final drawings? You want your drawing to start looking effortless? It’s time you start putting down some under drawings.

Baby Steps

Your Exercise…

I know this seems new, and daunting and crazy…

Don’t worry. Take a deep breath, we’ll take this nice and easy. I’ve broken this down into steps.

The goal of these steps is to get you to start drawing your own things this way. First you simply need to practice getting some control and learning to make good line choices:

  • Step 1. Learn to do the “good” kind of tracing
  • Step 2. Learn to make good line choices
  • Step 3. Try it out on your own drawings

Step 1. Learn to do the “good” kind of tracing

Below I’ve posted three characters. Your exercise is simple:

Trace them.

BUT, don’t simply trace them, try to redraw them. Recreate them as you trace over them.

In order to do that, here’s what I want you to do.

  1. Download the images by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image,
  4. Get some REALLY low quality printer paper (they are very transparent) and trace over the drawing.

Like this:

But I’ve got THICK paper I can’t see through, so I want to use tracing paper or better yet NO tracing paper!

Okay, that’s what’s why I also made THIS set of images:

These characters are specifically designed so you can simply draw over them directly.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Download the images by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image,
  4. Trace over it using tracing paper or…
  5. Trace directly onto the printed image.

Like this with the tracing paper:

Or like this directly on it:

(Yeah I got a bit sloppy with my lines on that last video. Sorry, I had the camera in one hand and was drawing with the other.)

Once you’ve done this, find other things to trace. Coloring books or comic books are best but anything you find is good.  Practice not simply tracing but redrawing the drawings your are tracing.  Use the drawings as a guide more than anything else.

Step 2. Learn to make good line choices

These next set of images are the actual under drawings that I used to make the cleaned up characters above:

You’ve gotten a chance to practice your lines, now it’s time to test what you’ve learned.

Draw a final clean drawing from the rough drawings above.

This exercise is meant to help you learn to make line choices.  It doesn’t need to look like what I drew above, it has to look like what YOU want it to look like.

Choose a line to make. See how it turns out.  It’s okay if it ends up looking odd. The point of the exercise it to learn to make line choices.

Okay so here what you do:

  1. Download the images by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image,
  4. Get some REALLY low quality printer paper (they are very transparent) and trace over the drawing.

Like this:

What’s up with the flip?

Well, the paper was transparent but not transparent enough. I started flipping in order to get a better idea of what the rough looked like under the page.  As I flipped it helped me decide where I wanted to put my line.

I taped the two pages together to make sure my paper didn’t move around when I flipped it.

Just like in Step 1, I also created a version you can use tracing paper or draw on:

  1. Download the images by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image,
  4. Trace over it using tracing paper or…
  5. Trace directly onto the printed image.

Like this, with tracing paper:

without tracing paper:

You can try cleaning the roughs up, over and over to practice if you want. Ultimately, the what you want to end up doing is…

Step 3. Try it out on your own drawings

Take everything you’ve learned so far and apply it here.  Draw some rough stick figures and clean them up.

Go crazy and get messy. Remember, an under drawing is NOT the final drawing, it’s simply a stepping stone that guides you to the final drawing.

Here’s some tips on how to practice doing this.

Tip 1:

Draw your under drawing, VERY lightly onto your paper.  Be messy but put very little pressure on the pencil.

Once you have the under drawing the way you want it, go back in and pick out the lines you want by making darker “final” lines over your under drawing.

Like this:

Tip 2:

If you’re having trouble drawing a LIGHT under drawing, then simply draw the under drawing as dark as you want to.

When it’s time to do the “final” line, use a ball point pen.

The drawback to doing it this way is that if you make a mistake with your final line, you won’t be able to erase it.

The good thing about doing it this way is that, once your done, you can erase the under drawing and you’ll end up with a nice, clean final line.

Here’s an example:

Tip 3:

This is what most pros do.

Get a Col-Erase Colored Pencils and draw your under drawing using that.Col-Erase Colored Pencils are special colored pencils that you can erase. You don’t NEED one right now. I’m just presenting it as an option here in case you happen to have some around. (The links above are affiliate links).

Once you’ve got the under drawing the way you want it, draw over the color lines with a regular pencil.

If the color line is too dark, get an eraser and “dim down” the lines a bit so they aren’t so dark.

Here’s an example:

So there you have it.

This is new and different. It will take a while for you to get used to it.  The more you do it, the easier it will get.  Once you’re used to it, you’ll wonder how you could have done without it.


Q: Yeah, I can’t get a clean line. It’s all wobbly. I know what I want and can almost get it but it’s just not coming out right. Any way you can help me out?

A: Here’s a little something I learned from a friend of mine who did clean up at Disney. Work WITH the natural pivots of your body, not against them. Here’s what I mean:

Your wrist is a natural pivot point. It’s like a limited compass. Your elbow is ALSO a natural pivot point.

Knowing this you can then position your PAPER and your drawing in such a way that when you make a mark, your working WITH those natural pivots. You’ll find that your lines will come out looking better for doing so.

Here let me show you:

Don’t be afraid to move your paper around.

Pro Tip

Professional draftsmen are obsessed with seeing other professional’s rough drawing.  Most of us would rather see that than their finished work.

An under drawing is a window of how a draftsman solves drawing problems.  By seeing those rough drawings, we hope to get tips and tricks WE could use to solve OUR drawing problems.

Now that you know what you know, you might want to start paying more attention to rough drawings as well.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning under drawing or tracing questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about under drawing or tracing? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

Or better yet, sign up to receive more information via e-mail. You’ll get extra tips and advice.  You can ask me questions that way also.