Tracing as a Tool.

It should be obvious to anyone that the first panel in today’s page is a reference to Edward Hopper’s famous painting, “Nighthawks.” You know the one. In case you don’t know, here it is:

Pretty strikingly similar, right? From the positioning of Snout and Arudak, to the hunch of the man behind the counter, to the layout of the restaurant on the corner of the two city streets. I even originally intended to make the name of the Mongreltown diner “Nighthawk’s” but it wasn’t working out. You might say I nailed it with unerring accuracy, and there’s a reason for that:

I used Procreate to trace the image for that exact accuracy, and I’ve used that method for a few other backgrounds since I switched to working digitally. I’m saying this plainly not as an admission of “guilt,” but as using a tool that’s available to modern artists that I’ve come around to greatly appreciating.

I’ll happily talk about my method of using digital tracing: For a few panels I’ve used simple Google image searches to find inspiration for backgrounds. I laid the image down in the panel I wanted to use and penciled over the general shape of what I wanted. Once I got the pencils down, I started to add my own modifications. Most of these modifications have been adding Snout and lots of mongrelfolk, as well as making the buildings look like they belong in Mongreltown. Then, when I start to put inks over the pencils, I use what I’ve learned from years of making comics to accentuate and emphasize what I want, and to further put my style into the image.

I used this same technique with several commissions from the recent Kickstarter campaign, mostly those from people who specifically asked me to draw their portraits. I decided to try it out because people specifically wanted me to draw them, and I wanted to make sure I was getting the proportions of their facial features, just the right curve of their smile, and other things that would make their portraits undeniably them.

The knee-jerk reaction some people have is that any form of tracing is cheating, lazy, or both… but the movie poster artist Drew Struzan has, I believe, the most eloquent defense of the use of tracing. He says it better than I can, his work is phenomenal, and I’ve modeled my technique (when there’s an ambitious background that would normally give me trouble) after his.

Tracing, when used properly, can be an amazing teaching tool for artists. Many different digital art programs allow you to transfer poses from existing images or comic books to use as a model or reference. Some people own fancy articulated posing dolls that they take photos of, transfer that image over to their comic, and trace the pose for their own use. Tracing, when used properly, isn’t some magical shortcut to disguise a lack of talent, but a method to improve an artist’s comfort level and build familiarity.

I used to effectively avoid backgrounds in the Oracle for Hire years. The panels were small, and dominated by characters and dialogue. One of the reasons I decided to make The Legacy dialogue-free was to challenge myself to improve, to get out of my comfort zone and focus on the very thing that proved difficult for years. In some cases, I’m using tracing as a method of improvement, and I can already feel myself becoming more comfortable thanks to it.

Maybe you agree with this and think that tracing is a valid method of improvement. Maybe you think I’m a lazy cheater on the occasions I implement tracing in my technique. But I know for certain that I’m happy to share my learning experiences with you, as openly and honestly as I have always been.