How to improve your drawings by tracing

I am definitely one of many who believe that anyone can improve their art at some level. Especially if one’s putting in lots of effort while enjoying the actual process instead of the result. Doing it the same way as when we learned to write in elementary school, repeating until the lines come effortlessly. 

I just love tricks and methods that makes sketching more fun and effective, and that helps you to really analyze things instead of brute forcing them. Some artists say that drawing is actually more about thinking, I totally agree. That feeling when leveling up is priceless.

Here’s my number one tip on how you can improve your drawings:

By tracing.

-” WHAT DID SHE JUST SAY?!”  You may think for yourself. Isn’t that cheating? Or art theft?

Yes and no.

If you trace and copy a photo or piece of art and then claim it as your own, then you will be in trouble. Torches will be burning and pitch forks will fly. Our art career might get short, and one will risk whimpering in shame after getting exposed.


If you imitate to learn, trace photos, or others art to learn how shapes, proportions and anatomy works – then I would say that it’s totally fine. Just don’t forget to ask the owner for permission if you intend to show your studies.

Everyone has learned from somewhere else, just look at the video series “Everything is a Remix”. You’ll get what I mean.

Here’s how you can improve your drawings by tracing

This is how I do it. You can use this method with pretty much anything.

Let me demonstrate using photos of our beloved odd balls Zimba and Rosso.

cat photo reference

Step 1. Gather the images you’d like to base your studies on. I picked these two.


cats tracing line art

Step 2. Add a new layer with low opacity on top of the images in Photoshop, fill it with a light color. Then create a third layer and draw your outlines. Keep it simple.

cay sketches

Step 3. Hide all layers except the one with your outlines.

pencil sketch practice cats

Let the practicing begin! I started with some pencil studies.

pencil sketch practice cats

Keep mimic and explore the shapes, and study how the relate to each other. How’s the distance between the eyes and nose? What size are the ears? And so on.

cat sketches character design

The more you study the actual subject, the better.

cat character design

Eventually, once you’ve gotten the hang of things, you can start to push the SHAPEs around and come up with some really interesting character designs. All based on your recently gained knowledge.

You can apply this method both digitally or analogously

tracing art drawing tips storyboard

I use Photoshop to prepare my references. However, when I was younger, before the Photoshop era, I traced on overhead plastic….

tracing art drawing tips

And attached them to a window. That works well too ;)

Hope you found this useful. It’s a quite common method, but I thought that I should recommend it too. I trace all the time when trying to figure out a new or strange subject. It’s a true time saver!




  1. David 3 April, 2018 at 01:57

    Great tip! I really appreciate this insight and also the backstory as well. Feels more like a conversation and not a stale list or textbook.

    My perspectives and shapes usually end up quite distorted or off, and I realise later. Fixing them after I’ve worked more details and texture in is fairly inefficient though, and I think I will have to try tracing more to build up my ability to draw the actual shapes and anatomy that is there.

    I do hope to be able to free hand sketch better without tracing, but I guess I’ve misunderstood how tracing can be used to improve my skills and force me to actually *see* the subject.

  2. Minna Mäkinen 4 April, 2018 at 18:35

    Thank you so much for this post. I don’t draw even nearly as much as I would want to and when I do I always find myself super anxious and I have difficulty drawing what I have in my mind or in front of me. I can sort of feel the shapes but they always come out wonky or too 2D. I’ve always thought tracing or using a grid to be cheating but I’m actually drawing this sitting dog that’s in a bit of a perspective and I just found it far too difficult to eye the shapes and keep them in proportion. I went in and drew red lines on top of the photo in PS and I’m already finding it much easier to figure things out. Sometimes you just have to break things down to really get them.

    I’d like to learn how to draw more 3D and more difficult poses but it’s these moving masses that always confuse me. I don’t see how else I would learn than feeling the shapes out by drawing them…err…out?

    Thank you again.

    PS: Vi har jätte mycket snö här i Finland också. Ja kan inte väntä at det smältar. And my Swedish sucks :)

    1. ontor 10 May, 2021 at 06:39

      It’d be easier to just give up like you’ve done with everything else in your life


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