Is it cheating if you use a projector or trace your drawing onto your canvas?
I get asked about the ethics of using a projector or tracing a drawing onto a canvas a lot on YouTube and Instagram. Can we really call ourselves artists if we don’t do the entire thing freehand or by using grids? Isn’t it cheating to use technology to bypass the difficulty of the drawing stage and head straight into the painting?
My answer? It is absolutely not cheating. And tons of professional artists are doing it, myself included.
As a self-taught artist, I used to feel nervous about admitting that I used any tools to support me, like I was cheating somehow (I reasoned that real artists were too skilled to need help). But through my own trial and error, I realized the best way to improve is through painting as much as possible, which means getting more efficient with my time and not getting stuck on drawings. And it was actually a professional artist who introduced me to using a projector as a means to speed up the drawing part of the process.
To quote Macklemore: the Greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the Greats were great because they paint a lot. There's also strong evidence that some of the Greats (including Vermeer) used a projection system called camera obscura.
Of course, I still try to keep my drawing skills sharp by maintaining my sketchbooks, all of which are drawn or painted freehand. But if I’m doing a large painting, I am pulling out the projector so I can get the drawing up as quickly and accurately as possible. And I’ve never had a single purchaser of a painting demand to know which method I used for my drawing transfer.
At the end of the day, what I care about the most is if you’re growing as an artist, and one of the fastest ways to tank your progress is to get stuck on something. If you are anxious to paint but the drawing is in the way, I am all in favour of using a tool to help you power through it to get to the good stuff. Not everyone has the time, luxury or patience to spend years perfecting their drawings before progressing into painting, so give yourself grace for using technology to make your creative practice a little easier.
I also wish to add that I have a great deal of respect for atelier and academic artistic training, and it’s actually a dream of mine to receive formal instruction one day (I’d love to return to Italy to eat pizza and study painting). But the vast majority of us are balancing busy lives with our creative aspirations, so it’s okay to be practical and use technology to streamline your process.
What do I use?
I am currently using a refurbished Epson that I purchased directly from the factory seven years ago, so the model itself isn't being manufactured anymore. Epson is definitely a little on the pricier side, but I can attest to the fact that mine has held up wonderfully over time. Keep an eye out for sales, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday on the horizon, it might be an ideal time to scoop one up.
I took a quick look at projectors through Amazon, and there are many available that project in 4K (which is a very high resolution) for a reasonable price. I always read reviews for these, particularly if they're a brand that I've never heard of before, but there are multiple mini projectors with good reviews that will do the trick for less than $100CAD. Just search "art projector," or if you're in Canada, you can take a look at this one for just $66. 4K is nice, but if all you're looking to do is project for paintings, 1080P (which is high definition) will be more than enough.
What about tracing?
I know of two methods that work for transferring drawings by tracing, though I rarely use them because I find projecting so much easier.
Both methods involve taking a contour drawing of the subject (basically, the most important lines and ignoring all shading) using tracing paper. You can do the drawing by either tracing over top of a printed copy, or even doing it off of the screen of an iPad or tablet.
Once you have your drawing, the first method involves graphite, carbon paper, or charcoal. You smudge the back with either the graphite or charcoal, then fix the tracing paper to the canvas and trace the drawing using a ballpoint pen. If you're using carbon paper, then by placing it directly underneath the tracing paper, it will be transferred to the canvas.
You can use white charcoal for this if you've primed and toned your canvas with a darker colour and the white will be visible.
I would personally choose charcoal over graphite because I find graphite smudges and contaminates paint, making it appear dirty and grey.
The second method of transferring that I've used is a thin layer of burnt umber oil paint on the back of the tracing paper instead of graphite or charcoal. When you press on the tracing with a ballpoint pen, the oil transfers to the canvas, leaving a gentle burnt umber outline that dries quickly, usually overnight.
What's the Takeaway?
As always, the moral of the story is to not be so hard on yourself for using technology to support your artistic goals. After all, the point of technology is to make our lives easier, not to fill us with guilt for not doing everything the old fashioned way.
I recognize that there are some strong opinions on this subject, but when it comes to my approach to teaching and learning, I just want you to have fun, enjoy the process, and to keep the brushes wet. How you work within that is completely up to you.
Keep making your life beautiful, and happy painting!
If you're interested in starting a sketchbook to practice your drawing...
Check out this video from my channel. I was always sad that this one didn't perform as well as some of my others, because it's probably one of my favourite videos on the channel! I hope you enjoy!