Tracing from Photographs?

by Mindy on November 16, 2011

in Uncategorized

Using Photography in Botanical & Scientific Illustration

I recently received an e-mail from one of my readers about tracing from photographs. Here is her question:

"I'm fairly new to the "training" of natural science illustration. Recently, I have been introduced to "tracing" your subject from a photo. To be honest, I am/was a little shocked at this "technique" and would like to know, do illustrators today practice this so called "technique"? Using photography is a great way to capture your subject if you cannot have it in front of you, but tracing directly from a photo? "

I thought I would share my view points about this topic and I invite you to put your 2 cents in the comment box.

First thing first. NEVER, EVER copy or use anyone else's photographs without permission. The photographer owns the copyright to the photo and it is unethical to copy it, let alone trace it. So do I ever use photographs in my work? Yes, I use photographs that I have taken as well as those from others. I had a job for the NC Aquarium in Kure Beach, NC that required me to do 30 bird illustrations for outdoor signage. I had 3 weeks to do the project. Yikes! How could I possibly get this project done. I had to work fast, my photography skills were poor, it was before digital photography came out (Can you imagine life before digital?) so what did I do???? I had a file of bird photographs that I had been saving from all the National Geographics, Ranger Rick and National Wildlife magazines. I took out as many books as I could find in the library and went to local places like the Museum of Natural History to look at bird specimens.  I began to piece together a composition for each bird. I call it "Frankenstein-ing". I used multiple photos to get the pose, anatomy and environment of each bird and worked it out on paper. The head pose of one bird might be used to depict facial detail, the wing structure another and another photo might show me a good image of the feet. This is crucial to not infringe upon copyright issues. I had to know general bird anatomy and scale to make sure that the proportions were correct. After putting the drawing together they were submitted to an ornithologist for input and corrections. When I "passed" the correction stage I then went to color which again was reviewed by the ornithologist. I was able to create the project in 3 weeks and it is still being used at the aquarium.

Here are the pitfalls of using photography to illustrate from:

Photography can have depth of field issues creating distortion and lost edges.

Color can be misrepresented by light settings, computer monitors and printing processes.

How to make a successful/accurate painting:

Work from life or real specimens as much as possible.

Study morphology and anatomy of your subject.

Take multiple shots of your subject:
   close-up macro shots, body parts, size relations to environment etc…

Create accurate color notes with your sketches.

So in conclusion I highly recommend using photography as means to "assist" you in your paintings. I would never recommend that you just trace a photograph, yours or someone else's…… what is the point? Why not just show the photograph?

This is what we teach in my Artistic Adventure Tours. Nancy Richmond is a photographer and  instructor on the tours and she has made a great impact on how I work. I have been traveling to Costa Rica and other destinations for over 20 years and it is nearly impossible to come home with finished work. I am however able to sketch, take color notes and back it up with photography to have enough research material to paint for an entire year. If you are interested in coming on our Costa Rica tour this coming February 2012 we would love to have you join us! Check out our Facebook Page- Artistic Adventure Tours.

How do you work with photography?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Natasza November 16, 2011 at 10:04 am


Thank you for clarifying and responding so quickly. It's really  great to hear what other artist think of "actual tracing" to complete projects. As stated, I'm fairly new at the official training and very interested in how others create.  Personally, its a moral factor that I am not in agreement with when this was presented to me.  I agree with your statement of "what is the point ? why not show the photograph"?
 I look forward to reading the comments of other fellow artist. 
Thank you again for answering in such detail and providing helpful hints :)

Natasza November 16, 2011 at 10:07 am

Thank you for the inspiration :) 

Wrenaissance Art November 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm

You have definitely covered some of the major issues of using photographic imagery as source material for painted/drawn artwork!
With regards to color, I have found that in-built flash tends to push colors to the "hotter" side of the scale. Turning off the flash and using exposure prevents this. It helps to have a tripod.
A photograph flattens the subject into 2 dimensions. The image seems easier to copy, but it becomes more difficult to render the physical space it occupies. 
David Hockney describes the negatives of tracing an image in his book, Secret Knowledge. When you trace an image, whether a photograph or through the camera lucida, you tend to draw lines that connect parts that in real life are separate.
Photography is useful especially for its speed. When you are hiking with a group of non-artists, you can use photos when you don't have enough time to sit down and sketch. 

Mindy November 17, 2011 at 6:28 am

Hi Wren, thanks for further commenting. I like what you said about joining the planes when you trace. I never thought about it that way and it is another reason to stay away from tracing photographs. Thanks for the additional info!

Pablo Acosta November 17, 2011 at 7:34 am

This days, more and more "teachers" avoid the responsability to teach, and take hand of "modern improuvements" hide their miresable capabilities. A sister in law  has taken a watercolor course in a UNIVERSITY, and the teacher in question said, it is not more important to learn to draw, today one take a picture from internet or a book and make a fotocopy in the desire size to trace it for the painting. 
And I say: Do you really think THAT war a teacher? 
Painting without drawing, is like drinking without liquid.
Then, You need to KNOW the subject you intend to paint. Not only to see it but to KNOW IT. This is the more important, as you intend to do a botanical illustration, or other painting with the intention of reproducing all the details as accurate as posible.
Please forgive me my english. 

JarnieG November 18, 2011 at 2:46 am

Working from photos is one of the assignments for my diploma course in botanical art and although we have had lots of advice your comments are extremely helpful. Not a natural photographer, I try to practise a lot and I also try to make sure that the distance from which I take an overall shot is the same, otherwise sizing can be all over the place. I try to get a small, familiar object or a ruler into the picture to help with scale and lots of colour notes and sketches go onto a postcard to be filed with the photos. 

Mindy November 18, 2011 at 9:28 am

Pablo- I agree with you. There are many teachers out there that take the easy road and do not really teach their students. I sometimes think that the era of modern art had something to do with the lack of drawing. It was a time of experimentation and unconventional techniques. This was a great time in the history of but unfortunately the fundamentals of good drawing were not emphasized. I think there is a rebirth of traditional techniques and the challenge is to find a teacher that utilizes them and can teach them. Drawing is the foundation of realistic painting. I love your quote that painting without drawing is like drinking without water. Very well put! Thanks for sharing.

Mindy November 18, 2011 at 9:29 am

Hi Jarnie- it sounds like you have a good process for working from photos. It is important to keep scale in proper proportion.

Lois December 2, 2011 at 10:10 am

How do you keep the drawing to scale, that you mentioned in previous, e-mail.

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