Confessions of a Recovering Illustrator

DON STEWART, Sugar Creek Gang: On the Mexican Border, Moody Press, airbrushed acrylics and colored pencil

Shhh... Can I Tell You a Secret?

Illustrators usually work from photographic reference.

Not Only That...

They use things like opaque projectors and light boxes from time to time, too, and... well... trace.

Don's Pic Image

I Know This Because I Was One

For 20 plus years I was a freelance illustrator.

Nearly 100 of my paintings have been published as book covers for clients like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Scholastic.

Countless paintings have also been published as illustrations for magazines, advertising, children's books and textbooks.

In the latter years of my illustration career I pioneered the use of digital painting methods, too.

In fact, my digital paintings were featured in five consecutive editions of The Painter Wow! book by Cher Pendarvis.

Watermelon Mystery Image
DON STEWART, Sugar Creek Gang: The Watermelon Mystery, Moody Press, airbrushed acrylics and colored pencil
Painting Ocean Isle Image
Painting East End of Ocean Isle, oil, 6.5 x 8.5 inches

I Knew How to Draw

Thirty-five or so years ago, before becoming an illustrator, I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a concentration in painting.

There I gained excellent training in traditional fine art methods, and so, I learned how to draw and paint from life.

In fact, we were taught that using a photograph was never an option.

And tracing? Why, a student would be forever banished for such a thing!

I’m not sure to where, but I'm pretty sure that weeping and gnashing of teeth was involved.

So, Why Did I Start Using Photos?

Well, not long after graduating, I landed a job at an advertising agency. And that, my friend, was where I was first introduced to Lucie.

She was the reason for my downfall.

Lucie was fast and she was easy. She protected me, too… from making mistakes - and that played into my perfectionistic nature.

Have you guessed it yet? That Lucie is the nickname we gave our opaque projector?

So, even though I knew how to draw, and was pretty darned good at it, I had entered a new land far from my fine art heritage.

I found commercial art to be filled with anxious clients and tight deadlines.

And so, the aforementioned attributes of Lucie helped me to navigate that treacherous terrain.

Michelin Man Image
DON STEWART, 5' tall free standing display, Michelin Tires, digital
Carefree Gum Image
DON STEWART, Point of sale, Carefree Sugarless Gum, airbrushed acrylics
Tracing George Washington Image

Is Tracing a Bad Thing?

Suppose I give you a photograph - of George Washington, let’s say.

Actually it will be a photograph of a painting of George Washington, so does that confuse the issue? Oh well, just go with it.

And suppose I give you a canvas with that very same image of ole George traced onto it in charcoal. Will you know what to do with all of those lines that are traced onto the canvas?

If you can’t draw and don’t know how to paint, then the answer will be a big, fat “no.”

So, even though tracing is a shortcut that is fast, easy and mistake-free (all of the attributes of Lucie that we know and love), you still need artistic skills to be able to transform the resulting lines into a fully fleshed out painting.

In a nutshell, tracing doesn't do all of the work for you, and that’s why I feel that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it.

Do Fine Artists 'Embrace the Trace?'

We’ve already discussed illustrators. But what about professional fine artists?

Did you know that some who work from photographs (not all that do), will, um… trace, too?

Portrait artists are especially prone to this practice and for all of the same reasons that illustrators are.

Since getting an accurate likeness is the top priority in portraiture, it makes sense to use whatever tools are available to help do that.

Beginners will also trace sometimes. For all of the same reasons, but also because they don't yet feel confident in their drawing skills.

There is also a school of thought which believes tracing can actually be used to improve the drawing skills of a beginner.

The idea is that tracing a subject many times over and over again helps a beginner get away from preconceived ideas of what a subject looks like.

Tracing this way, first, supposedly forces a beginner to see details accurately. Details which can then be remembered when drawing the same subject freehand.

Painting From Life Image
Painted from life - DON STEWART, Surrounded, oil, 10 x 10 inches
Portrait From Life Image
Sketched from life - DON STEWART, Girl with Headband, charcoal on toned paper, 22 x 16 inches
I Got You Babe Album Image

In The Words of Sonny Bono...

“Well I don’t know if all that’s true.”

But I do know that I had good reason to sing the next line of his song to Lucie - “You got me and baby I got you.”

And not in a good way!

Because by the time I decided to go back to fine art, in 2006, Lucie had become an unshakeable habit. Photographs had become a relentless crutch.

So, as I gradually emerged from the terrain of an illustrator with its anxious clients and tight deadlines, I vowed to stop using photographs.

I wanted to develop my skills as an artist, and for me, that meant drawing and painting from life.

But, Was It Too Late?

I mean, illustrator, Norman Rockwell, painted from life for around 20 years before he began using photographs.

I’d already bungled that.

But, Rockwell’s advice was to paint from life until you can function completely without photographs - and only then use them.

So, with that as my goal, I started a blog (since retired) to document the journey, and set out to 'relearn' how to draw and paint... without tracing.

I kept my vow to stop using photographs and after about six years of drawing and painting from life, exclusively... I did it.

And now I want to show you exactly how you can do the same thing.

Crowell & Morning Ad Image
DON STEWART, Magazine ad, Crowell & Morning, digital
See more of my illustrations and fine art:

Two FREE Ways I Want to Help You



Select a category: