Lightbox tracing is a great way to get a head start on learning to draw.
Plus, it's probably the simplest method that exists for getting something on your paper very quickly and accurately.
And…I have to keep saying it: Don't let those trolls who claim that a method like this is “cheating” stop you from getting into art. When this happens, the only cheaters are those who are cheating you out of an inspiring experience with art.
There's plenty of time to learn freehanding skills when you are ready!
So first, what is a lightbox?
It's very simple. In fact, it's just a glass (or plexiglass) surface with a light shining behind it. You can buy specialty light tables and boxes, but there's no need to spend that money unless you're going into full-scale production.
Here's a free option instead...
You can use pretty much any glass door or window that has strong sun or artificial light shining through it.
All you need to do is tape your reference image (printed side up) to the back side of your drawing paper. Then simply tape the top edge of your drawing paper to the glass so that the front side of the drawing paper faces you. You can also tape the bottom corners, if you find that helpful.
Now, as you press the paper layers tightly against the glass, you will see the printed image through your drawing paper, and you can trace the outline of your reference onto it.
But before you do, you should know a few tricks for getting the best outlines.
Use your 4H pencil so the lines will be very light.
Light lines are essential! Once your outline is complete and you start adding value and details to your drawing, those outlines need to “disappear” and become a part of the overall drawing. If you start with a darker pencil, it will not only be harder to lighten the lines with your eraser, but it can become more difficult to match the value of those lines with your new strokes—throwing your drawing off balance from the very start!
Little inaccuracies at the beginning of a drawing can become big problems by the end. Be deliberate and precise with your lines to ensure that you don't add too much or too little width to a face or object. Also, make sure that each line is clearly defined. Let your nose be a nose and your mouth be a mouth. Accidental lines can combine features and create confusion.
First, let's talk about what that means…
In short, since a pencil line has a certain thickness, it matters where the side of your pencil stroke lines up in your drawing.
Why does it matter?
Because the pencil outlines you are creating will become part of your drawing. These outlines will “disappear” as you add more strokes next to them to draw your first contours. And since you need to start your contours in the darkest places (on the dark side), you want to deliberately include these lines on the dark side so that they won't “stick out” past the edge onto the lighter side.
That's why you need to always put your line on the side of the edge that is darkest—so that the dark contour will come right up to the edge and go no farther.
To visualize this, take a look at the image below and pay attention to how the edge of the stroke (dashed yellow line) in the circle on the far right lines up with the edge of the contour…
Getting the correct pencil pressure can require a little practice.
Of course, you'll have to press hard enough with your 4H pencil to transfer the graphite onto the paper. You might want to experiment on a scrap piece of paper to get the feel for it and to make sure that your lines are transferring dark enough yet can still be erased (without scoring the paper, of course).
Accidental marks and incomplete lines are the enemy.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it can be easier than it sounds to leave marks that don't make sense after you've removed the reference image. So pay attention as you're adding each outline to make sure that they don't throw you off and put your drawing out of kilter.
Aim for fewer outlines that clearly define the overall elements of your drawing. Then use these outlines as a basis for positioning details, rather than trying to include every possible little line at this stage and getting lost in the complexity.
Darrel Tank is a professional artist and educator with over 45 years of experience. His greatest strength lies in his ability to demystify and declutter the art of drawing, making it fun, formative, and completely accessible to anyone!
His drawings and illustrations have been featured in over 400 publications and his unique 5-Pencil Method drawing DVDs and online classes have inspired countless artists from around the globe.
Darrel invites you to pick up a pencil, grab your paper, and discover the joy of drawing for the first time or all over again!