"Tracing doesn't teach you anything."
I read this a lot around dA. And you know what? I DON'T AGREE.
Tracing is actually just one of the first steps to drawing, it's a TOOL used by beginning artists—one that they will leave behind early on as their artistic skill and vision grows. It teaches two very important things: a bit of hand-eye-coordination, and, more importantly, it shows the LIMITS of tracing.
I'm not ashamed to say I was a tracer. When I was pretty young, my mom had given me a book on Disney cartoon characters, and I traced Donald and Mickey. I traced them over and over, until it was BORING. I wanted the characters to be facing different directions, and doing different things. I wanted a new angle or expression. But to have any of that, I had to draw without tracing.
It was a big step, and I could've easily continued on my tracing ways—but you know what? That's not what anyone who has an interest in drawing DOES. Because as long as they have a modicum of creativity, an artist is going to want to try and get something on paper that isn't quite the same as what they're tracing. They will have an idea, and they will need to challenge themselves to make it come to fruition.
The other thing I see a lot around dA is this weird sort of half-defensive response to using references.
References are another tool—hopefully one that will eventually be left behind to some degree, but it's a tool that's actually a lot more useful and forgivable than tracing. The only thing is...it can cripple an artist into thinking they can't draw WITHOUT reference.
The years after I got out of tracing saw me using a lot of other artists' work as reference material. Generally in the form of Pokémon. I had an old Disney Adventures mag with the first era of Pokémon, each picture about the size of a dime, maybe. (They were reeeeaaally small.) And I'd draw the Pokémon in the exact pose I saw them in. As near as I could make it, anyway. And I discovered even having a reference didn't magically make my art any better. It was just giving me guidelines. Which is actually a lot more than I had for my early Sailormoon art...That stuff was all drawn without reference, just as best as my pre-teen mind could recall, since I was creating my own comic “pages” and making up my own versions of Negaverse monsters.
The big leap in my art came in my 13th year when I discovered the graphic novel Tellos, and fell in love with Mike Wieringo's art. I started drawing comic panels from the comic, trying to copy the lines exactly as I saw them. I didn't always do a great job, but after finishing a few pictures, it made me want to draw my OWN characters in a similar style. Which is what I attempted. And I found myself limited by references, since they didn't show the angles or expressions I needed to tell MY stories. So I had to figure them out myself.
And throughout my teenage years, I'd rely heavily on references—usually another artist's drawings.
But not all the time...anyone going through some of the older years in my gallery may note a certain comic attempt I drew, about a certain “Nature Guide”, and that was an exercise in challenging myself. I started learning about “building” characters from scratch.
But that wasn't a concept I'd put into practice until much later. Like, just a couple years ago, really.
I always thought: “pfffft! Using SHAPES to 'build' characters?? I'll never be able to do THAT!”
But the fact of the matter is...Anyone with any sort of interest in drawing will never stop improving.
And it doesn't matter if they learn at different speeds, or draw in different ways.
Every artist will eventually have some sort of story they'll want to tell with their art—I'm not just talking comic pages, here, I mean they'll want a drawing to evoke something. Some sort of emotion. And they will HAVE to move beyond tracing and using references.
But there's nothing “evil” or inherently “wrong” about either of those two things. (Well, I mean, unless you're making money off of someone else's hard work. But copyright gets tricky, and you won't usually be taken to court over it, BUT you may well be looked down upon and despised by your artistic peers.)
I encourage all artists to consider photo references for tricky angles, lighting, or expressions.
But the problem with a photo reference is that it's hard to know how to “cartoonify” them for the beginning artist that has no interest in drawing “realism”. The other problem is following too closely to a reference and losing your own artistic input. You may not like the length of a well-proportioned arm or leg, even when you drew it to specifics. It may look unappealing to you even though it's technically “correct”. What you have to do there is use the animator's best friends: stretch and squeeze. Just because a “well” proportioned character is supposed to be 8 heads tall, doesn't mean it'll look right to YOU. Your own creative style may require you to exaggerate some things, and downplay others.
Keeping that personal touch in mind can be hard to remember when you're working from a reference.
I'm actually too damn' lazy to use photo references.
Or, really, ANY reference these days.
I'll let my art be influenced by other artists' styles—I really can't help THAT, it's just something that will creep in no matter what. But if I need a tricky hand or pose referenced, I'll probably just grab my camera and use myself, or sketch stick-figures.
THE THREE THINGS YOU CAN TAKE AWAY FROM THIS POST:
1) Tracing isn't evil. It's tool. One you'd better move beyond, but one which can help in those early, formative drawing years.
2) References aren't evil either. They're a tool that professional artists will probably use through their lifetime.
3) Being influenced by another artist's work isn't evil. You like the way a certain artist draws eyes or noses and want to try and mimic it because it looks aesthetically pleasing to you? Go ahead. Some artists will find it flattering, some will feel you're “stealing” but a style is really hard to copyright. And you'll probably change throughout the years. You better hope you do! That's the way it goes with anything...
Another couple things to leave you with...:
Google Rob Liefeld. Click the 40 Worst Liefeld Drawings. It should be pretty high on the Googled list. And think on this: that man is a horribly lazy artist, and claims to have learned about how to draw anatomy. AND HE MADE, AND CONTINUES TO MAKE, MONEY FOR HIS ART.
(He's really quite wretched. Though you ought to read his comics out loud, trying to keep in tone with his most common expressions. Which seems to be constipation, judging by how much his characters appear to be straining as they grimace grotesquely.)
Let that be proof that, no matter how mediocre your art, there IS hope for you.
If Rob Liefeld could make money as a professional artist, then anyone can.
The other thing is this...if you have the chance to buy, or look through any of Andrew Loomis' books, then by all means, do so. Especially his Figure Drawing for All It's Worth, and Fun With a Pencil. He was a man who clearly loved drawing, and loved to share that joy with others.
And if you find it difficult to “build” characters from the ground up (or the head down, as the case may be), don't worry. You'll get there eventually. Using multi-colored pencils can also help. Prismacolor has some nice choices for their Col-Erase series (generally blue, or red) and using them in tandem with a regular pencil is more beneficial than you might think. Especially if you have Photoshop, as it removes the colored pencil lines better than the GIMP can.