IN MY OPINION: The Process Vs The Piece [TK:IMO]




Look at the image above. I want to tell you a few stories about it.

This image was done with a dip pen and India ink. The scene is from the artist’s childhood. Its his grandmother’s house. He had no photos to reference and so had to rely totally on his memory to recreate the scene.


BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE, this is the real story:

This image was done with a dip pen and India ink. The scene is from the artist’s childhood. Its his grandmother’s house. He drove out to the location, doing hours of sketching and then completed the  image back in his studio.


BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE, this is the real story:

This image was done with a dip pen and India ink. The scene is from the artist’s childhood. Its his grandmother’s house. He drew it while using a photo as a reference.


BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE, this is the real story:

This image was done with a dip pen and India ink. The scene is from the artist’s childhood. Its his grandmother’s house.  He traced it from a photo using a lightbox.


BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE, this is the real story:

This image was done with a dip pen and India ink. The scene is from the artist’s childhood. Its his grandmother’s house. He brought it into Adobe Illustrator and used LIVE TRACING.

[EDIT: Actually I found it on Google]

Isn’t it funny how the story behind the art has a huge effect on how we perceive it? To me, and I am sure I am not alone, the first story would suggest that the finished drawing is in someway “better art” or “higher art” than the rest, with each story making the art less and less valuable. I would find very few artists who would agree that the image is, in any real sense, art at all  if the last story was true. But does this make us art snobs? IS the process more important than the finished piece? Is it as important? Or should we only consider the piece in and of itself?

For me, when I look at an amazing piece of art, firstly I am taken in by its aesthetic. Then I immediately am floored by the skill, dedication and genius of the artist. For me the artist is as important as the art. Its the same with music. I often like the band members as much as the music and I would guess that if I didn’t like the personalities of The Beatles I probably wouldn’t love their music quite as much.

When I come across a new artist I like, I go into research mode and find out everything I can about them. I check their blogs, read interviews, get the books and watch the youtube clips. I have as much fascination with the process, probably more, than the final art. I think it’s because I want to relate to the artist on a personal level as well as an esoteric level. I want to know what he knows. I want to know how he got to the place in his life where he could paint such a picture or draw a character the way he does. I want to learn what he has learned. I want to know how he sees the world different from me. I want to steal his good points.

But I don’t think this is the only reason why I, and many other artist, have issue with tracing, lightboxing, heavy use of reference or digital manipulation. Its because after long years of dedicated hard work its seems only fair that someone who simply traced an image should be seen in the same light as me, the real artist, who struggles, toils and spent years crafting his skill.

But, before I go further, I want to point out that I do use lightboxing (digital and analogue) in my art. Not all the time but a fair amount. All of the portraits I did for are lightboxed from photos (SAMPLES: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ) as are some of the more realistic styled comics I have done. If I need to do a good likeness of a real world character or place I’ll lightbox it. However, Road Crew, Something Wonderful or Down are for the most part just from my mind.

Does this mean that I am a lesser artist than someone who could do these images without a lightbox: YES. Does that mean that the finished image is any less worthy or considerable as art: NO!

But why is the process so important. Again in music, the story behind the song can completely change the meaning you had for that song. The process behind the art can change its meaning but it can’t change the art.

You also have to bear in mind that as an artist, I am a work in progress. I don’t think any artist will ever say that they currently are at the level of skill and technique that they hope to attain. Every artist, the good ones at least, are constantly trying to improve, trying to learn, trying to get better. So, as I said previously, I am a better digital artist than traditional, therefore I am currently spending six to eight weeks using pen and paper and forbidden myself to open Manga Studio. My entire current comic project will be analog art. Not because I feel a need to prove myself to anyone else (those who know me will testify that a need to prove myself to anyone is not on my list of quirks) but because I know when I go back to digital I will be a much better, more rounded artist.

Therefore, If I spend a few years lightboxing, tracing, referencing, what of it. I am still learning. I only started drawing about six years ago – I have lots still to learn. I would love to be able to draw as accurately without reference than I can with it, but honestly the skill isn’t there yet. I hope for it to be there some day, but I know where I am at currently.

Besides, I don’t think tracing is as easy as its made out to be. There is still a fair amount of skill involved. We all know that an inker is sometimes seen as “just  a tracer” but I dare you to say that to an inker. Try it. As with every inker, every tracer brings their own sensibility to the peice they are tracing. For example here are three versions of the same image traced. First one is mine, Second one is Viv Duignan and the last one is Archie Templar. The three images are very different in style. Each artist has there own take on the image, even if it is traced.



Here’s some process images I got from John Robbins. On the first image you can see  screen captures from the film ‘The Squid And The Whale’, the other showing how they were used for his five-pager ‘Dog-Eared’.

John says “My interest in achieving polished visuals beyond my drawing ability is fuelled by a desire for the story to be appropriately realised. Sometimes you gotta work with what you don’t have.” and let’s be honest, anyone who says that John Robbins’ comics are not real art is talking poo.


So I guess I’ll have to bring this to some sort of point or conclusion, but it’ll be hard. I’m not sure its a black and white issue. Is tracing or reference a bad thing? It depends on what you are looking for. Are you looking for a show of skill or are you looking for a good image? Are you interested in the artist or the finished work? Should we be happy, as artists to rely on tracing for the rest of our lives and never learn anything more? Surely not, but in the meantime if we do some tracing stuff lets still see it as art, as learning, as a means to an end and as worthwhile.


  • NHOJ

    Tracing is bad, bad, bad.

    I think a *certain* degree of tracing is okay for reference purposes (so long as the artist brings a lot of their own style to the work). Tracing directly to the page, making a few minor changes and calling it a day? Not acceptable.

    I often see comics where it is obvious the artist simply traced over a photograph and I find it immediately takes me out of the story. Direct photo traces tend to have a very staged and stiff quality to them and immediately stick out like a sore thumb for me whenever I see them. When I use photo reference for my drawings, I tend to have said photos printed off and laid out around me — this allows me to kind of capture the ‘essence’ (I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious) of what I’m referencing, without blatantly just copying it line-for-line on to the page.

    I get the whole ‘the end product is what matters, not the process’ thing but there does come a point when that term ends up being used as a handy excuse by artists who don’t want to put in the legwork legwork needed to get a diffcult drawing done.

    Just look at what Greg Land — a guy regularly employed by Marvel — gets away with ( This guy is a supposed professional artist and not only traces directly from photographs, but also from other artists (even, at times, his very own work!).

  • archimedes templar

    Rather than enter the pooh storm that is the argument for and against tracing let me put forth my own recent experience with the above pencilled picture as a starting point.

    When Tommie approached some heads and asked us to do a tracing of a pic it sounded like it was going to be a piece of piss. Starting the picture seemed simple enough, outlines first, then a birra shading and then add your blacks to finish it off. What could be easier, this was tracing after all.

    As the drawing progressed I first off realised just how difficult it was to see the picture below the tracing paper (yes I am still analogue, as Mr Kelly calls it – I hope that phrase doesn’t catch on). This was frustrating as it basically meant I was drawing blind most of the time.

    The second thing that dawned on me was just how tedious the process was. There was absolutely no spontaneity as I laboriously worked on Mr Goldblums dreamy, chiselled features.

    Toward the end of the exercise my interest just dropped off and I lazily just grabbed the 6B and scribbled in the dark black bits, not even bothering to detail the watch or hand.

    This was only the third time I have traced something and rather than the dirty, worthless feeling I felt the other two times, this time I just felt kind of empty. The final piece looks alright, I like the lines on his forehead, but it’s just a by the numbers facsimile… devoid of, well, me.

    But then it dawned on me. What if people look at it and go, it’s just like your regular art Archie, well done!

    And sure what is art anyway Joxer, wha’?!

    P.S. Oh and for the record Greg Land is drivel.

  • Tommie

    I have seen Greg Land’s stuff alright. But he’s still quite popular even though everyone knows what he’s at.

    What about Roy lichtenstein? What are people’s thoughts on what he did? It very much considered art and as far as I’m concerned is nothing more than a thief.

    • NHOJ

      It frustrates me that Land is still as popular as he is, in spite of his lazy ways. He is proof that many people don’t care whether your art is of a good quality or not, just so long as you beat the deadline. I have a lot more respect for the likes of Frank Quitely — a man who is *very* slow at what he does but you are guaranteed that the resulting work will be absolutely second-to-none.

      I totally agree about Lichenstein being a thief. Not only was his work very blatantly copied from existing comic art, he also did a goddamned shoddy job of recreating said pieces (it’s quite obvious the man wouldn’t have known good lineart if he was smacked in the face with it).

      • Tommie

        Paddy doesn’t want us talking about him anymore, so i won’t :P

        The thing with Land is that its more than just Marvel who are ok with it. They wouldn’t hire him just cos he hit the deadlines. People obviously like him and buy the comics with his art.

        Is he popular? My only real knowdlege of him is from bleedingcool and that Forum post where they publish all his source photos.

        • NHOJ

          Just because people are okay with someone’s art doesn’t mean those very same people are good judges of art. Just look at Rob Liefeld; that man has *loads* of fans (and still gets loads of work), despite being infamous for being one of the worst artists in the mainstream industry.

          Some people just have shit artistic taste and couldn’t tell the difference between a polished turd and bad art if you paid them.

          I’m not sure if Land is popular or not but the fact that he continues to get a lot of work at Marvel seems to point to the guy having some form of fanbase. No accounting for (shit) taste, I suppose.

  • Paddy Lynch

    Oh Tommie don’t bring up the Lichenstein thing. It’s a complete non issue.

    His stuff was all about appropriating existing images as a form of commentary. He wasn’t saying ‘hey look at this great thing I drew, aren’t i a really talented drawer?’ which is what a lot of comic book art can end up being.
    There’s a completely different intention at play. And by the way that’s where the art is. Comics are only partly about drawing. The actual ‘art’ in comics is found in how words and images work together to tell a story and the quality of ideas behind the intention to do so.

    • Tommie

      I don’t agree that Lichenstein is a complete non-issue. i think its very relevant to what we are discussing. He copied other peoples artwork and presented it as his own. But you seem to say that because his intention is different then its ok. I think thats more or less what i said in the piece, that process is as important as the final piece. Intention is part of the process, isn’t it?

      I was being overly dramatic about Lichenstein in describing him as nothing more than a thief. I don’t really care what he did. Its a pity he never credited the art he took and that none of the original artist ever had a smell of the money. But thats life.

      Comics are only partly about drawing, couldn’t agree more with you. But i wasn’t just talking about comic art I guess. Just drawing in general. Most of my art is not in comic form.

      How do silent comics come into it. There are no words just pictures. Wouldn’t that, by your definition, lack the “art” of comics? Or are you saying its “story” and pictures? And if so, doesn’t every picture tell a story?

      Not trying to be a smart arse, genuine caller.

      • Paddy Lynch

        Ah yeah, I don’t think he ever denied that he copied the pictures, in fact I think it was the point. People don’t think he’s good because of his painting or drawing skills, it’s more about his concepts and the idea that he presented the subject matter he did as ‘fine art’. It all leads back to your own personal definition of ‘art’.

        That’s why I see it as a non issue. He was specifically a pop artist – Like Peter Blake, David Hockney, or Andy Warhol. Appropriating existing imagery whether through collage, printmaking or, in Litchenstein’s case, large scale painting was a way of referencing ‘pop’ culture which was not the done thing in the international fine art world at the time.

        Now I’m not much of a fan of his work, I believe he should have given the artists whose work he copied more credit up front. The other three guys I mentioned are much better in my opinion, but I do see the validity of Litchensteins work and I think he’s always dragged out as an easy target within discussions such as this. And i love rooting for the underdog.

        But yeah, he’d be a shite comic book artist.

        • Tommie

          You’re right, he’s an easy target.

          And to be honest, I know very little about him. I might just do some investigating.

  • John Robbins

    Personally I much prefer comics with a cartooning that best captures movement and emotion, and which usually exaggerate posture and expression in order to do so. Photo-tracing is fine for those of us just getting by or just getting the job done, but much like a philosophical zombie it doesn’t really feel anything. I’m not saying photo-tracing can’t be aesthetically pleasing, but the extra element a real cartoonist brings to comics story-telling is as close as the medium gets to ‘acting’.

    • Tommie

      Yea, photo tracing or photo reference can make the art stiff alright.

      I like the more cartoony stuff too, like Rob Guillory or Mike Oeming and the like.

  • Gar

    It’s all grand depending on what you are trying to achieve. Lichtenstein was examining context. Others might appropriate to subvert. Depending on how you come at it, I’d see this as akin to sampling in music or mash-ups on Youtube (“Fentonnnn!”) or Found Art or Found Poetry like this:

    I don’t mind myself, as long as everyone doesn’t start doing the same thing and it gets tedious.

    As for Frank Quitely – he’s fuckin great to be quite frank (LOL – groan – going back to bed now).

    • Tommie

      “as long as everyone doesn’t start doing the same thing and it gets tedious.”

      I agree. Everyone should try to stretch themselves artistically and only doing tracing is the road to mundane. But, i guess what i was trying to point out was that even using the same photo artists still end up with a different image.

      If tracing was so easy, souless or lifeless with no artistic merit then all three Jeffs should have looked exactly the same. But they don’t.

  • Paddy

    Whether you’re drawing everything from your imagination, tracing from photos, or any points in between, what matters is the artistic decisions you make. Gorgeous drawing is wasted if the composition doesn’t work. Comics can stand very basic, functional drawing, even stick figures, if the image choices are right. The same goes for traced drawings – and traced drawings can use lighting, atmosphere and line in ways that stick figures can’t. I prefer art where you can see the artist’s hand, but look at Arthur Ranson’s work on Button Man and tell me he’s not a great cartoonist.

    • Tommie

      I agree Paddy, I think there is a place for all art methods as long as the artist is bringing some of his own magic too.

      Arthur Ranson is amazing and has a very unique voice. His art is dynamic and full of movement, which are some of the main criticisms of referenced/traced work. And his line work is beautiful.

      Alex Maleev, Tony Harris, Tim Bradstreet among many others all have unique styles and voices even though they rely heavily on photo reference/tracing.

    • Gar

      I didn’t realise that Ranson was a low-down dirty tracer but, now you mention it Paddy, the signs are there (the distinct and unique faces on the background characters etc.) He put his low-down dirty tracing to good use.

      In my opinion, Ranson is one of the most unique and atmospheric cartoonists of all time. I wonder if he got into the tracing thing from having to capture the likenesses of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum for the Sapphire and Steel comics and other Look In jobs.

      Arthur Ranson was the best Judge Anderson artist ever and that includes Bolland.

  • Tommie
    • AndyLuke

      Ah, you beat me to it Tom.
      Belfast artist Deirdre Robb was running re-appropriated images of Wonder Woman in her latest show, which was also run across billboards in Belfast, as part of bringing art to the people. I asked Deirdre for an interview for ICN, sent her questions as requested, and didn’t hear back. The pieces were figure cut-outs, and I think she may have also had one from The Flash, certainly from Buffy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, almost. I think it’s inherent in artists not citing the original creator, a form of disrespect. If that’s the intention, it does need addressed. (Tho I reckon it’s not)

      • AndyLuke

        I quite enjoyed Moody’s work. A touch of the Dali about the alterations.

    • Gar

      That sounds like a rubbish exhibition by a total chancer that, as pointed out by the piece, doesn’t have a point these days.

      Although, it did remind me that I’m always mixing up Sal Buscema with Jim Steranko. I’ll never know why. They aren’t similar style wise and their names are entirely different. Steranko was great and sounds like a really funny eccentric bloke too …but I’m derailing the thread.

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