Old School Art: Tracing

I’m sure I will be showing my age when I tell you that I began my art career way before personal computers were the norm, 1983 to be exact. We called the profession commercial art. Then, progressing with the times, I was referred to as an art director. Now, simply a graphic designer, (oh, yeah, and Mom.)

One of the things I miss most about old school techniques is tracing. I designed all comps for client approval by tracing images and type. Then all text (we referred to it as copy) was spec’d and sent off by messenger for typesetting. Now, with computers, our type and images are so perfectly clean and smoothly lined. But I miss the look of loose, imperfect lines in designs. Here’s some old comps I dug out of my musty old portfolio circa 1987.

Since I’ve been such a blog slacker for the month of December, I thought I’d create a nice long post on the pleasures of tracing. For most of this, I was curled up on the couch next to the fireplace with a clipboard. It’s good for those of us who rely so heavily on the computer to get away from it now and then.

Click to enlarge all images!
I hoard clip-art books. I just do and always will. These are two of 3 shelves of clip-art books I have in my library. I rarely use art straight from the book without modifying it. These images and type books, some rare, some easily found in stores and on ebay, are a plethora of inspiration. Even my Just Something I Made blog header came from these books, the round images come from old cigar band-style illustrations, and the monogram from a monogram book. It is important to note that I only reproduce from books that clearly state they are copyright-free, not illegal to reproduce from. You can also find or create and print out type and images from the internet/computer.

For the lettering above, using simple velum paper and a sharp light blue penciled baseline (light blue is invisible to the scanner when scanning for line art), {1} & {2} I traced around letters in a typeface book and {3} scribbled-in to fill each letter. Here, it looks best to consistently scribble in one direction, my natural scribble is bottom left to top right. {4} Then I handlettered the word pleasures several times until I found something I liked. I took the P from one area and the remainder of the word from another.

From a vintage book found on ebay, {5} I chose an image of facing deer to trace. Again, using the same technique, {6} I traced an outline around the art. {7} Laying another sheet of velum over that, I drew fill areas, careful not to let each fill area touch another, in case later I want to separate these areas into different colors- it’s easier to separate them here than on the computer. With the art I’m tracing, I can add or choose not to draw certain elements. For the deer, I chose not to include the design on the bodies of the deer or the bell on their collars. I added my monogram letters, CH, to each side of the stems. I might also note that with this particular design, I could’ve only traced half and copied it to the other side on the computer, as it’s a mirror image design. But I was enjoying the tracing too much and like the inconsistent sides.

When using different layers, I will draw little crosshairs on opposing corners outside the art and trace over the crosshairs on each layer. These will come in handy if you are doing tight registration work and want to line up as close as possible the outline art to the fill art, because once you scan all the art into your computer, things have a way of rotating out of sync. A non-issue for this project, as it looks better with art a bit sloppy and not lining up so well.

At this point, {8} I scan all the artwork traced as line art. Depending on your software and capabilities, you can go many different ways from here. I scan in tiff format, outline in vectorizing software (Adobe Illustrator 10 will also trace) and open in software to play with the art.

If you don’t want to use a computer, there are still many ways of enjoying this loose style of art-
Using a lightbox (or in my case, a window on a sunny day,) trace individual images or words onto note cards. Using fabric markers, create a fun shirt. If you are using computer software, have fun making stationery, t-shirt designs, Spoonflower fabrics, etc. Try out different colors, transparencies, overlaps, or multiply into patterns.

If I were going further with this image, I would probably apply it to a black tote at spreadshirt.com.

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18 Responses to Old School Art: Tracing

  1. #1 - equivoque says:

    lovely work!
    –equivoque from etsy

  2. #2 - babyjewels says:

    Very fun!

  3. #3 - Brenda says:

    Thanks you for the insight on how you work on designs. I never knew how it was done. Very interesting. The bag is so beautiful and classy. It makes me appreciate your work even more.

    Thanks again.

  4. #4 - Annie Pazoo says:

    What a treat to see this post, Cathe! I started my career at the same time, in advertising, package design and commercial art firms. I remember well the light-tables and projectors. Press-on type, rolls of tape with different size rules. Keylines and comps made by had. And I still love tracing, too. . While not a graphic artist myself, I learned so much observing in those years, and still use those skills today.

  5. #5 - threemoonbabies says:

    Fun! Great ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  6. #6 - Amy from Texas says:

    Memories… ha! I was lucky and computers just came out when I started my career. I do remember interning and having to send copy to the typesetters. Fun tutorial. I would love to look through your clip art book collection.

    Belated Birthday Wishes to you too!
    Sorry I missed it. I’ve been MIA from my computer for a week. It’s been so nice.

  7. #7 - Blue Castle says:

    This is great. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I am often frustrated by my lack of computer skills and proper software. Tracing- now I can do that.

  8. #8 - High Desert Diva says:

    Oh…I’d almost forgotten tracing…

  9. #9 - Aunt Nancy says:

    Nice tutorial!! And the completed piece is just lovely !

  10. #10 - Lisa Jo Perdue says:

    Oh yes, tracing. Design used to so much more tactile. I used to love to mark up comps for the printer. It was alot more fun when you would just tell other people how things were supposed to look. Keyline boxes with photocopies of photos in place, “fpo”…..that seems like eons ago!

  11. #11 - Heather Carson says:

    Thanks Cathe! What Vector tracing software do you use? Or do you do it by hand in AI?

  12. #12 - Cathe Holden says:

    Hi Heather!

    I use Silhouette, it’s pretty easy to go straight from my scanned image into this software and kick it out as vector art in seconds. I have used AI vector tracing for a few things. There’s a few tricks to learn with the AI tracing, online tutorials have helped me with that.

    Here’s the link to Silhouette:


  13. #13 - Cathe Holden says:

    I am having the most fun reading all of these comments regarding vintage art department techiniques! Paste-ups, keylines FPO’s!!! Ahh, memories!

  14. #14 - Elaine Elwick Barr says:

    Great post! I’m lovin’ the book collection! Yummy….

  15. #15 - Brenda says:

    Happy New Year Cathe to you and your family. May you be blessed with good health and happiness.

  16. #16 - Tanja says:

    You are the rare person who selflessly shared their knowledge and skills. It is admirable, in this selfish and egocentric world.

  17. #17 - Troy Vera says:

    i have that big red-cover traceable book! cool!

  18. #18 - Victoria Ciolek says: