line between tracing and stealing?

I’m not anything close to being an artist. I wasn’t even a doodler before I began playing with (and falling for) TBS. So basically, I’ve had to import drawings and trace over them in order to get a feel for how they’re made. The traces definitely change as I break them apart, rework the heads/faces (entirely) and begin animating. But they still appear – to me, at least – the same style as the original.

An example: I needed an upright fox character. I traced the body of Disney’s Goofy because there are so many examples of him in different positions and he’s fun to draw for my newbie self. He has a different head, of course and completely different mannerisms (my fox is also upright rather than slouched like Goofy), but he does have the same hands, body, and overall drawing style.

So how much am I crossing the line, so to speak?

It is impossible to not be influenced by other peoples work, particularly if you study that work as a learning aid. And there are plenty of cases where cartoonists see aspects of a style that they like and adapt that aspect to their own style. Sometimes consciously and more often unconsciously.

Directly tracing other people’s work is not a good way to learn to draw because it ignores the construction that lies beneath the work. Copying a drawing by using it as a visual reference but doing so by actually constructing the drawing yourself is a time honored step in most people’s learning process. Every student animator studies classical animation to learn timing and dynamics and how the masters did it. But eventually you will not want or need to copy someone else’s work because you will develop your own style and visual method of interpretation.

The line you don’t want to cross is the one where you take someone’s exact work and try to pass it off as your own. Just changing some small part or using different coloring isn’t sufficient. Micky Mouse with a green nose is still Micky Mouse. How Goofy walks is part of Goofy the character but learning how that personality and walk style was created is a great way to learn.

If you like the way someone draws eyes you may want to incorporate that in your work. If you like the way someone else does mouths you may adapt that but don’t directly copy Ren and Stimpy and call them your own. You certainly can be heavily influenced by that style of cartooning or you certainly can be influenced by some other style so don’t get too uptight about seeing things creep into your work. It happens to everybody.

There is hardly anything out there that I see these days that doesn’t remind me of something done by someone else or similar to something I’ve seen before. What can be even more frustrating is when you create something totally your own and then see something that someone else is creating that looks similar. But that is going to happen and does happen because with so many people being influenced by similar stuff inevitably more than one person is going to put things together similarly.

What I’m ultimately saying is don’t be too concerned about total originality because it doesn’t exist. You know when you are using someone else’s work directly and when you are only allowing yourself to be influenced by their work. The trick is being honest enough with yourself and not deluding yourself into taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.

Daffy Duck in many early models looks painfully like Donald Duck but over time they diverged naturally. I guarantee you that plenty of Warner Bros characters were influenced by Disney because the cartoonists moved from studio to studio and influenced each other. So in today’s media explosive world of the internet where everyone is constantly sharing their sketchbooks online etc. it is impossible not to see the cross pollination effect. Just my opinion. -JK

Regarding the tracing – I’ve found that by tracing a drawing, then replicating it without tracing at least gives me a feel for drawing. Again, I have virtually never been one to draw and I’m a bit of an old dog to be starting this now (I go through intense phases with hobbies – last couple years it was paragliding, this year it’s animation…much less expensive this year!). It’s amazing how learning cut-out animation has informed my drawing within body dynamics.

Thanks for the reply, JK.

I don’t want to come off sounding like I’m being critical of tracing as an approach to learning. The problem that most students have in learning to draw, whether tracing or copying, is that they don’t learn to see and use the underlying forms and instead just memorize or focus on drawing lines.

Lines represent forms, so if you aren’t seeing the forms beneath the lines you are not really going to be able to animate the character as he/she moves in 3D.

In drawing any character there are levels of forms below the visible surface details and those forms are solid shapes that have mass and weight and respond to forces both internal (muscle contractions, joint resistance etc.) and external (gravity, inertia etc.).

Because visualizing and understanding the movement of those underlying forms is so important to animating, I always try to reinforce that in my approach to helping people learn both drawing and animating. The final lines that show in a finished drawing are just reflecting what’s happening underneath and that’s why learning by constructing from forms to details is so important. Thus my reason for saying that you should avoid tracing because it inhibits your learning to visualize and use those forms. Always glad to help. -JK