Lately I’ve seen a lot of debate in online forums about tracing art. Some people feel that it’s perfectly fine to trace, and others feel that it is just plain wrong. So you might be wondering, is tracing art illegal?
Tracing is a common art-making technique that is as old as time. As a technique, it is not good or bad. However, tracing (or any copying) is illegal when it is used to violate another artist’s copyright, a person’s right of publicity, or trademarked designs such as logos.
Is Tracing Bad?
The simple act of tracing is not good or bad. Throughout history, artists have used many techniques to bring their visions to life, and tracing is just a technique. In fact, there is some evidence that even Rembrandt used concave mirrors to create a projection of his subject that he traced.
The issue of whether it is bad or good arises when artists trace other people’s compositions and then claim them as their own. We see this happen online when people trace artwork, then post it online as their own art. Or worse yet, sell it as their own art. It’s just bad ethics. And in some cases, downright illegal.
Tracing Other People’s Art for Sale
Tracing other artist’s work is a definite no-no unless you have the artist’s permission, or it has fallen out of copyright. A copyrighted work remains protected for the life of the artist, plus 70 years. However, it could be even longer if the estate of the artist continues to register a copyright. Therefore, it is only “legal” to trace very old artworks that are in the public domain.
Tracing Other People’s Photographs for Sale
As with other people’s art, other people’s photographs are also copyrighted. Unless you have the artist’s permission, or it has fallen out of copyright, you cannot trace or copy it for sale.
Tracing Your Own Photographs for Sale
You own the copyright to your own photographs and can use them as reference photos to your heart’s content. You may absolutely trace or copy your own photographs into your art for sale. In fact, this is a very common technique.
There are two small caveats:
- In an article about drawing celebrities, I mentioned the “Right of Publicity.” In most states, you have a Right of Publicity which prohibits anyone from selling or exploiting your name, likeness, or personal features without your consent. So, if you are doing portraits, the safest thing to do is to get a model release or change the person’s features enough so that it is not an exact portrait.
- You should avoid any images that include trademarked logos. A business has a right to the use of its logo, and although it’s unlikely, they could technically prevent you from selling artwork that incorporates one.
Tracing Copyright-Free Photographs for Sale
As with your own photographs, if a reference photo is copyright-free, you are free to trace or copy it in your own artwork. There are many websites that offer copyright-free photographs that you can use by simply typing in the subject you are interested in. Try Pexels.com, Pixaby.com, and Unsplash.com.
As with copying your own photos, you will need to be cautious of the right of publicity and trademarked logos.
Tracing Copyrighted Works for Your Own Personal Use
Tracing copyrighted works to study or incorporate into your own journals is perfectly legitimate. Many artists do this for practice, to play with art supplies, and to relax. You should not worry about tracing anything where it comes to your own personal use.
Keep in mind, though, that posting your personal use works online may cross the line. If your social media accounts promote your art, your social media is actually a marketing channel, and posting traced/copied work may draw criticism because it will appear that you are promoting the work as your own. Personal use = keep it to yourself.
Beyond the Legality of Traced Art
I would be remiss to write an article on the legality of traced art without mentioning another important caveat, which I think is actually at the heart of all the online debate. Traced art rarely makes for good art. Art is so much more than the technical execution of the piece. It requires thoughtful composition and an infusion of emotion. Tracing is a useful tool in your artist toolbox, but don’t rely on it too heavily. As an artist, it is your job to breathe life into your works. To do that, you will need to do more than make copies.