Is Tracing Cheating in Art?

*Reading Time: 3 minutes*

I am a firm believer that using photos and other media for inspiration, posing, and referencing is highly beneficial. Ideas need to come from somewhere. As an artist, I can’t pull poses, anatomy, and environments out of my head, and I definitely can’t pull them out of my ass! I don’t know where this stigma against using references came from, but it needs to stop.

Many artists have touched on this topic from graphic designers to fine artists. And I’m sure they agree with what is said here. Using reference photos is not cheating. Tracing stock photos is not cheating. No, using royalty free images is not illegal. And yes, tracing is okay.

But here’s the thing, tracing and using references properly is the way to go.

Here are a couple tips I’ve found useful:

Don’t be married to your image!

Being married to your reference instills a feeling of stagnation while creating because this element isn’t in the reference. If my illustration is going totally left field and it’s starting to deviate from my reference photo, then that’s cool! I’m not going to panic, because that’s where inspiration starts to kick in and my final image is something completely unexpected. An image might not go the way I planned, but 9 times out of 10 it ends up looking really awesome.

Take your own photos!

Taking my own photos is a great aid while creating artwork. Not only can I have my own references that belong to me, but I can create high quality images of poses that I simply cannot find on the internet. Even if I decided to trace an element from my photo, it’s my photo. Who cares?

Not only that, but having a multitude of photos in a reference library can prove extremely useful when ideas need to be explored and developed further.

Use multiple images!

Using multiple images is crucial to not being married to your reference! Taking a background from this photo, and an arm from that photo, while placing the subject’s foot ever so slightly at this angle and using a color scheme from yesterday’s sunset, and the composition of this landscape is a perfect way of implementing pleasing elements into my own piece.


Not every detail needs to be a part of my illustration. Just because there’s a lamp post in that city photograph, doesn’t mean there needs to be in my illustration.

One last tip!

Royalty-Free stock images and Free-for-Use websites that host those images is where I like to look for most photos. My preferred places are the many pages of models on, and Just make sure when using work from a stock photographer or artist, and even a website read their terms of use.

Here are two tutorials that changed my view on referencing:

The Basics: Using References by Shattered-Earth

How Artists Use Photo References by Mark Crilley

I hope you found this useful, and hey! If you did, I’m giving away a FREE photo pack of plants I took from my trip to New Orleans! If you’re inspired by plants and nature, this is up your alley.


Click the image and check it out. I challenge you to make something awesome from these pictures.

Thanks for tuning in!

Until next time!


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