Tracing Onto Watercolor Paper (Tip#02)

posted by Misfit

Not many people think about tracing as a supply, but I promise if you have a heavy hand like mine – this could be your most essential supply ever.   The reason is because your most essential part of any painting begins with a solid drawing – or what I like to refer to as the skeleton of your drawing.  

In watercolor (due to it’s transparent nature) if your drawing is off – your painting will be off as well.  This is why I love to draw my illustrations onto mixed media paper or in a standard sketchbook and then trace them onto my watercolor paper later.

This process can be a bit time consuming  – but for me the pay off is worth it.  


Before I actually get into the tracing part, I want to talk about the benefits of why I trace my drawings in a bit more detail. 

  • Benefit #01 – NO GROOVES

    As I stated earlier, watercolor paper when pressed down upon to harshly, can developed grooves and even strange eraser rubbing marks.   These grooves can do some pretty strange things with your paints (especially if you re-working on a cheaper brand of watercolor paper).

  • Benefit #02 – MISTAKES are WELCOME

    The second benefit that I love is there really is no pressure.   Since I work on pretty expensive artist grade paper I don’t have to worry about ruining it.   I’m not sure about you, but I’m a perfectionist – which isn’t always the best thing when it comes to art.   I like things to be centered on the page or set up in such a way that it follows the rule of thirds for composition with the proportions and stuff like that.  In not so many words – I want my drawing to be perfect on the page before I paint.  By telling my brain “you’re going to be tracing this later” I don’t feel this INSANE NEED to make everything perfect the first time.   I can make mistakes, erase those said mistakes, and even draw not by the rule of thirds.   It doesn’t matter because this is my template. 

  • Benefit #03 – RESIZING

    Another benefit is that I can change the size of my drawing to what ever size I desire by simply taking a picture of my drawing and printing it out to the size and placement I desire.


    AND FINALLY, I make a mistake during my painting process that is just completely unsalvageable (which does happen) – I can start over with the original drawing – no pressure to redraw everything from scratch again.


Now that we have covered the benefits of tracing, let’s talking about the actually tracing process.   Before you begin, here are some supplies that I recommend with links of where to find them 🙂 

  • 4H PENCIL – any kind you want
  • TAPE – masking tape
  • *optional – light table (I’ve included the one I use in a link below – but there seems to be better ones out there. ? So you may want to do some research and find the one best for you.) – Click Here


  • STEP #01 – LINE IT UP

The first part is line up your printed drawing with your watercolor paper and then tape several sides down to keep the two from shifting while you trace.   


There are two ways to trace your drawing onto watercolor paper – the cheap way and the expensive way. I’m gonna go over the cheap way first – which I used all the time when teaching watercolor to my students during art camps.

    • THE CHEAP WAY is very simple you just need to find a window in your house with bright sunlight shining through.  I tend to wait until the morning or the evening when direct sunlight is shining onto the window.  Just keep in mind the brighter the light the easier it will be to trace.  This is an inexpensive way to create what artist’s call a light box. 

Now this method isn’t always the easiest and it does take some patience. 

      • One reason for this is that you will be tracing vertically which can create problems.  I recommend first taping the template/watercolor combo to the window to prevent slippage AND taking rest periods while tracing.  Trust me your hand will thank you. You may not realize it at first, but your hand is not going to like drawing at this rigid of an angle.  So take your time and give your hand some necessary breaks.   

    • THE EXPENSIVE WAY  If you don’t mind making an investment of $60 to $100 a light table is a great resource for tracing.  I got mine discounted in college (which was nearly 8 years ago) and mine still works great today and I’ve never had to replace the light yet (which just so you know lights are really expensive for these things – so I’ll probably just upgrade the whole light box all together when it does finally go). 
      • With the light box, I’m not dependent on what time of day it is or whether it’s a cloudy day.  I can trace when I want – just need to lock myself away from the light in the darkest room you can find.  Which is exactly the opposite of the previous way. I will say, I tend to work at night with this option and turn off all the lights in the room while I’m working.  Since watercolor paper is thick – I want the light to be as bright as it can while I’m tracing. 
      • One reason I love using the light box, over the window method is because my hand is at a more comfortable and familiar position – so less cramping.    Another reason I like using the light box, is it doesn’t restrict me to size compare to a window (especially one with panes).  Even though my light box is small, as long as my drawing and watercolor paper are taped together I can move it where ever I wish on the light box – being able to trace larger paintings.

 If you are right-handed like me, make sure to trace LEFT to RIGHT in a top to bottom motion.  If you are left handed you would move right to left in a top to bottom motion.

The reason for this is your re less likely to get smudge marks from your hand moving across the previously drawn section.  Another way you can prevent smudge marks is by using a 4H pencil – this is a hard lead pencil which won’t leave much lead residue on your paper.

And that is it, once you are done, remove the drawing from the watercolor paper and get ready to paint. I hope this cleared up some things for you and perhaps you learned something new.  Lots of love and happy painting!

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