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Portrait Basics - Tracing

"Becky Laura" by Becky Syroka

Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby Becky Syroka » Thu Oct 22, 2009 4:48 pm


To trace or not to trace…that is the question! While some artists prefer to freehand their portrait onto their porcelain, I definitely prefer to begin my portraits by tracing directly from my photograph onto my porcelain using red saral (others prefer non-waxy graphite). I take great care to trace with precise accuracy, nevertheless, it is wise to carefully critique your tracing before beginning your painting (using your calipers to measure and make corrections where needed).

How much of the design should I trace?
Having accurate tracing lines to define your primary features is a blessing. But too many traced details can actually be a curse. Too many lines can be confusing and actually hinder your painting accuracy. So, how do you decide what to trace?

My general rule is to trace only the lines which will allow you to establish your features and ONLY as much as you will be able to paint before your first fire. Tracing lines will disappear during firing, so never trace details such as hair texture or individual eyelashes or any other fine details which won’t be painted until later on in the project and will only serve to complicate your initial painting session.

Example of Trey and the Bunny:

Trey & Bunny Study web.jpg

Photo is copyright property of Beth Forester, Forester Photography of Madison, WV http://foresterphoto.com

Here is a copy of the original photographer’s photograph from which I painted my portrait known as “Trey and the Bunny”. You might notice the photo has a very busy background, the hat and bow tie feature a plaid fabric, and Trey’s suspender feature a very ornate design.

NONE of those details would be painted on my initial painting, so I can eliminate all of those details from my tracing plan and I continue to visually plan and simplify which details are important to include.

Here is a photo of what I traced from this photo study:

Trey Tracing.jpg

Painting a portrait likeness is dependant on three main categories:
Accuracy of definite lines and spaces
Accuracy of shadow shapes
Accuracy of values

The only category we are concerned with for this initial tracing is:
Accuracy of definite lines and spaces (such as outer silhouette, eyelid lines, edges of ears, lips, bulb of nose, nostrils, eyebrows, hairline, clothing lines along with some seams). The only facial contour which I traced was the very important curve from the outer bulge of his nose rounding towards the corner of his mouth and I also made a dot indicating the bottom of another facial important shadow crease which extends from the corner of his mouth downward.

Notice that I did NOT trace every shadow shape within his ear. I traced only the most important contours that will define the basic shape of the ear. Notice that I did NOT paint his textured eyelashes or eyebrows nor his hair, but only indicated their boundaries by a series of dots or dashes.

Here is a photo of my first painting from that tracing:

1st wet TreyWeb.jpg

The goal of my first painting is always to use my tracing lines to guide me in painting the shadows which define the features (so that I can find my features for the second painting, after my tracing lines have fired off) Notice I do not try to paint every shadow and contour, but I do try to establish the most important ones. My limited tracing has served its purpose by helping me to accurately locate and establish each primary feature.

Tracing Step by Step:
Clean your porcelain (either with soap and water or with alcohol). If you have applied and fired a “tooth” coat (such as pink glaze which I do) then make sure you also sand your porcelain to a smooth surface.

Cut your saral (or graphite) to the size of your porcelain (slightly smaller is best since it allows you to easily tape your corners or edges) Make sure you have the correct side down facing the porcelain (the transfer side onto the porcelain) and make sure the saral is nice and smooth. Secure the saral to the porcelain with tape (corners work well).

Place your photo (or whatever you are tracing from) overtop the saral and make sure you have your photo oriented to a pleasing position on your porcelain. Tape your photo securely down.

Use a fine tip pen** or hard tip instrument of your choice and apply reasonable pressure to slowly and precisely trace your lines. Sometimes solid lines are appropriate, but you might find that you trace more accurately by tracing with a series of dashes (sometimes even dots). Use whatever system works well for you. I combine both methods.

Start in the center and work your way outward. I usually start with the most important features such as the eyes, nose, mouth.

DO….trace a sample line near the outer corner of your piece to test how much pressure you need to apply….lift the outer corner to check how your lines transferred. Adjust your pressure as needed until you get a nice tracing line. (This is just a test line off in the outer corner which you will wipe off.)

DON’T ….continue to pick up and check your lines throughout your tracing. Each time you lift up to take a peak you will slightly move your design and you will end up with an inaccurate tracing. Do your initial test, adjust your pressure as needed and then leave the piece taped until you are completely finished with your tracing. Work in an organized manner so that you don’t miss important lines during your tracing.

DO….set your pen firmly on your line and trace with one steady movement.

DON'T ... go back and forth and back and forth repeatedly over your tracing lines. You will lose your accuracy and your tracing will result in a confusing mess.

Should you make a line drawing first?

The decision is up to you. But, remember that every time you trace, you increase your chances for inaccuracies. I prefer to print myself a plain paper copy of the photo and I will tape that photo right overtop of my saral and trace directly from the photo in the same manner as one would transfer from a line drawing. By tracing from the photo, I have eliminated the line drawing stage….eliminated one more chance to produce inaccuracies.

Use transparency film for your tracing photo!
I recently came up with a really great alternative to both the line drawing and using a paper copy of the photo study. I print my photo onto transparency film. These are 8 ½ “ x 11” clear plastic sheets which are specially made for use with overhead projectors. One side of the film is a bit rough (this is the side you must print on) while the opposite side is smooth (this is the side you will want to trace on with your pen). Since I use an ink jet printer, I buy the type of transparency film designed for use with ink jet printers. (There are other types for use with laser printers and for use with copy machines.)

Transparency film is sold at office supply stores (such as Staples), usually in a box containing about 50 sheets. It is expensive. However, I have purchased individual sheets from the printing shop located in Office Max.

The advantage of printing onto transparency film is that the photo prints crisp and clear (in contrast to the ink spread you sometimes experience when printing on plain paper). The film is thin enough to allow the tracing lines to transfer nicely without undo pressure. Another great advantage is the ability to later use that same transparency photo as an overlay, to do some comparisons throughout the portrait project.

There are two very important factors you must remember when using transparency film:
When your printing option box opens up on your computer, you must find your advanced options and choose “mirror image”. This will orient your photo correctly so that you can lay the printed (rough) side down over your saral and trace with your pen on the slick side. (If you don’t mirror the image, you orientation will be reversed.)

Next, you will need to place a piece of white tissue paper overtop of your red saral (or gray graphite) in order to lighten the background to enable you to see the details of your photo (against the white rather than the red or gray background).

An accurate tracing is no guarantee that you'll end up with an accurate portrait likeness. There are just too many opportunities to lose the likeness as the portrait progresses (unfortunately speaking from personal experience!). But, an accurate tracing will give you the best possible foundation to begin with. I hope this lesson will prove helpful to you as you have fun with your portrait projects!

;thankyou; ;artist;

** I use a gel pen with a needle fine point of only .018mm. This creates the thinnest line possible which is ideal when tracing tiny features such as on miniatures. These pens are available on my website http://beckysyroka.com
Marci Blattenberger also offers these pens for sale from her booth at china painting shows.
Becky Syroka
Portraits on Porcelain
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Becky Syroka
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Re: Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby lisamac » Sat Oct 24, 2009 2:01 pm

Hi Becky,
I am thrilled to see you on the new Forum! I'm still challenged to post pics (please don't tell Marci) but when I get it figured out, I'd like to share! You are so generous with your help and I know you are a great addition to this forum.

My Reply:
Hi Lisa,
Great to hear from you too! I'll sure be looking forward to seeing what you share with us!
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Re: Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby marcib » Sat Oct 24, 2009 4:24 pm

lisamac wrote:Hi Becky,
I am thrilled to see you on the new Forum! I'm still challenged to post pics (please don't tell Marci) but when I get it figured out, I'd like to share! You are so generous with your help and I know you are a great addition to this forum.

I'm thrilled to have Becky as a part of this forum . We're planning to bring you all some really good portrait info...
Now... for the picture thing : Directions for posting pix is in the HOW TO POST section under posting photos... Get to it , girl !!! zz :) We want to see some of your stuff...
Marci >^..^< (x 8 )
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Re: Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby Diane » Sun Oct 25, 2009 1:06 pm

Thanks for the good info. I will be reading and rereading as I attempt portraits.

My Reply:
Hi Diane,
Glad you find the info useful for when you do your own portrait projects. This basic stuff can be kindof boring.....but little things can make a big difference. Hopefully helps avoid a lot of
;banghead; (I've done a LOT of that LOL!)

Thanks for your post,
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Re: Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby maryann » Sun Oct 25, 2009 1:17 pm

Thank you Becky, this really the info I needed to try a portrait on my own. I will be following you in all the steps.

My Reply:
Thanks Maryann! I've got a lot more lessons rattling around in my head...just gotta find time to put them down in writing and get photos ready to illustrate. I really appreciate you letting me know they are helpful to you!

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Re: Portrait Basics - Tracing

Postby glendag » Mon Oct 26, 2009 11:48 am

Hi Becky -

You (and Marci) continue to inspire me ---- to reach my big goal of painting a portrait. Did some with Leona Julian in San Marcos (she is a wonderful artist and teacher!) but moved away before she could help me more. Since I'm now living very far away from any china painters or china painting groups or friends I'm struggling to stay motivated.

Your lessons are terrific - just wish I could attend a seminar with you!

Thank you for all you share.

Glenda G.
My Reply:
Dear Glenda,
Thank you SO MUCH for your encouraging post! If there is anything you specifically would like help with, I'd be pleased to help any way I can. Marci was (and continues to be) the person who has taught me most of what I know about portraits (mostly online). So, don't give up on portraits just because you don't have a local teacher. Just jump in. Marci and I both plan to post a lot more portrait lessons on here (just trying to find the time LOL!), so stay tuned.
PS...where do you live? Marci travels and teaches all over the US every year and I've just started traveling to teach on a limited basis.
Thanks again,
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